British election slogans are vague and - gasp - verbless
BOSTON AND LONDON — Six syllables. That's all it took to craft one of history's most effective political ads. The 1978 poster showed a long queue of people snaking out from an unemployment office under the slogan: "LABOUR ISN'T WORKING."
The rhetoric struck a chord with voters, who soon dumped Labour's James Callaghan for the Tory's Margaret Thatcher.
Pithy slogans are more central to British than US elections. Strict limits on campaign spending and TV time mean that the free-wheeling US TV ads and televised debates are absent from the 30-day British campaign. But with voters going to the polls Thursday, the slogans of the two leading parties have been so widely ridiculed that new slogans have just been unveiled.
Labour's initial "Britain forward not back," was skewered in the land of Shakespeare as verbless. And the Conservative's "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" was lampooned as too vague. " 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' I don't know," said comedian Chris Langham. "I'm thinking about biscuits. I hope they're thinking of something more important than that."
But amid the parodies by satirists and groans from grammarians lies a deeper concern. Analysts say the rhetoric, however deficient, betrays the growing insinuation of spin and professional marketing into British politics.
It's a development, they add, that bodes poorly for the civic health in a nation already struggling with the trustworthiness of the government.
"This is an unusually hostile period, in terms of the relationship between politicians and the public," says Gillian Peele, fellow and tutor at Lady Margaret Hall, a college at the University of Oxford.
Polls show that with a strong economy, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party is on its way to winning a third consecutive term. But this past week Mr. Blair's integrity was questioned after leaked documents showed that the attorney general questioned the legality of invading Iraq.
"We have an atmosphere of complete distrust of politicians," says John Wild, a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign, a British group that advocates clarity in public communication. "If a politician were to tell me it was Friday afternoon, I'd check in my diary first."
Mistrust about this year's slogans began soon after they debuted. Observers noted that Labour's motto resembled a line from an episode of "The Simpsons," in which an alien dressed as Bill Clinton says "We must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom."
And Tory's sound bite, noted some critics, was similar to a catchphrase from a popular Australian children's program, "Bananas in Pyjamas."
The trouble soon multiplied. Labour's byword drew scorn from the Plain English Campaign for lacking a verb. Other observers noted that three of Labour's six election pledges - "Your family better off"; "Your community safer"; and "Your children with the best start" - had no verbs.
"By omitting the verb, they commit themselves to nothing except a vague idea that the words 'your family' and 'better off' somehow deserve to be in the same sentence," says Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling punctuation guide "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." "But is the truth actually: Your family is better off? Your family will be better off? Your family isn't better off? Your family will never be better off?"
The criticism among grammarians was heard around the globe. Former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who teaches English at Boston University, was dismayed. "The absence of predication ... may look snappy but has an undertow of isolation, introspection," he says. "One interpretation might be that Labour feels guilty or lost without its old social fervor, that sense of a social mission."
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have suffered endless caricatures of the "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign. Harking back to the languid economy under his Tory predecessor, John Major, Mr. Blair quips "Are you remembering what I'm remembering?" Graffiti artists have taken to spraying, "Are you drinking what we're drinking?" In a poll taken last month, only 32 percent of voters agreed that the Tory party is thinking what they're thinking on important issues.
But neither phrase has caught on with voters. "I'm quite frustrated at the level of good political debate that exists in this country," says Tim Ham, from north London. "I am concerned that the debate is being stifled by the professional skills of marketeers and communicators who achieve their political ends very effectively. I think that this is the key reason why people are turned off by politics."
Some experts defend these political tactics. "The whole point is to be simplistic," says John Wilson, a professor of communication at the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland. " 'Britain forward not back' is successful." The Conservatives "had a very clever slogan," adds Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "Certainly they applied it very well to some issues."
Dr. Dunleavy explains that their question worked well, for example, as a criticism of Labour's record on hospital-acquired infections. "They'd have in hand-written font, 'I mean, how hard is it to clean a hospital?,' with the slogan underneath. It taps into that popular incredulity," he adds.
But the Tories got into hot water when the question was applied to immigration, coupled with a disclaimer: "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration." Some critics charged it was an example of "dog-whistle politics" - the full meaning of the slogan isn't heard by the general public, but is heard by a party's base.
"The [Tory's] rhetorical question, as a figure of speech, is more or less by definition insincere," says Professor Pinsky. "It says, 'I'm pretending to ask you something, but I'm really telling you something.' "
Some voters are hopeful for a backlash against the spin. "The candidate who stands up and says 'What you see is what you get' will be attractive to voters," says Mr. Wild. So far, though, most voters have not flocked to Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, whose slogan reads: "The real alternative."
Nor is there much evidence that the main parties' new handles - Labour: "If you value it, vote for it"; Tory: "Taking a stand on the issues that matter" - have won many converts.
For British voter Val Addiscott, it's a question of specifics. "Tell me what you'll do specifically and I'll believe you," she says. For now, she says she can't wait for the war of words to end.