Labour's Language Problem

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter wrote of language in The Atlantic this month, "the serendipities of history chose one "dialect" as a standard and enshrined in on the page." When it comes specifically to the language of public policy, history has not been kind to us, imposing a style that is jargonistic, obtuse, and shot through with grandiose emptiness.

This need not necessarily apply to political language, which, at its best, can be far more direct and human-sounding.  But the lines are often and increasingly blurred: technocratic politicians can write (and talk for that matter) just like bureaucrats or diplomats.

This brings me in a roundabout way to NZ Labour's most recent Future of Work policy paper, Economic Development and Sustainability. While it is an improvement on earlier efforts, and doesn’t appear to be the product of rampant plagiarism, the document is a good (by which I mean bad) example of the ways bureaucratese has infected political language.

Consider this fact alone: in a short document comprising a touch over eight pages, the word "sustainable" is used a staggering fifteen times. Not only is this self-evidently bad prose (Christopher Hitchens once said the key to good writingis to avoid placing the same word too close together), the word "sustainable" is classic jargon, overused to the point of meaninglessness. If I were editing such a paper, I would try to eliminate any single use of the term, let alone more than a dozen.

Overall, Economic Development and Sustainability exemplifies the worst kind of public policy writing: chock full of qualifying phrases; inoffensive, uncontroversial statements of the bleeding obvious; all wrapped up in stale language aimed at sounding serious and important but leaving the reader with little to grasp on to. It may contain great ideas but you couldn't possibly discern them through the blizzard of jargon.  First example:

Addressing these economic development policy challenges is a crucial part of preparing for the future of work. A resilient, flexible economy must have a resilient, flexible workforce; and vice versa. Workers will benefit under improved economic settings through the creation of new and better employment opportunities, the potential for fairer, more sustainable wages, and the development of higher value skills that are in demand internationally. A key benefit of a step change in economic development will be the social and economic gains that come from ongoing, meaningfulemployment.

This is so far removed from how people actually communicate – so impossibly abstract – that it hasn’t a hope in hell of resonating with people who are not themselves engaged in public policy (and, even then, it would be a hard slog).

Or try this:

Different businesses and even different sectors respond to economic challenges and opportunities in different ways. As a small economy in a globalised world, it can be difficult for New Zealand to set the agenda. New Zealand businesses need to be well positioned to take advantage of future opportunities...

This, like the previous example, reads like the winning entry of a competition to see how many 21st century buzzwords you can squeeze into a single paragraph, but I include it to make another point: namely, it is a patchwork of truisms with which nobody of sound mind could possibly disagree.

Is there anyone across the world or political spectrum who could dispute the premise that "different businesses and even different sectors respond to economic challenges and opportunities in different ways"? Not only is that true of New Zealand, but of every country at every point in human history.  It simply does not need to be said. The kind of sophistry that turns people off politics.  If you're making a point that cannot be challenged, that signals its weakness as an argument, not its strength.

In government, there is a natural and often constructive tension between public servants and political staff.  An effective Ministerial staffer pushes back against the tendency of bureaucrats to use dense, inaccessible language. Speeches are the clearest example of this.  A public servant will draft a speech which will be dour, factual, jargon-filled and, above all else, safe.  Depending on the stakes involved, political staff will often tear it to shreds, turning it from bureaucratese into language capable of connecting more forcefully to the public.  (This is not to criticise public servants – it's not for them to draft the kind of blunt, adversarial language that animates political language).

When it hasn't been copied and pasted from The Economist, Labour's Future of Work papers read for all money like the work of public servants– odd, since Labour is in opposition and only has political staff.  One possible explanation is that the Future of Work's lead MP is Grant Robertson, who was a diplomat in his previous career.  And I have written before that risk-aversion is Robertson's Achilles' Heel – and perhaps this is why the taskforce produces material like this.  But I suspect the problem runs deeper.

More and more, Labour thinks, acts and communicates less like a political party than some hybrid government department/NGO, having lost along the way the knack of talking to voters in language likely to resonate, let alone persuade.