This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
Political slogans are a paradox. The mere phrase ‘sloganising’ is regarded as a smear, yet every party does it. Or tries to do it – or doesn’t, and ends up as David Owen’s post-1988 SDP.
Search Wikipedia, and you’ll find a handy list of great political slogans. There’s Liberian president Charles Taylor’s catchy, ‘He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him’, which saw him elected with 75 per cent of the vote in 1997. Then there was, ‘Revolution is not a dinner party’, which was used by Mao Zedong, and proves the great Chinese revolutionary never dined in north London. And my personal favourite, ‘Don’t switch dicks in the middle of a screw: Vote Nixon in ‘72’, which speaks for itself.
I was initially going to plump for ‘All power to the imagination!’, which was used by the Situationists during the 1968 Paris uprising, but it sounded like something Ed Miliband might actually use in a conference speech, and so too early for a critique.
Plus, Ed has a zeitgeist-appropriating slogan of his own: ‘One Nation’ is currently taking the nation by storm. January, in case you missed it, was ‘One Nation January’. Labour has begun circulating the ‘One Nation Register’, which keeps recipients up to speed on progress of Labour’s policy review, and Labour press officers have been told, on pain of death, that the phrase, ‘One Nation’ must henceforth appear in every release the party issues.
It’s easy to mock this McDonald’s-style re-branding of the Labour message – “Would you like a portion of One Nation fries with your Coke? Labour’s welfare policy will be with you in three minutes... ” – and, believe me, I have no intention of looking this particular gift horse in the mouth. But at least Labour is obeying the golden rule of political sloganeering; repetition.
One of the best political slogans I ever heard was Tony Blair’s famous, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. It was the brainchild of his adviser Liz Lloyd, and I recall talking to her about a year after it was launched, following 12 months in which every shadow minister, every MP and every Labour activist’s dog had been parroting it incessantly. “Our latest polling shows 70 per cent of people say they’ve never heard it,” she said despondently. This realisation inspired Peter Mandelson to come up with his own mantra: “When you’re saying it for the hundredth time, they’re hearing it for the first time.”
The reason ‘TOC, TOTCOC’ worked was because it had some substance behind it. It neatly encapsulated, in quite an elegant way, a genuine shift in Labour policy and positioning on crime, a traditional Achilles’ heel for the party. I later heard from another Blair adviser, Peter Hyman, that it was supposed to be an interim slogan, to be replaced when the time was right with ‘Labour will lock up young thugs’. So much for elegance.
But I learnt the two key lessons of sloganeering: it must be repeated until you’re prepared to sell your first-born to prevent you ever having to hear it again, and to be a good slogan, it must be more than a good slogan.
Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ will get its share of criticism over the next few months, but at least Labour’s leader has a slogan to criticise. Remember the ‘Big Society’? If so, you’re doing better than me; I literally forget what it was before starting this sentence and had to Google it. OK, it’s not strictly a slogan, more a ‘Big Idea’, but it’s the closest David Cameron has come.
And, contrary to popular wisdom, I think it was quite good. It had a degree of resonance, some substance, a fact acknowledged by Jon Cruddas and Hazel Blears with the establishment in late 2010 of their Social Action Forum.
But Cameron made the mistake of trying to define it too literally. “We don’t know what that means,” people said. So he dumped it.
Wrong. A slogan means whatever you want it to mean. Cutting taxes for the rich? That’s part of the Big Society; the Big Society loves wealth-creators. Cutting taxes for the poor? The Big Society is about helping people onto the prosperity ladder. Raising taxes? The Big Society in action; in tough times we’re all going to be asked to do our bit.
Still, there’s one thing worse than having an empty slogan or no slogan, and that’s being Nick Clegg and having the slogan ‘Alarm Clock Britain’. “It’s hard to think of anything”, wrote John Humphrys, “that inspires such loathing. Second only to the dentist’s drill, than the alarm clock.” Except, perhaps, poor Nick himself.
“Nick Clegg killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”. Hell, why not? What have the Lib Dems got to lose?
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator