NS Essay -'Words matter in politics: the term "poll tax" was a winner for the left,"nanny state" is a winner for the right'

What's in a word? In politics, everything, argues Richard Reeves. Get the language right and you can

Words get a bad press. On both sides of the principal divide in British politics - the one between the media and politicians - the use of language is a familiar target. Journalists accuse politicians of spouting mere "rhetoric"; MPs on the Today programme suggest that their interlocutor is playing at "semantics". Politicians are said to be all spin and no substance, hacks to be interested in the juiciest, rather than most apposite, quotations. Yet rhetoric and semantics are not the froth of politics, but its most important ingredients. There can be no politics without words. And the precise meaning of words - for example, in the phrase "a representative House of Lords" - is hardly a trivial matter. Labour - sorry, new Labour - is all too aware of the significance of words.

"Language," Aristotle wrote in the Politics, "serves to declare what is advantageous and what is the reverse . . . It is the peculiarity of man . . . that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and unjust." In other words, what makes a political community ("a city", as Aristotle called it) is the shared concepts of good and evil, right and wrong - and only through language can this sharing take place. This insight is as valuable in the modern world as in antiquity. Those who worry about a United States of Europe can stop fretting: the absence of a common language prevents a commonly articulated vision of Europe. The gap extends even to musical pitch. The note "A" is different in France, Germany and Britain, so musicians squabble when they play together - a clear-cut case, surely, for EU harmonisation.

By contrast, the US, which is a more diverse social, economic and cultural region than Europe, has a sense of Americanness that depends vitally on linguistic unity. (Note that John Kerry's ability to speak French counted against him in last year's election.) If a nation is defined, in the Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson's terms, as a shared "imagined community", the role of a shared language in filling the imagination becomes clear.

If language shapes who we are, it also helps to determine where we are going. As Norman Fairclough, author of New Labour, New Language? says, words "do political work". Words do not simply express an already perfectly formed idea; they often help to test, refine and develop an idea. Ideas and words are like a chicken and an egg. Labour's search for the right language is a good example of the way language can determine political action.

Early in 1996, for example, it looked as if "stakeholding" would be Labour's big idea. Popularised by Will Hutton in his book The State We're In the previous year, it was at the heart of a speech by Tony Blair in Singapore. But, after a brief moment in the sun, it was replaced by "rights and responsibilities" and then "the Third Way". Philip Gould, Blair's disciple and polling guru, argues that while "the language of stakeholding has withered, the new approach underpinning it has prospered". But he underestimates the power of language. If Labour had stuck with stakeholding, some of its policies would almost certainly have been different.

In Singapore, Blair said: "It is surely time to assess how we shift the emphasis in corporate ethos from the company being a mere vehicle for the capital market - to be traded, bought and sold as a commodity - towards a vision of the company as a community of partnership in which each employee has a stake." It is not possible to square these words - a "community . . . in which each employee has a stake" - with Labour's laissez-faire attitude in government to company law, structure and capital financing.

Another critical intersection between language and politics is the way words "frame" an issue in people's minds - often in ways which virtually predetermine their reaction. George Lakoff, a US linguist and semi-hero in some Democratic circles, shows how brilliantly effective the Republicans have been at using language frames. His latest book is entitled Don't Think of an Elephant!: and the point is, you can't. Once the word has been uttered, the image of a big grey animal is unstoppably in your mind. The frame is in place. The Republicans understand this. Two of their most effective framing devices are the relabelling of tax cuts as "tax relief" and the invention of the term "partial-birth abortion".

The first of these is a powerful metaphor. Once "relief" is added to tax, Lakoff points out, it becomes "an affliction. The person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy." The Republicans use the phrase repeatedly: some right-wing think-tanks have swear-boxes for anyone who says "tax cut". Soon the media followed suit, referring to the Republicans' "tax relief plan". And once the Democrats were using it, the game was pretty much over. "Should we have tax relief?" is a question that contains its own answer.

Bush has similarly used the metaphor of not needing a "permission slip" to defend America - which frames the issue of multinational talks in such a way as to suggest that anyone taking the UN seriously is clearly a schoolchild asking for teacher's say-so. (Someone in Michael Howard's office has clearly read Lakoff, because he, too, used the term recently. The trouble is that it is American English, and no one knew what he was on about.)

"Partial-birth abortion" refers to a rare procedure where the surgeon partly delivers the baby but leaves the head in the womb while he removes the brain. But if it is so rare - 1 per cent of all abortions - why all the right-wing fuss? "Because," as Lakoff notes, "it is the first step to ending all abortion. It puts out there a frame of abortion as a horrendous procedure, when most operations ending pregnancy are nothing like this." Paul Chilton, in his Analysing Political Discourse, calls these "ready-made moulds for the thinking of thoughts".

So far British politicians - along with most US Democrats - are amateurs at this stuff. Yet perhaps the best reframing in recent UK politics was by the left, in the successful rebadging of the Tory community charge as a poll tax. Who could oppose a simple charge for something as lovely as a community? On the other hand, who could support a tax on such a fundamental democratic right as the vote? When Conservative ministers started to slip up and refer to "the poll tax" in media interviews, you knew the fight was over.

Framing is going on all the time, whether consciously or not. Even apparently banal terms such as "welfare-dependent", "yobs" and (the current favourite) "hard-working families" carry with them a heavy load of assumptions and implications. The political right uses the term "nanny state" very effectively, with the frame carrying associations of bossiness, dependency and childishness. Once a Labour politician defensively says "it's not a question of the nanny state, but of . . .", the rest of the sentence is almost not worth bothering with. The damage has been done.

