Monthly Archives: September 2013

Analysis of Frames in Ed Milliband’s Conference Speech

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.

The Analysis

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.

Target Market

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Two stories on the radio news this morning have given me hope – hope that as a society we are slowing waking up to the fact that “the market” is not fit for purpose in many areas to which it has been extended. The first was a criticism of how broadband has been rolled out into rural areas in the UK. Apparently, the government has not regulated the market sufficiently to allow proper competition and the best price for all concerned. “What’s that?’ I hear you say. “Government intervention in the market is necessary at times to ensure that it works for the benefit of all?”

The second story was about how computer games marketed to children are exploiting them. This is because many games are free in their basic form, but then to continue in the game and to be able to play it properly, you have to buy more and more add-ons, which turns out to be very expensive. Again, perhaps there is a realisation that it is inappropriate to apply the usual rules of the game when selling to children. There are things which we value more than can be expressed via market mechanisms, such as our children. Common Cause has already identified advertising at children as an issue which should concern us all. For more on how the market has reached far into areas where its values distort and diminish what we truly find valuable, I highly recommend this book: What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

 

Hungry For More

Hungry For More

This link takes you to the Church Urban Fund’s report on how churches are responding to food poverty. You can read the executive summary or the whole report, but I was especially interested in the comments about how we respond and offer help – relief, rehabilitation or development.

Will the benefit system eventually be of no benefit at all?

Here’s the latest scary idea from the Government – if you’re not earning enough, you should get your benefits cut. And you thought that the benefit system was there to help people who didn’t earn enough! How silly! If you’re not earning enough, you should work harder and do more hours so that you don’t need to be on benefits, and if you don’t, then the Government will sanction you so that you don’t receive your benefits anyway!

 

How does anyone think this is an appropriate idea? Consider that we are in an economic climate where a quarter of those working part-time already want to work more hours but can’t, and where there are already 45 applicants for each low-skilled job and on average 85 applicants for graduate jobs. Job security is disappearing, being replaced by zero-hours contracts, making life unpredictable and precarious as shown by this article, which appeared in the same edition of the Guardian as the item about benefit sanctions.

 

The whole philosophy seems to be back-to-front, and ideas driven only by the desire to cut costs. Clearly there is no scope for a limitless welfare bill. But the premise here seems to be to invent new rules so that fewer people qualify for payments, instead of changing the circumstances of the people so that fewer people need payments. It’s obvious which is easier, but is it right or just? Do questions of rightness or justice even matter, as long as money is saved? Only if those who lose their benefits can be adjudged as being to blame. As soon as we look through the lens of the needs of those in receipt of benefits, where work is scarce, childcare expensive, elderly parents needy, and systems designed to catch you out, then casting people adrift seems harder to justify.

 

And yet people are already having payments cut but seem to cope. Does this suggest that the Government is right, that stopping people’s money is a spur to getting a job or finding more work. If there really are not enough jobs, hours or job-security out there, how are people managing? There are other things which fill the gap, some good and some not. I would suggest that Wonga’s increasing profits are not co-incidental. But neither is the rise in people being fed by food banks. I am inspired by the way churches and other groups have stepped into the breach to meet the needs of the hungry and totally supportive of the work they do, but does the very presence of food banks enable to the Government to carry out cuts and abdicate responsibility for its citizens? Are food banks, in fact, guilty of collusion? (see the blog I linked to in my previous post)

 

While people are hungry, I believe food banks should remain open. But those of us who are not prepared to let people go hungry should not stop there. There are some specific issues which we could campaign on, like the introduction of a living wage and the scaling back of zero-hours contracts. If large, profitable companies paid a living wage, then salaries would not need to be topped up by tax credits, or the new universal credit, which would also mean that profits would not longer be built on hidden Government subsidy. We could also campaign for better regulation of the pay-day loan industry, to protect those need this kind of credit.

 

I also think we need to think about the bigger picture. What are the values which we want to form the foundation of our society? I’d like to see a society where the needs of people are not subordinate to the appetites of big business or government economic policy. Where we value justice, freedom and equality above money, status and power. A society which works together for the common good rather than the needs of the individual. There’s more about what this might involve here, and I’m still thinking about where the church fits into this conversation. Watch this space!!