A few words about words


Talk is cheap – especially in the blogosphere. But this doesn’t mean that words don’t matter. Sometimes words are all we’ve got to get through to people. This is something any leader of the opposition knows only too well. Tony Blair used to contrast waking up as prime minister and thinking “What shall I do today?” with his waking thought in opposition: “What shall I say today?”

In politics we have another new word to wrestle with: “predistribution”. This concept is being offered as a possible way forward for left-of-centre parties. Rather than getting bogged down in traditional debates about redistributing wealth after it has been created, predistribution involves (I think!) intervening earlier in labour markets to “make work pay”. Markets, in other words, are not allowed to fail. Active government intervenes first to make them work better.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to predistribution than that, and as an idea it will reward further study. Clearly, I am going to have to study it more carefully to understand it better. But that’s really the point of this post. We need to be careful with grand-sounding political concepts that are hard to explain in simple terms.

Ed Miliband’s important party conference speech last year came in for some criticism, not least for his characterisation of businesses as “predators” and “producers”. The media’s response was a case-study in dumbing down: never mind the argument, let’s make fun of the language. In fact Miliband was ahead of the game in his analysis of aspects of contemporary business, a fact recognised at the time by Vince Cable, who privately congratulated the Labour leader on the speech. What was portrayed as outlandish turned out to be prescient. But the lesson was “be careful what you say and how you say it”.

“Predistribution” does not really pass the Ronseal test – the word on the tin does not tell you what it does. It is not an easy political concept to explain. What chance does it have of being taken seriously by the media or being reported calmly and in good faith?

A clever chap once told me: “Communication is a result, not an intention”. What he meant, I think, is that it is what people understand that matters or, as they say in the US: “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear”. Without cheapening or distorting political ideas, the trick lies in conveying sometimes complicated or difficult concepts simply.

Facing a glib and incompetent government, Labour scores with its greater seriousness and attention to detail. Prime minister’s questions is becoming an ever more enjoyable session for Labour supporters. Ed Miliband’s challenges are sharp and precise, and the prime minister has few answers to them. People are beginning to pay more attention to the opposition and, perhaps surprisingly so soon after a big electoral defeat, are starting to look on it as a possible government-in-waiting.

As Labour prepares to make a more substantial appeal to the electorate, setting out its policy ideas, it must not lose the attention it has done well to win. It must speak directly and simply to busy people who have a limited appetite for abstractions and intricate political concepts.

In his ground-breaking work “Lyrical Ballads”, Wordsworth talked about writing in what he called “the real language of men”. It was a radical idea back in 1798. It is still a good idea today.

Predistribution is a concept that was originally developed by a political scientist called Jacob Hacker. It has to be explained clearly and handled with care. The danger is that people who deploy it could end up sounding more like Jim Hacker than Jacob.

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