I have to declare my bias at the start of this piece. I look at the policies of this Conservative-led coalition government and I’m shocked and appalled at how they ride rough-shod over the weak and vulnerable, caring nothing for communities or the environment. But sometimes I’m even more shocked at how other people don’t see it this way! The same welfare changes which horrify me are viewed by others as perfectly fair and reasonable. How can this be?
Many will say, and I believe them, that this is down to the way the policies have been framed, and the language and stories used in the media. So those who claim benefits are painted as scroungers and shirkers, while on the other side of this divide we have the hard-workers who deserve better. Once this is our context, then Conservative policies make sense.
Therefore, if the Left wants to gain support for different policies, it cannot counteract the argument using the same frames, it must change the frames of our conversation. I don’t think it has had much success at this, not least in part because it is not always easy to come up with alternative frames. I came across this article from nef, which outlines some of the frames used by the Right, and some suggestions for alternative frames for Labour to start to tell its own story and take control of its own discourse, instead of always responding to the Tory narrative.
So, I thought I’d look at Ed Milliband’s conference speech and see what frames he was using. Zoe Williams got there first, and in her piece, she also puts forward some of the dominant frames from the Right which Labour needs to avoid. Tom Crompton has done the same in more detail about a previous speech. But I’ve had a go anyway, to see whether the speech is stuck in someone else’s discourse framing, or is beginning to find its own way.
As Zoe Williams points out, there are still Conservative frames running through, sticking to the ‘transactional’ frames with phrases such as “some people are getting something for nothing”, and many references to the “cost of living crisis” and the “housing crisis”. Most disappointingly of all, he doesn’t just stick with the ‘no alternative to austerity’ and ‘dangerous debt’ frames, but accepts them as true, saying “we’re going to have to stick to strict spending limits to get the deficit down. We’re not going to be able to spend money we don’t have”. Although, confusingly, he does also use the ‘austerity is a smokescreen’ frame as he says “the cost of living crisis isn’t an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy, it is his economic policy”. But for these parts of his speech, Ed Milliband hasn’t broken away from the Tory narrative.
However, the biggest strength in the speech’s framing comes with the ‘Big guys and little guys’ frame, worth spelling out in full here. “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.” The speech is full of this. Full of “people working hard for longer for less”, people who have “made the sacrifices but haven’t got the rewards”, working people who are “unable to afford to bring up their family”. There’s a lot of talk about “standing up to vested interests” and some specific examples such as Rupert Murdoch, and land developers who don’t develop their land. He also talks about the big guys, or the Tory’s “friends at the top” as he calls them. He talks about “a government that fights for you”, with “the strength to stand up to the strong, to powerful interest” and spells out some of those who play by their own rules such as “shady employment practices” or the big 6 energy companies.
Some of this framing links with another frame suggested in the article which depicts the economy as being in need of stability and reform so as to be useful. He doesn’t go so far as to call the economy a ‘casino economy’ but does highlight how “the link between the growing wealth of the country and your family finances [has been] broken” and talks about the need to “reset the market”. He makes the link between the need for reforming the economy with the ‘Big guys and little guys’ frame when he talks about the “recovery for the few” and says “They used to say a rising tide lifts all boats, now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts”.
There is some use of the ‘time for renewal’ frame, with phrases like “we have to rebuild anew”, “turn the page”, accepting “responsibility for the next generation” and “a Britain we rebuild together”, but it is not a frame which is strongly developed throughout the speech. His key phrase “Britain can do better than this” does not strongly tie in with any of the frames suggested in the article. It seems closest to the ‘treading water’ frame, suggesting we are not making much progress, without using the visual imagery of treading water. But it does also imply that this need not be the case, and that collectively, we can make things better, which helps to connect with values of community and relationships.
So, in some areas the speech is still grounded in ‘transactional’ frames and still accepts the ‘austerity’ frame, even while arguing against it. It is built around the ‘big guys and little guys’ frame, and this is the one which comes across most strongly to me. There is some framing around renewal, and resetting the casino economy, but not much based on the other suggested frames. The speech also makes lots of use of stories to get its message across, which helps set the context of policies much better than facts and figures. There is still room for argument about whether the narrative suggested by nef is the one to go for. But in his speech, Ed Milliband is beginning to tell a new story, and create Labour’s own narrative.