15th March 2017
-By Steven Duckworth-
Mind the Language Gap
Last week, amid fallout from the budget speech and its political consequences, Jeremy Hunt addressed a Reform conference in central London. At the event, the Secretary of State delivered a speech that was perceptive, engaging and strong on detail, which will be utterly unsurprising to those who know the man and his interest in improving healthcare in Britain generally and the NHS in England specifically. Hunt didn’t – “I bet he didn’t”, I hear you cry – focus on funding or NHS operational issues, apart from a commitment to the A & E performance target. He did, however, drill down specifically and with precision on the importance of all healthcare providers making patient safety their one overriding mission.
The Secretary of State used the examples of failure that had led to the tragedies seen at Mid Staffs, Southern and Morecambe Bay NHS Trusts and the pain this had caused to patients and their families. He made the compelling case, clinically, economically and morally for making the improvement in patient safety the NHS’s driving focus, using the examples of patient safety campaigners and leaders such as Julie Bailey and James Titcombe – among others – to make his point.
In short, Hunt talked about people.
In contrast to the Hunt speech was an interview the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner had given to the Today program a couple of days before. Rayner was on the program to respond to the much trailed leak that the chancellor was going to earmark £500m pounds for education spending in the budget. Apart from the fact that Rayner was at times aggressive and difficult it’s harsh to blame her much for this. John Humphrys’ interview style would drive most to distraction, although she should probably learn to deal with it.
The striking element of the interview was the language she used, describing increased education funding as “a vanity project” and “ideological dogma”. An absolutely awful way to respond to a rise in school spending. There are many sound arguments opposing selection in schools and some against the creation of Free Schools, but the shadow secretary could not get beyond her leftist based rhetoric to make these points.
In short, Rayner talked about politics.
It would be unfair to single out Rayner, partly because the interview format is more challenging than a prepared speech but also because she is only following the course set by her leader and followed by many of her front bench colleagues. In fact she is one of the better members of Labour’s senior team and given time to find her feet could turn into an effective politician. Her interview is an example of how Labour is developing a way of engagement that is becoming ever more closed and inward focused, throwing rhetorical red meat to its more extreme supporters while at the same time turning off most voters.
A cycle is now in motion where every poor opinion poll is met by an increased infusion of hard sloganeering and protest, which in turn leads to more public distrust. None of this is to say that the government are getting public policy right, they are most certainly not, but that Labour’s response to it is becoming staid and predictable and even confirmed Labour supporters are switching off.
So how does Labour break the cycle?
Quite simply, Labour must start talking to people about issues that matter to them, which in relation to public services usually revolves around ease of access and quality of service, in language that is accessible and, to be blunt, vaguely normal. Most voters are put off by talk of fight and struggle, just as they find it odd to see politicians on marches and protests – especially when they appear to be surrounded by Socialist Worker placards – and they become frustrated at an opposition that constantly decries government policy but doesn’t appear to want to offer alternatives beyond slogans and platitudes.
The share of the vote at recent by elections suggest that people are not listening to Labour any more and that the party is drifting down a political cul-de-sac. They seem also to have concluded that there is one party pushing “ideological dogma” and it isn’t the Conservatives.
By Steven Duckworth