Reframing the Debate

Labour should stop talking about the deficit and talk about investment instead.

Labour has lost the argument about how to run the economy – people chose the Tory way. I think this is because essentially it sounded as though they were saying the same thing – Labour was using the Tory language. It doesn’t matter that it was saying different things, because it was using the same words. George Lakoff talks about the frames and metaphors that shape the way we see and understand the world. If what we hear doesn’t match the frame, the facts bounce off. If you refute the metaphor, you just repeat and reinforce the metaphor. When Labour says it will cut more fairly, people just hear “cut”. And who is the natural party of cuts? The Tories, of course.

Labour should use this to its advantage – reinforce that the Tory party is the party of cuts. Labour should be the party of the people. Not “working people”, or, God forbid, “hard working people”, but just people. All people are intrinsically valuable – see previous posts on this blog.

Ed Miliband missed a trick when that chap on Question Time said Labour had overspent. If I get to the weekend, he said, and I don’t have enough money for a pint, I don’t have a pint. What Ed should have asked him is what he would do if he got to the weekend and his boiler broke and he didn’t have enough money to fix it? Or his car broke down and he couldn’t work without it? Or his daughter phoned in a terrible state needing to borrow money? If he didn’t have enough money, what would he do then? Sometimes we’re doing ok and then we have to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Like the potential collapse of the banking sector.

Among many disservices from Mrs T I would place her metaphor of the country’s finance as a household budget. This is far from the truth. Running a country is more like running a business, constantly investing in its future. Virtually all countries borrow money to invest in their future. Does the UK borrow a lot? As a proportion of total income, no. But Labour borrowed less most years during its time in government than most years Mrs T was in charge. And right now, interest rates are low, borrowing is cheap. Perhaps now we should be borrowing more to invest in our future, so that we need to borrow less later when interest rates rise? Remember, our lovely Mr Osborne owes more now than at the start of his term of office.

Labour should change the framing of the discourse and talk more about investing in people. Investing in people at the start of their lives – that’s what Sure Start was all about – all but disappeared now. It should talk about investing in workers, and about asking businesses to partner with them in terms of investing in workers by paying a Living Wage. It should talk about investing in our students, abolish fees and loans, restore grants, and students could repay that investment with a graduate tax. Investing in apprenticeships. Spending on healthcare and eduations is an investment. Spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency is an investment to protect our future. Being part of the EU is an investment in our ongoing relationship with our trading partners, and our allies who help us make the world a better place. (Well, the EU has the potential to do this, for example the vote last week to stop the trade in conflict minerals.) You get the idea. Investments bring returns, and these don’t necessarily have to be material.

Labour also needs to encourage those with the means to contribute more to this investment in our country. Businesses enjoy the benefits of healthy, educated workers, peaceful society, transport and technology. Those who can, have the privilege of contributing to all this through their taxes. And Labour can level the playing field for smaller UK companies by ensuring that multi-national companies don’t hide UK profits overseas and shirk their responsibility to contribute. Clamping down on tax dodging should also help poor countries invest in their own infrastructure while we continue to suppor them while they need it by investing in overseas aid. The Tories become the party of cuts and pain. Labour becomes the party that believes in people and invests in their future.

Everything can be framed in this way – challenging the effective monopoly of energy companies, getting them to invest in renewables, public ownershop of the railways – investment. Raising revenue – enabling others to partner or share in investing in our country, supporting where it is needed. We don’t need wealth creators if they keep of of the wealth to themselves.

It’s a rather transactional metaphor. But it can be added to, framing it like the “investors in people” creditation. Labour wouldn’t just invest money, but also time. It would develop skills. It would value people, believe in them. We will see returns because people live better lives. There will be material returns too – if we believe in people they have confidence to re-enter the workplace. But we will also see returns like improved health – physical and mental, a happier more cohesive society, less crime. We need to measure more the GDP and invest in the wellbeing of our nation.

This is my offering as regards the post-election post-mortem about why Labour lost. There may be lots of other reasons, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve got alternative frame right, but I’m absolutely sure that what is really missing is a coherent alternative narrative or metaphor to pull Labour’s values and policies together. I’d love to hear your suggestions!


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