The political language barrier

Watching politicians talk is very frustrating because the language that they use is inaccurate. They say things they don’t mean, and I’m not sure it’s on purpose, I just think that they live in the reality created for them by their spin doctors, sorry, policy advisors. I’d therefore encourage you to forward this crib sheet of words and phrases, to avoid confusing the public. I’ve mentioned a few most hated sayings, but please do let me know your thoughts on others to add by way of the comments section!

‘Savings’ – When politicians say savings, they don’t mean anything close to the commonly understood meaning of the word. For example, David Cameron said in Thursday’s TV debate that he would save £12bn from the welfare budget – but the welfare budget is mostly composed of transfer payments, ie, the government takes money from one group (taxpayers) and gives it to another (benefit recipients, mostly the same people). Cancelling these payments is not a saving – it’s a re-distribution. Savings might come from, for example, reducing spending on military hardware, or on hospital buildings. However, reducing spending on military salaries or nurses salaries would simply be a redistribution. Politicians need to say that they will reduce redistribution to the unemployed – but this does not save money – it merely puts it in different hands. Conservatives should like this because the public generally don’t like redistribution, so this change should suit everyone.

‘Job Creation’ – This bizarre piece of language really needs to be taken out of our discourse entirely, political or otherwise. Jobs are not created, especially by politicians. Firms employ workers. That does not imply that a job has been created, the worker and the firm always existed, what is new is that there is demand for that workers output. ‘Job Creation’ casts powerful people, either politicians or managers, as the arrangers of economic progress – where in fact it is the mutual decisions of workers and firms that matter. Politicians should rather say that employment has increased, because that statement is a more accurate reflection of the change that has taken place in the economy – the potential arrangement between labour and capital, ie the job, is not the interesting part, the interesting part is that employment has increased. Again, politicians should prefer this language because it sounds very positive – although it might be a little harder for them to claim responsibility for things they have nothing to do with.

‘Benefits’ – Benefits to most people means ‘transfer payments to unemployed or disabled people’. Politicians talk about all transfer payments this way. By far the biggest chunks of transfer payments made by the government are to the elderly in the form of pensions, although politicians normally don’t mean this when they say benefits (though they clearly should include it), and housing benefit. Housing benefit transfers £25bio a year or so to private landlords. When politicians talk about reducing the benefits bill, they never mean this part, they always mean the far smaller parts that actually go to the unemployed or disabled. If you are a politician, you should always be clear about the scope of what you are referring to as benefits, and which transfer payments you’d specifically choose to increase or decrease. Ideally, and this isn’t that hard, you should specify each change and as a percentage of total government spending to give a sense of scale. (Thanks to @drlangtry_girl for this one!)

‘£Millions’ – If you’re a politician talking about national issues, I don’t care about millions. Total government expenditures are around £700billion, so 100 million is 0.01% of total spending. That’s not even an accounting error, and the big numbers give a false sense of scale.


One thought on “The political language barrier

  1. Old cynic says:

    Very interesting analysis but far too subtle!! They don’t just use inaccurate language, they simply lie. Recent examples “no top down reorganisation of the NHS” and “every home sold under RTB will be replaced one for one”. If you want examples of inaccurate language ( though maybe it’s just a lie?) how about putting up social rents and calling the new higher rents “affordable rents”. You couldn’t make it up…….but they can.

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