The left can be too clever for its own good. We need to translate think tank speak into plain English

There is no point being clever in politics if you can’t communicate your ideas


Left-wing people sometimes think that they are cleverer than their right-wing counterparts. Apparently there has even been recent evidence to justify this belief. I would suggest that the left should be highly suspicious of such claims. This is principally because politics is just as much about judgment and instinct as it is about rationality and intelligence, and very clever people don’t always have the best judgment. Moreover, being likeable is also a very important characteristic in politics – as in life – and being an arrogant smart-arse is an expert way to ensure that you are generally not liked.

This issue has come to the fore recently following a letter to the Guardian in which members of the ‘progressive community’ urge the Labour Party to be bolder and offer ‘transformative change’. The letter suggests five principles that should inform this change.

I must say that I (a left-winger myself) agree with almost every word of the letter and I have no problem with theorising about principles in politics. Indeed, this is a large part of what politics is: disagreement about fundamental principles, or at least about the order in which you prioritise them. And you need to know what your principles are before you can devise policies to deliver on them. When I think about why I disagree with so much about Thatcher’s time in office, it isn’t because she was combative or uncompromising; these traits are often necessary and to be admired. It is because her world-view in which individual freedom is the singular or supreme moral and political value is wrong in principle and utopian in practice.

That said, there is much in the letter which lends itself to ridicule. Its authors seem far too happy to speak in jargon and use buzz-words that few people will understand. The most unfortunate instance of this being when they assert that by adopting their principles ‘Labour can help to fundamentally disrupt power relations and reframe the debate to make a good society both feasible and desirable.’ This is the talk of people who don’t think others outside their club are listening, or don’t care whether they understand if they are.

This tendency is common among left-wingers and it is closely related to our belief in our own forward-thinkingness. Allegedly clever people understand complex ideas and technical language, both of which can be difficult to translate into clear and straightforward terms for the public. This tendency is also a result of the wholesale victory of Thatcherism. Because the neoliberal principles she espoused have become so much part of the established status quo, they appear as common sense while any intellectual challenge to them looks like highfalutin gobbledegook.

The right use the common sense appeal of their principles to great effect. Think of the ‘you’ve earned; you’ve saved it’ refrain from the recent budget. Think of the ‘the economy is like a household budget’ analogy or the ‘they’ve maxed out the credit card’ argument which led the Tories to comprehensively win the economic argument in the early part of the parliament. These are effective because they don’t require explanation. People immediately get it in a way that they don’t get what it means to ‘disrupt power relations and reframe that debate’. The left needs to learn how to boil down our ideas into a coherent and compelling story. Because there is no point being clever in politics if you can’t communicate your ideas to the public and stop the other side from winning.     

With all that in mind, here is my attempt to translate the five principles in the letter to the Guardian from thinktank speak into plain English. This is not an attempt to devise policies, just to clarify the principles. Hopefully others will do the same before they make interventions into the public debate.

1. “Accountability of all powerful institutions, whether the state or market, to all stakeholders” = If something has a big say over fundamental aspects of your life, you should have a say in how it’s run.

2. “Devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to people” = The closer you are to a problem, the more likely you are to care about it and have the knowledge to fix it. You should have the power and resources to do so.

3. “Prevention of the causes our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance” = Prevention is better than cure. We should think about the big problems we might face in the future, and work to address them before they arise.

4. “Co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient” = Users and workers have a unique and important insight into how services work and what might improve them. We should use these insights to everyone’s benefit.

5. “Empowerment of everybody, so that they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens” = We want to help everyone to be the best that they can be. 

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