Austerity: framing an opposing narrative

How do we challenge the coalition’s economic narrative and win popular support for a more grounded and generous economic policy?  It’s a question that is close to being the holy grail of left politics in Britain (and elsewhere), as the economic and social myths underpinning austerity economics continue to dominate political discourse.

A brilliant new report by the New Economics Foundations considers how the political and media elite has framed austerity economics and provides some important pointers to alternatives that could form the basis of an anti-austerity narrative. The report demands to be read in full but lists the main characteristics of the austerity narrative as follows:

  1. Dangerous debt – the most important economic issue the UK faces is the size of public sector debt, caused by excessive public spending.

  2. Britain is broke – the UK’s public finances are like an individual household, which has spent all its money.

  3. Austerity is a necessary evil – there is no economic alternative to spending cuts.

  4. Big bad government – the bloated, inefficient and controlling government is getting in the way of progress, interfering in people’s lives and rewarding the undeserving.

  5. Welfare is a drug – like drug addiction, state support is tempting, but ultimately dangerous; benefit claimants are weak, reckless, undeserving and addicted to hand-outs.

  6. Strivers and skivers – there are two kinds of people in Britain: hardworking strivers and lazy skivers, we each choose which to be.

  7. Labour’s mess – all the faults of our economy can be pinned on the previous (Labour) Government and their out of control spending

The NEF concludes that these narratives have taken a powerful hold in the public imagination, even though every one of them is demonstrably untrue,  Poll after poll shows that these propositions are widely accepted.  At the same time the narratives critical of austerity – although far more grounded – lack cohesion, appeal and above all a narrative simplicity that can speak directly to people’s fears and concerns.  It suggests an alternative set of narratives around which a compelling and powerful ant-austerity story could be built:

  1. Casino economy – our economy is like a casino, it is in need of reform so that it can be stable and useful.

  2. Treading water – we are not making any progress as a nation; we are running to stand still, struggling but not moving forward.

  3. Big bad banks – our current problems are the result of a financial crisis that we, and not the banks that caused it, paid for.

  4. Big guys and little guys – there are two types of people in Britain, the little guys who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and power and play by their own set of rules.

  5. Jobs Gap – the biggest issue facing our country is the jobs gap: people who want to work but can’t, people who work hard but don’t take home a decent wage and young people who cannot be sure of a good job.

  6. Time for renewal – we need to rebuild and renew what made Britain great – from the railways to our education system. We need to invest.

  7. Austerity is a smokescreen – The Coalition uses the deficit as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do like shrink the state and privatise the NHS. We cannot trust them; they aren’t out to help ordinary people.

All these points are out for debate of course. One obvious absentee from that list is housing, which is in deep and worsening crisis. But they could provide the outline of a story that could allow we who reject austerity to start making some real popular progress; none of these is difficult, or particularly counter-intuitive.  In fact some of these – number four in particular – are present in, for example, the UKIP narrative.

NEF concludes:

The battle for the economic narrative will be won with stories, not statistics. It is time the opponents of austerity tell a story of their own. To win, they will need to do more than find their frames, they will need to be more coordinated, responsive to public opinion and find more credible messengers.

It also needs politicians to be bold, and to emerge from the comfort zone of the Westminster bubble and engage with concerns that fly in the face of the agenda of the mainstream media and political elites.  Ed Balls and Labour, are you listening?

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2 thoughts on “Austerity: framing an opposing narrative

  1. Surprised no one has resonded to this. Let’s have a try. Agree most of the first list of seven – especially 4 – 7 which are just self justficatory Tory nonsense. 1-3 have merit so long as they are not trying to suggest that one can simply ignore deficits in an internationally vulnerable economy.

    In the second list “1” is largely mistaken. Clearly it can’t apply to the public sector while there is plenty of the private sector that runs more or less legitimately according to the rules of the market. There is also a legitimate part of the financial market that speculates on price rises and falls (e.g. commodities) that is usually seen as creating real benefits within a market econony (I think I am right in saying for example, that fixed rate mortgages are largely based on hedge funds). We certainly and all too obviously had cases where there has been irresponsible speculation and in effect, gambling with other peoples’ money and the answer to that is improved regulation. If you want however to live in a market economy (and I don’t see the NEF suggesting otherwise) there is going to be some, largely useful, “speculation” as to how commodity and other values are going to change over time.
    “2” seems rather facile. If it is simply saying the economy is flat it cannot but be true. Is it suggesting something more metaphysical or spiritual from which if so, I would run a mile as I don’t want the state to dictate such things which I can decide very well for myself.
    “3” It is obviously true that the crisis started with a banking crisis but if it is suggesting we would have been better off had we not bailed out the banks (a position taken incidentally, by many on the right – especially in the US) then it is simply wrong.
    4. Wrong. There are plenty of people (you and I among them when we worked together Neil!) who work hard and do get a more or less fair deal. There is a relatively small section of the population who are appalingly excluded from the benefits most enjoy – largely through unemployment – and who are betrayed by the present Government’s policies and stereotypes (see the earlier list at 4-7). There is also a problem across the Western world in increasing overall inequality about which its is hard to see what can be done until there is some kind of international action.
    5-7 Are obviously true and in particular I have no doubt that cuts are exaggerated beyond what may be necessary for ideological reasons by the present Government.
    So I agree in large part with the NEF but the prognosis seems spoilt by silly exaggerations and arguably infantile “Dave Spart” type leftism.

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