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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.

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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.

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