Monday, 30 November 2009

The language of politics

Report on the BBC website highlighting that MPs have criticised the overuse of jargon in governmental documents, particularly for forms. Indeed, they point out that this over complication may lead to people missing out on benefits that they are entitled to, which is an appalling situation.

I think that this discussion about jargon needs to go further and examine the language which is used in political debate. In my work life I have focused on democratic engagement in recent years and have been struck by the fact that there is a very common perception amongst the public that political activity requires a very specific technical language in order to participate.

It is a reflection of the idea that politics has become 'professionalised', one of the key factors I think which puts people off participating. It is seen as a job and one for which you require strange and arcane language, knowledge which requires university education to be deciphered. One of the strengths of the British political system has been that technically at least it is possible for anyone to become an elected representative, a situation which is definitely not the case in other democracies. For example, someone like John Prescott would never have become Vice President in the US, but was able to rise to the office of Deputy Prime Minister in the UK. However, we are losing the chance to engage wider elements of society as the field becomes more closed, accessible if you are a party worker and/or politics graduate but difficult otherwise.

There is a growing trend for politicians to follow a set path - politics degree, work for a party or politician, elected. The more 'out-there' ones maybe go spend some time at a think tank to break from the mould. However, where are the charity activists, the grassroots campaigners, the, well, normal folk? True politics is not exactly the most appealing arena at the best times, and of course I am overgeneralising, however in order to have a vibrant and representative democracy we require all elements to be involved in it. Representation is not the only means for participation, however it does demonstrate a very visible involvement for different communities.

Working in Shettleston in Glasgow, a predominantly white working class area, I was told that politics wasn't for folk there, it was for rich, old men who attended top universities. Working subsequently with ethnic minority communities, the comment is the same other than for the addition of the word 'white' as an additional barrier.

Billy Connolly joked that anyone who wanted to be a politician should by default be barred from standing for election, but there is an element of truth to his quip. There is nothing wrong with having elected representatives who have followed the path I outlined above; the problem lies when that becomes the norm for representative's history.

One of the ways to try and change this system is to try and improve the language that is used, to restore political discourse to the realities of life rather than the removed and rarefied secret code which is often used. I'm not calling for a dumbing down of discourse, but rather that politicians stop and think about how they present their discussions, about whether they are relevant to the people they represent. Because not only would accessible discussions encourage a greater range of people to put themselves forward for election, it would provide a better environment for the wider populace to participate and challenge the political system, renewing and reinvigorating our democracy.

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