The Public and Political Lexicon: A Curiously Undemocratic Relationship

One sometimes wonders how much the general public takes away from political speeches, announcements or debates by politicians when political jargon is used.

Over the last year (since I lost out on a seat to represent the Isleworth ward on the Hounslow in May 2014), I have turned to campaigning and being involved in coordinating a campaign for this upcoming General Election where I am now an Officer of the Brentford and Isleworth Conservative Party Association and a Deputy Chairman for one of the constituency’s wards. In a bid to ensure that Mary Macleod (who has been a remarkable MP for the constituency over the last 5 years) is re-elected, I, along with many others, have knocked on thousands of doors to engage with the electorate on the doorstep.

What follows is not a patronising attack on the voting public. The public is not stupid. The public is, on the whole, engaging, pensive, cautious, reasonable and many other positive things. Having said that, this write-up provides a few examples of how the elusive nature of political jargon can render many of the ideas and concepts on which this General Election is fought to be arcane and unfathomable if not misleading. This development is not to be celebrated but is, in many ways, the antithesis of democracy and the single most hampering obstacle to public engagement.

How much or how little of the political lexicon is understood by the voting public is a pertinent issue as there is a clear danger that many policies receive very little democratic scrutiny by the public as a result of the elusive nature of nature.

For example, I am able to say, hand on heart, that the majority of people that I met (other than politicos attending conferences and hustings) on the doorstep during this campaign do not understand the difference between the national debt and the deficit or either mix the two up. Most think that the two are synonymous. Admittedly, up until a year ago, I had the same difficulty. Indeed, Gordon Brown’s speeches and Ed Balls’ speeches have mixed the two in the recent past. At no point during the Leaders’ Debates in 2010 (or even the most recent debates for the 2015 General Elections) were the public provided with a definitional distinction between the two by politicians. Indeed, to do so on TV would be political suicide – an almost arrogantly lecturing gesture. And so, such televised debates (and, indeed, untelevised hustings up and down the land) tend to take place with politicians making a plethora of presumptions in relation to the political jargon.

At a recent speech that I had the pleasure of delivering, I made a reference to “reducing the size of the state” and a gentleman looked at me and sheepishly asked, “What do you mean? Like getting rid off Cornwall?”.

“Free schools” is another example. The public cannot really appreciate and engage with this issue (which is why Education has not really been at the forefront of this election since the official campaign started) because many simply think that “Free schools” means schools you do not have to pay to attend (and that is not a big issue – free schools, according to that understanding, are the norm).

Here, the public fails to grasp the pros and cons of this potentially seismic change in the educational framework of this country. Free schools are palpably the product of an ideology which is right of centre – that the state should not interfere and be overly prescriptive in the development of children. As a Conservative (and an enthusiastic fan of Michael Gove’s reforming policies in the field of education and, whisper it quietly, the politician that I would like to see become leader of the Conservative Party purely because of the intellectual air of self-assurance which he provides to any debate) I personally endorse the introduction of Free Schools but I find it difficult to deny that those who would be opposed to this idea would be unable to voice out their concerns effectively if, applying a literal meaning to the phrase, they believe that Free Schools are these inconsequential things – schools that you do not pay to attend.

Those who would otherwise think that Free Schools are a cop-out on the part of the state – a vehicle for private interest (if not profit) and influence into our education system and a mechanism for further inequality would not be able to convey such concerns to any degree and that largely arises from the confusing jargon.

Likewise, those voters who would otherwise be in favour of Free Schools as something which is empowering and which enables schools to focus on the specific aptitudes of pupils as an alternative to the concept of a one-size fits all curriculum (perhaps one has a struggling child where the National Curriculum does not tap into his/her strengths), would not be able to voice out their approval in any effective manner for the same reasons.

To provide another example, the word “privatisation” in relation to the NHS (as used in the discourse of the parties left of centre and the focal basis on which the Labour Party has run its campaign to date) is often mistakenly believed to denote a form of “selling off” in the sense of selling off the NHS itself (as was done with the rail companies). To the contrary, in the case of the NHS, it simply denotes a form of outsourcing or contract tendering for the benefit of third party companies to carry out some of the healthcare services traditionally provided by the NHS at an exclusive level – it is not a sale of the NHS in the conventional sense to those private companies.

Those in favour of this idea of “privatization” which is a mere tendering process cannot voice out their approval or support if, applying the misleading meaning attributed to it in the discourse, they believe that “privatisation”, rather than meaning the involvement of companies in the private sector, means that our NHS is being sold off in the literal sense which would attract vast disapproval from the majority across the left and right of the political spectrum.

This brings me to the use of the terms “left” and “right”. These terms are often not understood as much as politicians or politicos like to think. The public is more perceptive to image, to engagement and to actual ideas and policies rather than the rigidly binary structure and notion of a Left and a Right. Such references, I have found, often produce a blank look on people’s faces.

I believe that we have entered an age of ideas (albeit underpinned by Left or Right wing values) and it is ideas that capture the attention of the voting public. Two recent examples prove to serve this point. The public overwhelmingly (in all polls, studies, and surveys) supports the idea of reforming or scrapping the seemingly privileged non-dom status. This is a left-wing policy. The policy supports it.

On the other hand, the same public overwhelmingly (again…in all polls, studies and surveys) support welfare reform and the reduction of the welfare budget (and, by extension, the welfare state). Such pursuits are ideologically right-wing but the same public which is in favour of scrapping non-dom status also supports welfare reform. It is, therefore, unhelpful to think of the public as being right-wing or left-wing. The public is perceptible to ideas and the cogency of such ideas.

It is for this reason that I believe that the Liberal Democrats’ recent poster asking voters to look Left, then Right and then Cross, whilst very clever in its own right, will be largely ineffective and will fall on deaf ears.

It may, as I suspect, strike a chord with the Liberal Democrats’ traditional and core vote (which is perhaps what the Lib-Dems will settle for – to keep the majority of its 50 plus seats) but I have reservations as to whether such a poster (or message) will be successful in attracting new votes or whether it will mean anything to the public.

This problem [of language] if I may refer to it as such is not going to wither away. In fact, the problem will be more acute in future elections in this age of sound-biting jargon fuelled intensively by social media where the quick snappy message reigns supreme.

The only way to fight off or to mitigate against the undesirable outcomes of this phenomenon is through direct contact on the doorstep – the traditional face-to-face conversation and, for me, this is why future elections will still be won through traditional and conventional methods of campaigning – pounding the streets, ringing bells and old fashioned canvassing and personal engagement.


Fadi Farhat, Officer, Brentford and Isleworth Conservative Party Association and Deputy Chairman for one of the constituency’s wards.

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