Almost any subject can be made to look complicated. Whether it’s the job market, international migration or Aston Villa’s poor form this season, it often suits those in power to cloud issues, especially unpopular ones, with narratives and subtexts. When this happens, almost any version of events that is presented to us can seem plausible and hard to refute. People become confused and drop out of the debate.
It is common for government and wealthy interests to deliver propaganda in the form of gently-guided media narratives. With great success, propaganda can misidentify the problem (“high public spending caused the recession”), insist that alternative politics is impossible (“the rich would just leave and take their money with them”), and transfer blame to convenient scapegoats (“poor people, benefit cheats, the EU, the left”).
So the job of a decent politician or journalist is to communicate honestly, in plain language, at all times.
Those of us who are confident that we understand politics, and that our motives, morals and grasp of the facts are basically correct, sometimes fail to get our point across. The consequences of this are terrible. Not only do we look like intellectual snobs, and therefore incapable of building a truly democratic movement, but we actually contribute to the dense fog of confusion that our opponents may have intentionally generated around an issue.
While issues like trade deals, climate policy and international affairs are complicated, we can and must get them across in basic terms. Communication is the art of understanding and being understood. Political activists must never lapse into appearing to be clever or authoritative for the sake of appearing so. If you can’t make yourself understood in everyday language, then don’t blame the audience. If you have communicated well, and the audience still disagrees with you, then so be it – people rarely change their mind on the spot, but they will warm to you if you make sense.
With that in mind, I have enjoyed the recent media releases from the Scottish Green Party – my own party – who have been making specific election policy proposals on a week-by-week basis this spring. Some of Scottish Labour’s recent policy announcements, such as on income tax and social housing, have also met my approval. I understand what they are proposing and therefore I can form an opinion. When something is clear and uncomplicated, there are fewer hiding places for parties who don’t deliver.
It is fine to acknowledge that an issue is complicated and multi-layered, but a transparent, democratic solution can only follow if politicians to get to the point, make simple proposals and stick to them.
As we approach yet another round of national elections, I would encourage every activist who believes in a progressive politics to go out and campaign in plain English.
It’s not just about winning elections; it’s about railing against the idea that you have to be an anorak to understand what’s right and wrong any more.