'Framing’ seems to be the new buzzword on the left at the moment. NEF* have just released an important new report, ‘Framing the Economy: The Austerity Story’, which deals with something that’s nagged at me for a long time: how successful the right has been at shaping the narrative about the economy and welfare, and how poor the left has been at articulating a competing story. Ever since 2008, I’ve found the sheer effectiveness of the Tory spin machine hugely unnerving. They don’t need to respond to political realities, because they create them, shamelessly and repeatedly, irrespective of the facts.
A classic example of this was George Osborne’s speech to this year’s Tory conference, which I had the misfortune of witnessing whilst up there with work. To be honest, the whole thing was head-wrecking, but in this context one particularly shameless passage stands out. He starts off talking about the 1980s, with what seems like a tone of humility:
“We shouldn’t pretend we got everything right. Old problems were solved. But some new problems emerged. In some parts of the country, worklessness took hold and we didn’t do enough to stop that.
“Labour made that problem of welfare dependency worse… What a waste of life and talent.
“Well, never again. We’ve capped benefits and our work programme is getting people into jobs.
“But what about the long term unemployed? Let us pledge here: We will not abandon them, as previous governments did.”
And suddenly, in an astonishing rhetorical pirouette, we’re talking about the government’s latest plans to penalise people on benefits. I’m sure you know the details (already immortalised in this awesome game), but let’s recap:
“Today I can tell you about a new approach we’re calling Help to Work. For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits.
“They will do useful work putting something back into their community. Making meals for the elderly, clearing up litter, working for a local charity. Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day.”
Let’s just break down the logic of that passage a bit.
- Thatcher made lots of people unemployed.
- This led to welfare dependency.
- So we must help people back into work.
- By forcing them to do menial unpaid work or attend job centres daily.
Every time I read this back it blows my mind. What Osborne is actually saying here is, ‘Ok, so we may have screwed entire communities in the ‘80s by creating mass unemployment. But wait: now, we’re screwing them again, by capping their benefits and forcing them to comply with draconian and humiliating conditions just in order to survive!’ But somehow, like some mad political contortionist, he’s managed to turn this into a superficially plausible political story about welfare – and not just that, but a story in which the abject failure of Thatcherism actually becomes a justification for dismantling the welfare state.
And that’s what I think is really significant, and disturbing, about this example. Tories are not just good at spin: they’ve carved out a bewilderingly successful niche in using the failures of their own ideology to justify more of the same. The most obvious example is the way the financial crisis, essentially an almighty failure of neoliberalism, has been rebranded as a failure of socialism and used to justify austerity – not to mention no-holds-barred deregulation in pursuit of a return to the same failed growth model.
Take the Tory response to Labour conference, which has been repeated with terrifying discipline by pretty much every Conservative politician who’s given an interview in the past few weeks. Here’s their response to Ed Balls’ conference speech:
“It's the same old Labour. They still want more spending, more borrowing and more debt - exactly what got us into a mess in the first place.”
Here it is again in response to Ed Miliband’s speech. And again in response to the Labour reshuffle. In fact, you can find the same quote pretty much verbatim in any number of articles and interviews. If you don’t believe me, just Google it.
This could have been – and probably was – written before Ed Balls or Ed Miliband even opened their mouths. It certainly bore very little relation to anything they said. (If in doubt about this, bear in mind that the first line of the Reuters piece in which the quote above appears reads: “Britain's opposition Labour party sought on Monday to convince voters that it can be trusted with the economy by promising iron discipline on spending.”) And this is how the Tories create their own reality. They don’t need to respond to what the left actually says: instead, they decide what it has said and hammer it relentlessly into the public consciousness.
It’s particularly frustrating that they can get away with this at a time when experts are warning that the Help To Buy scheme risks creating another housing bubble – which, er, is actually what got us into a mess in the first place. Indeed, elsewhere in Osborne’s speech was the claim that we can’t hope to stop the next crisis, but by continuing to slash welfare we can build up a big enough budget surplus to somehow ride it out. Great stuff George – let’s not try to fix the problems that made our economy fall over. Instead, let’s destroy everything that makes our country civilised as if that will somehow help when it inevitably happens again. And he accuses the left of being unambitious for Britain!
We urgently need a more compelling response to this endless stream of manure. As NEF puts it: “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.”
* Full disclosure: NEF have just given me a job. Although very exciting, this has nothing to do with the content of this post. No, I mean really.