On the surface, Lord Feldman’s email letter of 3 March, on the future of the Conservative Party, seemed an ideal example to test George Orwell’s six rules of writing, as expressed in his essay Politics and the English Language.
Orwell fought the cause of plain English. Were he writing today he’d be a sought-after blogger.
In 1946 Orwell wrote:
‘In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.”
Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.’
I wondered whether, seventy years on, Orwell’s essay still applied to political writing.
Just to recap, Orwell’s six rules are:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Lord Feldman’s email falls into the ‘Could Do Better’ category, notably with reference to (ii), (iii) and (iv).
His email letter breaks the rules of writing for the web. Experts such as Jakob Nielsen have long recommended concise wording, bullets and headings in place of ‘fluff’, lengthy paragraphs and ‘walls of text’. That’s because online visitors scan rather than read.
Halfway through critiquing the email I emerged from my Hastings mode.
Was it conceivable, I asked myself belatedly, that Lord Feldman’s team of copywriters would be unaware of website conventions?
Could it be that the doughy style is deliberate, chosen to obfuscate rather than elucidate?
In other words, might there be something of note buried within the email letter?
In the annotated version above and the tongue-in-cheek translations of key paragraphs below, I’ve tried to delve behind the ostensible meaning of the words to show the intent of the letter.
Key to The Annotations Above
A – Keep to one page.
B – The Union Jack logo – perhaps a touch UKIP? Or have focus groups suggested this is a vote-winner?
C – Do I know you, Andrew? Still, I suppose it’s better than ‘Dear Colleague’ or ‘Dear Comrade’.
D – Include a subject line such as The Conservative Party Review: the future of party associations
E – Ah, that old chestnut, statistics rolled out to give the illusion of authority.
If the composition of the panel is angled, the number of meetings makes no difference.
Questions to ask: How large is the panel? What was its brief? Who chose the representatives? In other words, is it a genuine exercise in consultation?
F – A truly inspirational example of fluff.
G – Passive tense alert: ‘Thereafter the report will be discussed…’ The passive tense often acts as a smokescreen.
And the Giveaway Sentence.
Thereafter, the report will be discussed at the National Convention before being submitted for final approval to the National Convention at our Party Conference in October.
Why a giveaway? Because the foregone conclusion of the proposals being submitted for final approval is at odds with the concept of discussion. It does not allow for the possibility of the report being thrown out.
H – Bullets and headings help visitors scan. This is an established convention of writing for the web.
I – I’ve translated freely. Never trust words such as ‘centralised’ ‘bureaucratic burden’.
We’re tired of local associations who think they know best. We’d therefore like to erode your power. Taking over your membership database will help us achieve this. We’ll then be able to control communications to members. Stick to what you know best – fundraising and canvassing. We’ll fob you off with a few tokens to make you feel important. These include:
a Members-only area on conservatives.com
Silver and Gold levels of membership with additional benefits ‘to enhance the membership experience’.
We at Central Office would like to have greater control over Constituency Associations. Enough of this Brexit nonsense. Enough going off-piste on candidate selection. We’ll use the excuse of saving overheads to merge you into more controllable organisations – let’s call them ‘multi-constituency Associations (MCAs).
That also means we’ll be able to sell off freehold premises.
As we need to maintain the fiction that this is a rational decision, we’ll sketch plausible opt-out clauses.
Such as: ‘Any Associations with more than 200 Members and a fully operational structure will be able to opt out of the pilot MCA where a majority of its Members vote against the proposals; and there will also be a mechanism for MCAs to be dissolved if they do not work out.’
As of today, I am reliably informed, Constituency Associations have not been asked for their input other to identify those who would wish to take part in the federation experiment.
If there’s a moral here, it’s to beware of the passive tense and read what’s buried within Walls of Text.
Were I a Constituency Association Chairman or a free-thinking MP, I’d be feeling nervous. Very nervous indeed.