The choice of even single words can matter. As Chilton points out, the meanings of the words kill, murder, assassinate and execute can be defined "in terms of stored frames in which different types of actor fill the agent and the victim roles, the killing is legal or not legal", and so on. Similarly, the question of whether a person receiving treatment in a hospital is a "patient", "client", "user" or "customer" is a hugely important semantic one. The chosen frame carries a range of implications for where power lies, how doctors should interact with people and how the success of medical institutions is defined.

US progressives are trying to match their opponents in the framing wars. Their HQ, the Rockridge Institute, is working on a "lexicon of progressive values". The institute suggests using postfixes with "tax" so that you have "tax investment" or "tax dividend" - the lameness of which demonstrates how far they have to go. In the UK, we need to get better at using the right frame for the result we are after.

Labour's linguistic scorecard has marks in both the positive and negative columns. On the plus side, some of the party's rhetoric has located political issues in a collective sense of community. The constant use of "we" and "our", and the frequent emphasis on the way individuals can thrive only in a strong "community", have been effective examples of what linguists call "deictic" devices - ones that ground the listener in a particular time or place. Critics of the rhetoric about community and society - who dismiss it as an imprecise use of warm words - miss at least half the point. Framing an issue in a collective, community-based vision of the world is an important step towards persuasively articulating collective solutions. Labour has often not done the latter, but that does not make the first redundant.

Another positive example is the use of "social exclusion" as a frequent substitute for poverty. Launching the Social Exclusion Unit, Blair said the term is "about income, but about something more". It was "about prospects and networks and life chances", suggesting that solutions lie in "not just the redistribution of cash to the poor". All of which is true. Though people's life experiences clearly relate to their income, a centre-left government that restricted its concerns to money would miss the enormous implications and influences of social relationships, skills, family life, learning, mental health and so on.

Many critics on the left accuse the government of using social exclusion as a substitute for poverty, a concern that has been only partly allayed by the announcement of specific targets for reducing child poverty. Fairclough argues that, without redistribution of income, "the project of 'social inclusion' looks more like mere words". As Fairclough knows, however, there are few "mere" words in politics. For a start, Labour has increased the income of the poorest quite substantially, as well as introducing the New Deal, Sure Start, healthy living centres, the minimum wage and a range of neighbourhood "action zones", all of which address the non-material aspects of social exclusion. Social exclusion also positions the issue in a strong visual metaphor, of wanting to "bring people in" rather than leave them as outsiders - a better positive frame than "poverty". Used seriously and properly, the language of social exclusion does good political work.

But there are three areas where Labour's linguistics have had less positive results. First, the centralisation and homogenisation of the party's language has eroded both the attractiveness and diversity of political communication - and possibly political ideas, too. The upsides of being "on-message" are clear. Responding to a journalist's complaint about the repetitive nature of Labour's pronouncements, Alastair Campbell said that only once the reporters were narcoleptic with boredom was there a chance the message had got through to ordinary people. And there is no doubt that greater linguistic discipline - "sticking to the line" - has contributed to electoral success. But the relentless drive to be on-message has come at a price, with politicians turning into what Simon Hoggart described as "speak your manifesto" machines.

This is not a new criticism. Orwell pointed out that "orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style" and that the loyal repeater of the party line "has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself." As Orwell points out, the debasement of political language through slavish repetition of ready-made phrases drains politics of its lifeblood - the contest of competing, vivid ideas. So while linguistic discipline has been good for Labour, it has been bad for politics.

The second problem with Labour's language is the obsession with linking apparent opposites. The parade of dualisms is ceaseless, linked by "and", "but also" or "as well as": social justice and economic dynamism; enterprise as well as fairness; cutting corporation tax and introducing the minimum wage. Most famously, "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". These dualisms are the linguistic heart of the Third Way, which rejects both old left and new right. In this world, there are no difficult choices, no trade-offs; everything is possible. Voters can have their cake and eat it. As a mechanism for persuading people Labour had changed, the language was brilliantly effective. By adding the goals and values of the right to those of the left, Labour successfully offered a smorgasbord of goodies. Why choose between prosperity and social justice when you can have both? The lack of a clear "Third Way" policy framework is not the point. In many cases, Labour was not really stealing the clothes of the right, just cutting out the labels.

Gould loves these antonyms. In his Unfinished Revolution, he describes how studying Hegel persuaded him of the power of such dialectics. But Hegel's point was that the tension between opposites is constantly resolved into something new. Dialectics are about creation, not appropriation. Out of the tension between the claims of social justice and productivity, a new approach is formed.

What Labour has done, however, is balance the two, with each tack to the left followed by a symmetrical shift to the right. I think we can be confident that Hegel would not be attending Third Way seminars.

The more practical difficulty is that the dualism framework is a lousy one for the business of governing. It is not possible to have everything. Difficult choices do have to be made. There are winners and losers. Inequality is an example; it is now clear, as the work of John Hills of the London School of Economics decisively shows, that Labour can reduce the gap between rich and poor only by making the rich a bit less rich. For this, a different kind of language is required, which makes the case for choosing one direction - a social-democratic, instead of a neoliberal direction - rather than pretending we can go both ways at once.

The last challenge for Labour is to find a language that does not simply reflect the existing values of society, but changes them. Lakoff argues persuasively that people do not vote their interests, they vote their values. The party has successfully persuaded a conservative nation to return Labour governments, in part by using language that appeals to conservative instincts, not least on social welfare, tax, immigration, education. The goal now should be to find frames for political debate which refuse to take conservatism for granted, which seek to move social values leftwards. The need is to start persuading voters to become social democrats rather than convincing them that Labour is not; to build, borrowing a phrase, a "progressive consensus". For these reasons Labour needs to start minding its language.