What sticks in politics

The language of politics is heating up. Does the Prime Minister using phrases like ‘surrender bill’* coarsen public debate?

Your answer might depend on how much you think the public actually listens to our politicians. So last week we did some research to find out, and talked about the results at our Language & Behaviour Club. We asked 1000 people across the UK their thoughts on the way politicians communicate. And there were a few surprises.

Most people aren’t listening.

We asked people if they recognised a few different slogans. Intriguingly, Make America great again came top (our survey was in the UK, remember), recognised by 38%. 36% knew Take back control and 28% knew Jeremy Corbyn’s For the many not the few.

Astonishingly to politics junkies like me, 19% didn’t recognise any of the slogans above, or any of the others we put to them.

But style seems to matter more than substance.

45% of people said they wouldn’t vote for a politician if they didn’t like how they presented themselves, even if they liked their policies. (This is Corbyn’s big problem; his policies test quite well until you mention his name.) Only 30% would vote for someone they agree with, but whose style they dislike.

And when we asked people why they objected to political slogans, tone of voice really mattered. The top reason for objecting to a phrase was ‘it sounds fake’ (32%). Only 19% said they disliked a phrase because they disagreed with it.

That’s why Ayesha Hazarika said at our Club night: ‘Politics is all about the art of communication. Your words are your currency. It’s about gaining the voters’ ears, eyeballs, minds and hearts.'

The old ones are the best.

We asked which former prime minister people felt was the best communicator. Tony Blair (among left-leaning voters) and Margaret Thatcher (among the right) were way ahead of the rest. I think that’s because both of them were willing to be really clear about their opinions, especially towards the end of their tenures. Whereas in our survey, 40% of people said the problem with politicians’ language was that it was ‘evasive’.

*By the way, this is a classic example of what psychologists call ‘reframing’: changing how you talk about something can change how you think about it. In the last general election, Labour did a pretty good job of killing off Theresa May’s social care plans by reframing it as a ‘dementia tax’. And our Nick’s written a whole different blog about reframing no-deal Brexit.

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