Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tory stories #2: Can't pay your bills? Blame the greens!

Further to my last blog, it strikes me that one under-remarked aspect of the current row over energy bills is the way the Tories have leapt on Labour’s narrative about living standards and appropriated it for their own purposes. Don’t blame the big six for soaring energy bills: blame the tree huggers and their nasty environmental levies!

When Ed Miliband put living standards at the heart of his conference speech, for the first time in three years it seemed like Labour had a message that would resonate – and, moreover, one that would put the Tories on the back foot. Yet within a few short weeks, they’ve already made a bid to claim ownership of this agenda. Not only that, they’ve done so in a way which actually gives them a platform from which to pursue their own agenda – and which, as a convenient side benefit, allows them to blame Ed Miliband for the problem. Again.

 You’ve got to hand it to them. You might have thought that being forced to react to Labour’s narrative would at least shift the centre of debate a bit, perhaps generate some token concessions towards a more progressive politics. Instead, we’re seeing the living standards message being pressed into service to undermine support for efforts to tackle climate change, to push the centre of debate even further to the right. (The way Nick Clegg seems to have found out about the announcement also suggests the knives are out when it comes to coalition politics.)

I know there are good arguments for funding some of these things out of general taxation rather than fuel bills, which are a fundamentally regressive mechanism – although that only really holds if it’s paid for by raising taxes rather than cutting something somewhere else – but that’s not really what this blog is about, not least because I have no illusions that I’m at all qualified to pontificate on energy policy. What I’m interested in here is the Tories’ expert manipulation of the terms of debate, the way they pounce on any hint of successful agenda-setting by the left.

Maybe it’s the Oxford Union training that does it. Competitive debaters are always told that the most successful way to neutralise an opponent’s argument is to agree with its essence before turning it to your own purposes. The Tories are absolute masters at this, while the left have consummately failed to take on the Tories’ own false narratives about the financial crisis and its aftermath.

And yes, that includes everyone’s new favourite rent-a-rant, Russell Brand, whose interview with Jeremy Paxman I watched in quiet bemusement as to why so many people I knew were gushing about it. Yes, there was some good stuff in there. But there was also a huge amount that was cringeworthy and will surely have confirmed every negative stereotype some viewers had about the left. Oh, and ‘all politicians are venal and corrupt’? Fine, if your goal is to win over anti-politics UKIP voters – but it’s neither true nor constructive. Frankly, if Russell Brand is our new secret weapon in the fight against Tory spin, I think we are in serious trouble.

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