Our politicians don't "get it" on speaking plainly. Photo: Getty
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They just don’t "get it": time to muffle mealy-mouthed politicians

As a party leader celebrated for being straight-talking dominates the political agenda while our potential future prime minister can’t stop talking like a wonk, it’s time to call our politicians out on their mealy-mouthed mumblings.

There is no place for "got" or "get" in the English language, my grandmother often tells me. Her theory is that the use of this all-purpose verb can always be replaced with "to have". So rather than "I’ve got a pedantic grandmother" – "I have a pedantic grandmother". Or "I’ve got to watch my words" can be "I have to watch my words". She sees the words "get", "got" – and their terrifying American cousin "gotten" – as a lazy and ugly linguistic shortcut.

Perhaps this is a bit of a rigid rule from a lady who steadfastly calls a single piece of broccoli a "broccolo", but I think communication at the top of British politics would be improved vastly if it were applied there. Because you can’t move for politicians "getting it" into their speeches these days. And it’s a particularly rhetorically flaccid feature of a growing trend for mealy-mouthed answers to urgent questions.
 

  • “People in Ukip always say that the other politicians don't get it. I mean, I do get it and I get them,” Tony Blair told the Today programme yesterday, weighing in on the European elections analysis.
     
  • “The Tories don’t get it,” Ed Miliband earnestly declared in a speech about tackling the cost-of-living crisis in April. And he’s used the phrase often in Commons appearances, particularly during PMQs.
     
  • “I want you to show the public that you get it,” Theresa May instructed the Police Federation annual conference last week.
     
  • “I get that,” David Cameron conceded in the Commons after losing the vote regarding military intervention in Syria last year.
     
  • Then there are the multiple variations on the perpetual mantra of “working hard to get on” employed by both halves of the coalition in their elucidation of a uniquely vague British dream.
     

"Getting it" and "getting on" are ways of avoiding identification of a problem, and fudging the proposed solution to it – in an irritatingly faux-colloquial tone, to boot.

The author of books about etymology and Inky Fool blogger Mark Forsyth tells me: "It's not just the word 'get' which is so vague (though it has 34 primary meanings listed in the OED), it's the 'it' that amuses me. Whenever I hear a politician saying 'I get it', I like to imagine that they're talking about diarrhoea or syphilis. Mind you, it's easy to be cruel to politicians. You find just as much of this meaningless stuff in pop music. With it. Where it's at. etc."

Yet he does acknowledge why such phrasing is employed by politicians: "The important thing is, of course, that everybody can imagine for themselves what 'it' is. It's the same idea as 'decent people' or 'hard-working families'. Coal miners and hedge-fund managers both believe they're hard-working. The words are mirrors in which each voter sees themselves. Everybody believes they're decent. Or almost everybody. I wish sometimes that there were a party representing indecent, workshy bachelors like me. But I fear it shall never come to pass."

And "getting it" is just a symptom of a wider problem: politicians refusing to speak plainly. A recent example is the Labour leader failing to sum up his leadership and what he offers voters in one word. “I’ll give you two – One Nation”, Miliband replied to the journalist, after making a big show of rolling his eyes. He then went on to give a fuzzy description of what One Nation means. He wouldn’t deign to speak concisely and clearly, regarding it as a silly challenge set by a frivolous journalist.

This is a problem for politicians. Nigel Farage and his party were overwhelmingly successful in the recent European elections, and are dominating the political agenda. It’s often discussed that Farage’s straight-talking manner is appealing to an electorate starved of politicians speaking human. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston pointed out this week that the election results have taught us that people "like straight-talking politicians". Miliband gives convoluted, wonkish answers, and Cameron is often compared to a PR man for his superficial style – saying little and sticking to his lines. And the majority of their MPs aren’t much better.

Political jargon is inaccessible and alienating, but vague, fluffy phrases can be equally as evasive.

It may be a hackneyed reference, but George Orwell’s Newspeak, the language invented in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, warned that the fewer ways we have to say something, the less call there is to say it at all. If we want transparency in our politics, we have to ask our politicians precisely what they mean by their weasel words. Because at the moment they just don’t seem to get it.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.