The Laboured language of leadership


Not a day goes by at the moment without another Labour patriarch pitching in to the leadership battle. And there have been some interesting linguistic tricks going on for us word-nerds to get excited about. Here are some high-and-low-lights. As always, it’s the words we’re interested in, more than the party politics.

International Rescue

At the time of writing, David Miliband is the latest Labour bigshot to join the fray. Leaving aside the fact that Miliband is largely remembered for losing a Labour leadership election, it’s interesting that he claims “I have left politics” but still finds time to write 1,300 words on the subject.

Perhaps the fact that he’s currently the head of the International Rescue Committee means that he feels the need to, er do some international rescuing for his former comrades.

Perhaps long distance too is responsible for Miliband’s loose use of numbers. “The task for the Labour party,” he says, “is to reflect the hopes and win the trust of 60 million people”. That’s both unlikely and unnecessary. There are only 45 million registered electors in the UK, and only 27 million actually vote.

The danger of abstract nouns

Jeremy Corbyn’s team apparently dismissed the warnings about his politics, saying “credibility cannot mean an orthodoxy of austerity that chokes off recovery”. But with four abstract nouns in that phrase, it’s really difficult to picture what it really means. This sort of thing will get no-one’s toes tapping.

We have become a grandmother

Thatcher’s famous phrase reflected the common habit amongst politicians of talking about themselves in the plural, to make them sound like part of a big team – whether they really are or not (film stars do it too). Corbyn does this, and here he goes further, making his rival smaller by making them singular:

“[I welcome Burnham’s] inclusive tone towards our campaign and the view is mutual – if we win we would involve Andy in our team if he was willing”.

In return, Andy Burnham turns the tables with this nice put-down:

“I want to trust our councils to borrow to build again and provide the homes their communities need, and Jeremy has said something similar.”

Letting facts get in the way

Meanwhile Yvette Cooper dodged questions about Peter Mandelson’s alleged shenanigans by stating a true but irrelevant fact: “Peter is not standing in this leadership election.” A nice technique that can blind-side your interviewer long enough for you to think of something else to say.

Burnham used a similar technique, to try to nullify some Corbynomics: “I don’t see how renationalisation of utilities could be considered a priority for public spending at a time when people’s tax credits are being cut, nor how printing money to pay for infrastructure will help restore the trust we have lost on the economy.” Sounds reasonable, until you realise that the second bit of each phrase has very little to do with the first bit.

Rhetorical flourishes

As he proved in the Scottish Referendum, Gordon Brown can be a fine speaker. In a long speech this week, without notes, he delivered this phrase, combining the ‘rule of three’ with a balanced ‘neither this… nor that’:

“The best way of realising our high ideals is to show that we have an alternative in government that is credible, that is radical and is electable – is neither a pale imitation of what the Tories offer, nor is it the route to being a party of permanent protest, rather than a party of government.”

I also enjoyed the rhythm of this, from John McDonnell MP:

“A small band of shadow cabinet members have lined up to refuse to serve in posts they haven’t even been offered, on the basis of objection to economic policies they clearly haven’t read.”

Winning one vote at a time

Liz Kendall offered us an awkward video of her wandering round her office late at night. And why was she writing a letter to “Dear Supporter”? If she’s only got one, surely she knows their name?

Making an impact with short sentences

We often stress to clients that one of the best and easiest way to spice up your writing is to sprinkle in some short sentences. Like this from Kendall:

“We can’t turn back and be the unelectable party of protest. I don’t want to protest. I want to get into power. I want us to back great businesses. I want to get power out of Whitehall and down to our communities.”

Medical metaphor

Metaphors are great at painting a picture in the reader’s mind, and associating what you’re saying with something they understand and have a view on. So this from CWU General Secretary Dave Ward is pretty effective:

“There is a virus within the Labour party, and Jeremy Corbyn is the antidote.”

A rare policy: honesty

Some people are saying Corbyn is coming across as the most honest candidate. But Burnham is doing quite well too, if these gems are anything to go by:

 “I want to show how I can take the best ideas of the other candidates.”

“[Neil Kinnock] got me into this position where I am standing now, applying for the worst job in politics.”