People who work in advertising love going viral. They love it even more than cocaine and stealing money from the tiny fists of children. They can’t get enough of it, yet it remains mysterious. Advertisers spend hours upon hours reading tea leaves or consulting tarot cards to try to divine the specific rubric which makes some ideas meme-worthy while others wilt and die without a retweet to their name.
In this election, Theresa May’s “strong and stable leadership” catchphrase has already taken on the qualities of a meme. Thanks to her adherence to the three Rs of repetition, repetition, repetition, the slogan has become one of the few things even the most casual of election observers will have picked up.
For those within the media, the repetition has reached the level of absurdity. Over the weekend, Andrew Marr mocked her reliance on the soundbite, before telling her: “People can listen to that kind of thing and think it’s a bit robotic.” The EU’s Guy Verhofstadt even turned the line back on May, mocking her for her lack of preparation for Brexit negotiations when he wrote on Twitter: “Any Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking – it’s time to get real.”
One of the things that makes her repetition seem so unnatural is her lack of self-awareness. A natural human reaction to saying the same thing over and over again is to start framing the phrase to make it clear you know what you’re doing. Every so often you’d throw in a: “As I said earlier…” or “Which is why I keep saying…”, otherwise people will think you’d tuned out completely or just lost the plot. It’s weird for us to hear May churning out the same soundbite all the time, so just imagine what it’s like to be inside her head while she does it. She’s doomed to spend every human interaction looking for the tiniest conversational crack through which to smuggle in a “strong and stable” reference, like someone in love desperate to mention how dreamy their crush is.
She’s trapped in a repetition loop, like so many politicians before her. In 2011, Ed Miliband famously went viral for all the wrong reasons. In an interview, he repeatedly answered different questions about public sector strikes by saying that he “thinks the strikes are wrong while negotiations are still under way, that the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner, and that it’s time for both sides to put aside the rhetoric and get round the negotiating table.” A year earlier, George Osborne had been involved in a similar interview where he repeatedly told his interviewer that he’d “just heard that the country’s credit rating has been secured.”
They must all know how weird it sounds for the rest of us, so the fact that May continues to press on – with strength and stability – illustrates the fact that the line is achieving exactly what she and Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby want. It might be easy to laugh at her robotic script, but every joke about the line just thumps the phrase even deeper into our shared consciousness.
This is the point of the whole enterprise. It doesn’t matter that “strong and stable” tells us very little about what May’s plans would be for the next government. Like the tautological ‘Brexit means Brexit’, the phrase is simply a sort of ideological placeholder. She relies on it for the exact same reason that she refuses to engage in a televised debate with the other party leaders, or to appear in public settings that haven’t previously been scrubbed of all traces of the great unwashed. She knows she has a comfortable lead in the polls, and she’s not about to do anything as crazy as talking substantively about policy to jeopardise it.
This is the most important election in a generation, yet what we’re being served up isn’t democracy at all. Democracy requires a marketplace of ideas, a debate over how we organise society. “Strong and stable leadership” is just a meme, an advertising slogan which signifies nothing.