Getting a grip on ‘get a grip’ soundbites

There is one phrase near-ubiquitous in UK politics at the moment: “get a grip”. Let’s look at just a handful of examples from the past few weeks. Each of the following was the lead paragraph for a political news story:

“New Culture Secretary Maria Miller has been urged by her own party’s MEPs to “get a grip” on high-speed communications technology vital for the country’s economic growth. A letter from 20 Tory members of the European Parliament says…” MSN 28/10/12

“The BBC’s acting director general has vowed to “get a grip” following the resignation of George Entwistle over a Newsnight report on child abuse claims. Tim Davie said he had…” BBC News 12/11/12

“Conservative MPs have told David Cameron to “get a grip” and halt a string of unforced errors that have blown his Government off course. They urged him to…” Independent 22/10/12

“RenewableUK, the trade and professional body representing the wind, wave and tidal energy industries, is urging the Prime Minister to get a firmer grip on energy policy, after two Conservative MPs, including the Energy Minister John Hayes, sought to undermine the renewables sector. Last night on Channel 4 News…” Politics Home 14/11/12

The bidding process for the West Coast Main Line franchise is a “fiasco”, according to Ed Miliband. The Labour leader said that David Cameron needed to “get a grip” on an “incompetent government.” The government has…” BBC News 14/10/12

Okay, so you get the idea. These quotes represent the tip of the ‘get a grip’ iceberg. Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I have gone through life until recently without realising the sheer ubiquity of the ‘get a grip’ phrase – but could there be other reasons that it is appearing so regularly? Rarely in politics is a line repeated this often done so by chance.

I first noticed ‘get a grip’ when Ed Miliband began using it against David Cameron. Other Labour MPs then began incorporating it into their repertoire. It was shortly after the ‘pastygate’ nonsense and there had been a spate of coverage about David Cameron’s upper class background; how he and George Osborne were ‘out of touch’ with ordinary voters.

It doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to move from ‘out of touch’ to ‘get a grip’: if someone needs to ‘get a grip’ they are in a sense ‘out of touch’. And there were other lines using a tactility frame too. A favourite of Miliband’s around this time, since used by Cameron and others, was: ‘he just doesn’t get it’.

It seemed what the Labour spinners had dreamt up was a line or three – to be repeated as many times as possible – to reinforce the idea of a lack of physical connection between David Cameron, George Osborne and the voter. I say ‘seemed’ as since then anyone and everyone has been accused of needing to ‘get a grip’, as the quotes make clear. The context it is being used in now is more traditional: suggesting incompetence on the part of the accused, an inability to control whatever it is they are supposed to be controlling.

The uptake and usage of this line may well simply be for the reasons suggested above (minus the whole tactility theme): pollsters find the line ‘resonates’ well with focus groups. Perhaps politicians think it sounds ‘real’, whatever that means. I’m never sure. It also has the advantage of being so unspecific that it can be readily applied to almost any situation.

But I wonder if there are not other reasons. When I hear the phrase being repeated almost daily by politicians it brings to mind the sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid’ series, in which he attributes a whole range of social phenomena to the increasing speed and uncertainty of our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps the reason ‘get a grip’ polls well, if indeed it does (I’m only speculating after all), is because people’s lives do feel increasingly out of their control. Plans can rarely be made with any certainty. Pensions collapse, house prices rise and fall, unemployment is an ever-present fear. Even in relationships we are encouraged to keep chopping and changing in the futile quest for perfection.

And then there is technology, of course – technology, supposed to free us from the need to work. But as many studies show working hours have in fact increased as technology such as internet-enabled phones have become more widespread. One of Bauman’s central points is that in the modern world distinctions between work and leisure time are blurring.

One could argue, then, that politicians are right to notice that ‘get a grip’ polls well, that it appears to resonate with voters, that it feels real. But rather than seeking political and economic solutions to help people retain more control of their lives, or at least feel that they do, ‘get a grip’ becomes the latest line to be used in knockabout party politics.

The irony of course is that in so doing, in seeking to prove that their rivals are out of touch or incompetent, politicians simply become ever more disconnected from the electorates. And in this sense, they really do need to get a grip.

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