Election ’17: The May is All for U-Turning, and the Soundbites Can’t Hide It

The great political soundbites are vividly memorable and powerfully persuasive. But, as Mark Wright argues, the current Conservative election campaign is obsessed with empty platitudes that barely conceal the u-turns, flip-flops and mis-steps that have seen the Tories’ opinion poll lead shrink to a single point.

‘If you couldn’t say it in less than 10 seconds, it wasn’t heard because it wasn’t aired.’

Michael Dukakis, 1988 US Presidential candidate.

To cap a defiant speech at the 1980 Conservative conference, Margaret Thatcher underscored her refusal to back down on her tough economic policies – in the face of doubters in her own party – with one simple phrase that was a pun on the title of Christopher Fry’s 1948 play The Lady’s Not for Burning: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’

It has gone down as one of the great political soundbites in British history. The media analysts Drew, Lyons and Svehla argue that an effective soundbite is a short and familiar slogan, condensing a larger theme into a memorable phrase. Whatever you think of her policies, Thatcher’s soundbite certainly did that. She was trying to change a social democratic political landscape into a radically reactionary one, and the core of her stubborn determination to do so is encapsulated by those five words.

Barack Obama’s ‘yes we can’ soundbite was designed to signal a shift from the deeply conservative George W Bush era, when the very notion of a black President of the United States seemed fanciful. It embodied a widespread hope for systematic change. Whether it delivered that change is hotly contested, but there’s no denying the rhetorical heft of the language Obama used.

However, we need to think harder about the crucial function of a soundbite: it condenses an argument; it is not an argument in and of itself. Drew, Lyons, and Svehla assert that soundbites run the risk of insulating us from evidence, deliberation and critical public scrutiny, and I would argue that such a risk characterises the current Tory election campaign.

The empty platitudes of ‘strong and stable government’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ are a far cry from Thatcher’s or Obama’s emphatic messaging. They have no substance and nor are they statements of intent. They cannot invite scrutiny because nobody – not least the people who repeatedly say them – seems to know what they really mean. As an article for the Journal of Political Marketing on how soundbites win elections notes, ‘Style has become increasingly important at the expense of content.’

Let’s focus on ‘strong and stable leadership.’ You won’t find an economist who’d bet their house on Brexit benefiting Britain because, as Paul Mason and other commentators have convincingly argued, nobody knows what will happen in the long-term. Amidst this uncertainty, having promised not to call a snap election, Theresa May then calls a snap election. The party u-turns on dementia tax, and then again on its plan to build more socially rented council housing. (So far May has managed an incredible 9 turns since she became PM about a year ago). How, then, are the Tories justifying this pervasive mantra of ‘strong and stable’? Quite simply, they aren’t. But the soundbite appears vaguely reassuring, so long as you don’t question its basis.

How about ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’? This is largely hollow because the Tories – amongst the other main parties, to be fair – have been markedly unclear about Brexit details such as timescales and negotiating positions. Even so, leaving the European Union with no deal whatsoever would leave us beholden to countries that could ask for all sorts of special treatment in return for trade deals. If you’ve ever played poker, see how well you can negotiate when your lousy hand is facing upward.

And then you have the ‘coalition of chaos.’ In 2010, the Conservatives entered into a coalition with the Lib Dems; one side making cuts in the name of austerity, the other side trying to restrain them. On this occasion, the parties under attack have not declared themselves members of a coalition. But even if they did, they’d have many of the same values and principles. What is chaotic about that?

Just to turn our attention to local politics for a moment, Portsmouth City Council leader Donna Jones came up with an arguably striking soundbite when she claimed last year that ‘Portsmouth has roared like a lion’ after the results of the EU referendum were announced. The problem with her phrase, though, was that it sounded like a cynically jingoistic cliché that made rather tacky and obvious reference to Richard the Lionheart, the British Lions rugby team, the British soldiers in World War I likened to lions and other leonine imagery even a five-year-old could associate with a Tory nationalist vision of Britain and British culture.

Soundbites, when done well, are a shorthand method for politicians to communicate their aims and objectives in a fast-moving, time-constrained modern media environment. When there’s only a half minute of TV or radio time available, soundbites should be able to convey complex ideas in simple terms for the benefit of the electorate.

But they need to have substance and shouldn’t descend into lazy banalities. To put it another way, they must ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. I have trained young people in interview techniques, and many make the same mistake over and over again by saying things like ‘I am a strong negotiator, I am a good leader, I would be great for this project.’ And every time the same feedback: How and why? Anybody can say, ‘I’m good, I can do this,’ but the requirement isn’t to tell us what you can do, it’s to convince us that you can do it. We don’t accept these low standards from second year university students, yet we put up with them from politicians at the highest level.

Next time we find ourselves attracted to a soundbite, we should take a few of minutes to look at what lies behind it. If the answer is ‘not a lot’, we should be for turning.

Graphic courtesy of Jack Caramac.