Issues & Ideas | 11th November 2014

The problem with political puff pieces

Lucy Powell has rejoined Ed Miliband’s team to run Labour’s election campaign. We’ve looked […]

Photo: Getty


Lucy Powell has rejoined Ed Miliband’s team to run Labour’s election campaign. We’ve looked at how she might fit amongst a morass of meetings and advisers, but what effect could her promotion have on Labour’s message?

If a piece from over the summer is indicative, expect good intentions drowned under a wave of meaningless sentences, more meaningless sentences and clichéd catchphrases.

“Sure Start children’s centres are one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government”, the recent post begins, in an innocuous way.

Perhaps Sure Start is brilliant. Introduced by New Labour in 1998, it aims to help parents in disadvantaged areas bring up, look after and educate their children.

Inspired by a similar scheme in the US, its impact has been contested but in 2010 an independent if government-commissioned report suggested its centres have more positive effects than negative ones. [1]

The problem is the way the piece is written, and what it shows about the way many MPs – or their staffs – write. Powell is not alone. Many adorn arguments with trite partisan phrases that cloud any argument and appeal only to the already converted.

If they tried to persuade rather than divide, maybe more people would vote for them (Powell was elected by one-eighth of her constituency).

1. Meaningless sentences

“The ethos and spirit of Sure Start are at the heart of Labour’s vision for a society where no child is forgotten and every family has the support they need to succeed.”

What’s the point of a political statement no one would disagree with? You may think the Tories are evil – and the fact that many voters say they would never vote for them suggests many do – but would a Tory minister say, “we have a vision of a society where many children are forgotten and only rich families have the support they need to succeed”?

You may think their ideology makes this likely, even if Tories wouldn’t admit it, but speaking that way doesn’t convert the people who don’t.

2. Repeating meaningless sentences

“…to support all families whilst focusing specialist services on the individual needs of families and children.”

“…freeing families from disadvantage and giving them the tools to build strong families and fulfil the aspirations they have for their children.”

Little to disagree with here, but let’s say it twice.

3. Repeating semi-meaningless sentences

In case you missed it, Sure Start will provide “quality support and services to families”. How?

Paragraph six: “This means working closely with local areas”

Paragraph seven: “This will only happen if we work together” (With local areas – not Tories, because they want a society where most children are forgotten and generic services only help the rich.)

Paragraph eight: “We will work with local areas”

…later: “Strengthening the role of centres locally”

Good services for families, working closely with local areas. Got it.

How exactly Labour are going to be so successful at working with wildly different local councils that serve 63 million people is less relevant than the fact that they will be.

4. Repeating Labour’s carefully coined clichés

This is not a peripheral issue.

Sure Start is “at the heart of Labour’s vision for a society”, as well as being “at the heart of public service reform”, and… “at the heart of our efforts to reform public services”.

Most importantly, Labour will not just improve Sure Start centres “across the country” but “…up and down the country”.

5. Renewing and reinvigorating

The key point to remember is that Labour “will renew our commitment to Sure Start” and “reinvigorate it for families now and in the future”, which will “underpin a… renewed and reinvigorated offer”.

Recycled language, fresh ideas. That’s how Orwell put it, right?


[1] While there was no clear impact on children’s learning, children in Sure Start areas came out of the program in better shape and health than those outside the system, and parents suggested the extra childcare made them less likely to discipline their children harshly or live chaotically.