Ditch the old language, and start with ‘progressive’, says Jonathan Tanner

It will be worth paying attention to the language deployed by the leadership candidates in the coming months. Not to listen out for bigots or balls-ups, but to identify the contenders’ capacity to try new messages on the campaign trail.

The Brown era was notable for a shift towards a more technocratic and less empathetic style of communication. But talking in millions and billions means zilch on the doorstep.

The former Prime Minister’s gift for over-explanation was mimicked by many when communicating our policies to the public. The Ashcroft affair was a good example. ‘No representation without taxation’ should have been the message, but instead it became bogged down in procedure and accountancy; losing the ability to slip easily into conversations between voters.

After thirteen years our other mantras were tired. While there is great value in repetition, our audience had reached saturation point.

So where should the axe fall on the lexicon of New Labour?

Unless we can define it properly and clearly through policy then I would suggest the word ‘progressive’ would be a good place to start.

Hearts do not stir to ‘our progressive vision’, or ‘the beating heart of our progressive values’ or the ‘need for progressives to avoid being marginalised by an ideologically barren Conservative Party’.  (Only one of those comes from a Labour politician, and it isn’t the one you might think).

Weighty tomes have been penned in the name of pinning down progressivism, but the simple fact is that progress assumes a defined direction, towards an established goal for our politics and our society. Across all parties there may be broad agreement on those goals, but there is stark contrast on the means to achieve them.

‘Conservative to achieve progressive aims’ was a Cameron claim in the run up to the election. It is perhaps the greatest of our failures that he was able to utter those words. After all, the intellectual basis for conservatism and progressivism are at odds with each other. In our politics it should be impossible to pair up a basic instinct for the maintenance of a historic status quo and protection of the establishment, with the desire to undertake radical social reform and free the lives of those most oppressed in our society.

Picking and choosing your statistics is an age old ploy, but there is no doubt that it hurt us to hear the accusations that we had reduced social mobility and widened the wealth gap. Such measures of ‘progress’ can and always will be used against us.

Unless we can define more clearly what we mean by our ‘progressive’ intent, then we should be very careful each time we are tempted to use the P word.

Ultimately, you have to come down on one side or the other. The values of the Labour movement call for a constant crusade against those barriers which make getting on in life so difficult for so many. Many of those barriers serve vested interests which can now be found well represented on the Government benches.

Actions will always speak louder than words and policy should remain our principal focus, but the future leader of the opposition must find a way to refresh the language of Labour. When they do, it must work in the workplace or at the dinner table and be without the scope for vagueness or irrelevance which has held us back in recent years.

Jonathan Tanner tweets as @tannerjc

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4 Responses to “Ditch the old language, and start with ‘progressive’, says Jonathan Tanner”

  1. Duncan says:

    But ‘progressive’ is so darn useful. After all, if someone is a progressive you know they follow the third way. They believe in going forward, not back. Which is useful as most people have their eyes at the front of their heads.

    “The values of the Labour movement call for a constant crusade against those barriers …”

    Yeah. I wouldn’t use ‘crusade’ either. It might make people think of all those dead Iraqis.

  2. redarsedbaboon says:

    Can we ban the term ‘hard-working families’ first, please? In fact any use of the word ‘families’ where ‘people’ would be more accurate.

  3. Adam Burrows says:

    I definitely agree with losing “progressive”. It can be used to justify almost any political position. I’m sure Thatcher thought she was an agent of progress.

    While it’s essential for policy to keep up with what’s happening in the world, the moral principles that inform one’s politics (left AND right) are permanent, not “progressive”.

  4. Marie Antoinette says:

    I’m sure Hitler, Mao and Stalin could all have claimed to have been progressives.

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