How we talk about politics is incredibly important. Those of us already politically aware and active have a democratic duty to open up that space and that conversation to those who are not. We have a duty to make it an inviting place; to make it a place as undaunting as possible. We must make that place be real life. But that means opening up our real selves to each other, not trying to emulate what a focus group has told us voters like, the last thing we need is any more Uncanny Valley politics.
Owen Jones is right to examine the failures of the Left and Labour to communicate well either with our own constituencies, with those who should be our allies and with the wider public. He is also right that our language became too technocratic, too focused on numbers and statistics that don’t resonate with the people we need to be talking with.
But Owen is wrong to laud George Galloway’s style for two reasons.
The first is that the messenger matters. Owen rightly acknowledges the baggage that Galloway brings with him. His disgraceful relations with dictators and his rape apologism are both brought up alongside his making a dick of himself on Big Brother.
Owen posits in his article that it is despite these seemingly fatal flaws that Galloway achieves cut through earning applause from the Question Time audience. I’m afraid I’m not so sure. I think there are plenty who will ignore and brush off such things as minor considerations against the wider fight that they see Galloway taking to the establishment. As we have seen with those who defend Julian Assange from facing justice and with the current implosion of the SWP there are plenty of those who would support, deny and cover up the appalling alleged crimes of their own people. It is not that these people are not politically engaged. It is that they are so deeply embedded in their own politics that they can’t see or care not for the wider picture.
But for those who are not actively seeking a populist leader. Who are not already politicised, but Galloway’s style of anti-politics rhetoric – the endless repetition of his “three cheeks of the same arse” line for example – may be amusing, but it is designed to win an anti-politics vote, not to bring people more into politics. It is anti-democratic in its lack of engagement with the reality of politics.
For those who don’t agree with Galloway and those who don’t yet know if they do, I would argue his style is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Owen is right to quote Lakoff and his work on framing. This is essential to the way the right have crafted their message and set the terms of the debate for decades. It is essential that the Left develop their own frames and find their own ways to connect their values to those of the voters.
But there are different ways of exchanging stories, and personally I find George Galloway’s pulpit bullying manner incredibly off-putting. His tendency to shout over opponents may be fun when he’s grandstanding against Hitchens or the US Congress, but he does it to everyone, including those with significantly less power than him. He is aggressive and domineering in his approach to politics. He is macho.
This may feel good and empowering when he’s speaking to your agenda (for instance in challenging the austerity consensus), but it is clear that with a loose cannon like Galloway, he won’t be focused just on what you agree with for long. Owen wasn’t to know how soon Galloway would indulge his worst angels when he wrote his article, but I think we can all be sure that they would be indulged – and sooner rather than later.
But a good politician’s job is not simply to speak up for those who already agree with them against those who don’t. That leaves a politics that is restricted to those who already know where they stand; those who have already examined the issues, or who have opted for the simplicity of a sense of black-and-white certainty. This is an exclusionary style of politics. It precludes anyone with a difference of opinion, however nuanced, and those still making up their minds. A good politician persuades others to their point of view. Not by shouting down their opponants and belittling all but their fellow-travellers. But by persuasive argument and an understanding of the needs of the audience.
In the end, politics is about coming to a compromise with the voters. That can only be achieved by talking and listening.
And you can’t have dialogue with an ideologue.