Why do we talk about “fighting” elections, “striking blows” for our beliefs and “crushing” opponents – and what effect does it have?
CRUSH THE SABOTEURS. I don’t know if any of you have ever been in a newsroom when the front-page headline – in tabloids it’s called the “splash” – was being written, but it’s magical. That might be nostalgia talking because I have kids now, a second job that doesn’t work so well around daily newspaper deadlines, and at the time I just wanted to get home for my tea, but what it usually looks like is somebody sitting in front of a computer and three or four people standing around behind them chatting. I can almost hear the conversation going on in the Daily Mail offices when they came up with this gem.
– NOW GET BEHIND HER?
– SILENCE THE OPPOSITION?
– SILENCE THE SABOTEURS?
– Doesn’t fit.
– Can’t we just use the Daily Mail headline generator again and go to the pub?
– Course not, there’s an election on.
– OK, well how about: CRUSH THE SABOTEURS.
– Boss! We’ve got it!
In truth that conversation probably didn’t happen, because Paul Dacre probably writes his headlines by himself, in a fountain pen filled with the blood of the person who wrote the first one. Which is probably how he manages to convey so much menace in them. But the Mail’s editorial process isn’t the point here, it’s just a topical example. The point is how aggressive the language of politics can be.
On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn emailed Labour Party members to invite them to an event in London “as we start the fight for a Labour government”. Earlier this month he wanted money “to continue our fight against Tory failure” and “combat the housing crisis”. And on March 29 he told us that while the Brexit vote was “not the outcome Labour fought for”, vowing to “fight for real protection for the economy” and sharing a video titled LABOUR WILL FIGHT FOR A DEAL THAT DEFENDS AND PROTECTS OUR SHARED VALUES.
Why do we speak about “fighting” elections anyway? It’s a contest, of course, with competing sides. There are winners and losers, and people care deeply about what happens. But it’s not like the end result is going to be settled with fisticuffs. (Unless UKIP are involved.)
Perhaps that’s namby-pamby liberalism talking, but all this fighting talk in the campaign sets the tone. Then when the victorious take their seats in Parliament, they’re expected to start jeering at one another. Can you even try to summon one of those jeers that you hear alongside Prime Minister’s Question Time? I try, and find my face retreating into my throat, aping the sound of the portly old men I’ve seen on TV. It’s been well documented by the relatively few women who make it into the chamber that they find it all a bit much.
Mhairi Black, the youngest MP, even cast doubt last week on whether she would run again, having previously complained that her parliamentary colleagues “actually sound like a drunken mob”. And she’s not wrong that the whole banging on the table thing is weird, either. (There’s a longstanding rule that MPs mustn’t clap.)
On the sidelines we have the mob, the reporters and editors using all the same terminology – perhaps because of excessive testosterone, perhaps because it sounds more exciting, perhaps because that’s just how we think of it all now. Just think how many combative terms we see regularly in news reports: “Strike a blow”, “crush the rebels”, “hit back at critics”, “embattled leader”, “forced out”, “sparring”, “locking horns”, “facing the axe”. And don’t forget the imagery. The night of the long knives, say, or the Iron Lady.
Finding a different way to talk about these things is a challenge, but what might happen if we tried? Maybe, just maybe the content as well as the tone of our debate would change; it might be easier to reach a compromise if politicians weren’t worried about looking weak. Maybe it would help to bring the number of women MPs up from 29% to 50%. Maybe it’d even make MPs seem more representative of voters who grew up in neither boarding school, nor a zoo.
It’d be bad news for tabloid headline writers, of course. But given how much fun they have with our bad news, that only seems fair.