If politics is the battle of ideas, rhetoric has always been the weapon of choice. Rhetoric uses the art of written or verbal communication to persuade an audience. In theory, this may not seem problematic. We use rhetoric in our personal lives to negotiate with or convince others. However, in British politics, the use of political rhetoric is doing more harm than good.
Ultimately, the use of political rhetoric is for short-term gains; to gain a vote, to pass a bill or a policy. This has two implications. Firstly, it seeks to persuade not empower voters to make a decision based on their individual assessment. Secondly, it does little in building continuous engagement with citizens. The Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society found that only 23% of the public agree that Parliament encourages involvement in politics.
Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals calls for ‘developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.’ The use of open data to increase the transparency of decision-making in public policy is necessary, but not enough. Public debates such as Prime Minister’s Questions and the General Election Debates are not effective because the aims of these shows are short-sighted. These shows do little in advancing a culture of accountability to the voter because the style of communication does not increase information to the electorate. As long as political debates centre on maintaining popularity and not on engaging the populace, our political institutions will not be truly democratic. The halls of Westminster must do more to change the rules of the game by reassessing how language is used within the political sphere.
There is the problem of measuring the influence of ideas. How do we assess the impact of language in individual decision-making? How do we monitor and implement policies that limit the use of defamatory rhetoric in particular? Does this impede on fundamental rights of free speech?
Addressing the negative effects of political rhetoric requires both bottom up and top-down efforts. There are a number of citizen led initiatives to help address the issue of political rhetoric. Full Fact, for example, provide a tool to verify assertions by politicians using available statistics and facts on key issues. At the institutional level, the Electoral Commission could and should do more to monitor and enquire about the use of political rhetoric, especially defamatory rhetoric, used by politicians. We must avoid the costly price of rhetoric and ensure we demand full accountable and transparent institutions.
By Marion Osieyo, action/2015 Youth Panellist
For more information on the action/2015 campaign and youth click here. The action/2015 Youth Panel is co-facilitated by British Youth Council, BOND, Islamic Relief, Progressio and Restless Development and Y Care International.