‘Forward Not Back’: un homage to The Simpsons or Michael Howard?

by Stephen Tall on February 7, 2005

GE05 Lab - For War poster‘Forward Not back’ proclaims the Labour Party’s new election slogan. Well, they’re clearly not aiming to break the poetry bank. Indeed, it’s defensive un-ambition smacks of the D:Ream song whose battlecry was the easy-to-achieve ‘Things can only get better’. It struck me then as perhaps the most tepid of endorsements: ‘Not quite as bad as John Major’ they might as well have sung.

The slogan has already come in for its fair share of flak. The Plain English Campaign has slammed Labour for abolishing the verb. Its spokesman, John Lister, commented, ‘It sounds like a grammatical nicety but it means you can put across a message with no specific action in it so you can’t be tied down to anything. It should say “forwards not backwards” just for the sake of linguistic consistency. I think it is grammatically suspect to say the least. I think it is one step forwards and two steps backwards.’

(There is apparently no truth in the rumour that, when Alan Milburn – the party’s election supremo – was asked if he were aggrieved by the Campaign’s verb criticism, he remarked, ‘I should coco.’)

More interesting is to trace the antecedents of the ‘Forward Not Back’ epithet. Two divergent sources have already emerged as ‘inspirations’. The Guardian’s Media Monkey website has noted how it was broadcast in an episode of The Simpsons:

‘it appears the phrase was first uttered by a cartoon of former US President Bill Clinton in an episode sending up the 1996 US election. “My fellow Americans, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom,” says an animated version of Mr Clinton in an episode entitled Treehouse of Horror VII. Absolutely “no connection” says New Labour in a rather po-faced statement.’

If that news doesn’t have Old Labour supporters choking on their flat caps, then the realisation that The Simpsons are by no means the only laughable cartoon characters to promulgate ‘Forward Not Back’ surely will – for it was (Guido Fawkes’ blog reports) Michael Howard who, on 31st October, 2003, announced his candidature for the Conservative Party at the Saatchi Gallery in London with the following words:

‘We must look forward not back. Many people have forgotten that in 1979 we won more support among younger people than in the electorate overall. But we didn’t do that by pandering to youth or by trying to be hip or cool, but by showing that we understand how younger people aspire to live their lives.’

(It’s worth parenthetically adding that, speaking as a relatively young person, there is nothing so achingly wretched as a politician pandering to young people by pretending not to pander. No politician should ever seek to use the words ‘hip or cool’ in the same sentence and expect to be spared deserved hootings of derision.)

So there you have it. Labour’s slogan is
* an abuse of the English language,
* so dated it was satirised eight years ago,
* and used to be the Tories’ idea.

Now if you can’t make your own joke out of those three bullet points apply for a job on The News Huddlines immediately.