New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Long reads
9 April 2008

Learning from Obama

Britain's New Labour ministers could learn a lesson from Obama and that's how to communicate effecti

By Rachael Jolley

If New Labour should learn one lesson from Barack Obama, whether he wins or loses the presidential race, it is that language matters.

Words need to strike a chord voters and our government is curently having problems doing that.

What matters to most people, in Britain as well as America, is whether their lives and the lives of their family will get better, safer or fairer in the near future. They care about that.

They care if the health service gets better, or their local schools improve, or if their jobs are more secure.

Obama’s prose may be a little too purple for British taste. He piles on the patriotism with his references to the great American way, but he does understand about the power of delivering his vision in words that everyone can understand.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

He doesn’t talk about “forging progressive traditions into a single narrative” as David Miliband did in a recent Times article. But he punches his message home with an easy-going use of language that is accessible to the man in the local neighbourhood bar.

Here’s a bit of progressive narrative from Obama: “And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

The gulf between the way words are used by the two politicians is wider than the Atlantic. One is using words to tell a story, the other is hiding behind a verbal barrier. Obama’s speech reaches out to each member of a crowd, while people who get enthused about the words a single progressive narrative are the few, not the many.

But it’s a mistake to think complex thoughts have to be delivered is complex packages. No one forgets King’s “I have a dream” speech or Kennedy asking “not what your country can do for you”.

Academics who make the leap from assigned texts to household names – get it too. Pick up an essay by Stiglitz, Huntingdon, Fukuyama or Dawkins – their words are accessible, and they don’t use fifteen words when five would do.

Obama’s constant references to hope have made him the target of satire in the infinitely more cynical UK, but cut through the Americanised vision, and at its centre is something that every voter in every country wants: the belief in a better future, expressed in normal but passionate language.

In what has been dubbed his “race” speech Obama touches on unemployment, failing schools and poor healthcare as well as patriotism and a fairer future for Americans. These are subjects that make people care about politics rather more than “localisation of responsibility” or “pathfinder areas”.

Now while a candidate for office can promise infinite change, if you are currently in government people are going to ask why you haven’t delivered that better life already. So the double challenge for government ministers is to show evidence of change, while producing a hopeful, and attainable image of the near future.

There’s not much jargon in Obama’s speeches, but what there is in huge bucketfuls is passion, hope and a sense of connection. On Labour’s front bench, there are people who understand how to express these things: Alan Johnson is the obvious example.

But others would do well to take a lesson from Obama: if you are trying to convince people politics matters, make sure they hear what you say.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy