The success of the Conservatives in the UK’s general election could be seen as a triumph of spin, or its last dying thrash. The future will depend on how well the progressive parties understand their failure, and how a more compelling and realistic narrative of the last forty years could better serve them.
The UK media will be awash for the next few days with political post-mortems, following the surprise election of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Not least because these blogs have a substantial US readership I don’t want to go too far along the same road, but I do want to reflect on some of the implications for political conduct generally in a representative democracy, and specifically what all this might mean for spin culture and its relation to political narratives.
Ignorance as virtue
The English are not a particularly well-educated nation. We’re no worse than the Americans perhaps, but we have to live here with a cultural suspicion of knowledge and learning, as well as a mainstream belief that politics is really for nerds and wonks, and that decent ordinary people for the most part keep away from it. I’m not suggesting that other countries are somehow more intelligent than the English, just that there’s a strong strain in English culture that sees political ignorance as a virtue rather than a problem.
The stereotype is benignly embodied in Clive Candy, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: decent, honourable, likeable and dim, he would have seen voting Tory not so much as a political act as simply what you do. This as I say is the benign view, though Powell and Pressburger’s immediate point was to suggest that such amiable buffoonery was not up to the horror of the Nazi threat.
It’s not like this in most other European countries: politicians might be seen as easily corrupt and venal everywhere, but most Europeans are not so detached from or ignorant about political issues as the English (I’m carefully not writing “British” because it’s become all too clear that the Scots are in a different position).
Our political system both reflects and reinforces this culture. “First past the post” developed in quite different conditions from where we find ourselves now and has proved itself repeatedly dysfunctional (if you believe that the purpose of democracy is to make governments accountable to public opinion). Both Labour and Tory governments have enjoyed large majorities on the back of minority shares of the vote. Minority views are routinely under-represented or excluded completely. Apologists for FPP argue strangely that it produces strong government, as if strong government could only occur by marginalising all but an unrepresentative single party’s voice, as if there would always be a problem if you demanded that politicians sought areas of agreement in the national interest.
It’s a reflection of Britain’s anti-political culture that a referendum four years ago on whether we should move to a fairer electoral system was met with substantial voter indifference. The British it seemed didn’t care to think too much about such technicalities: that’s one for the political wonks. Labour’s self-interested ambivalence about reform didn’t help.
The Scottish independence referendum marked a sea change in political activism, a change that has spilt out into this election. But the change is a Scottish rather than English phenomenon (the rise and falter of UKIP’s regressive nationalism is not comparable) and in any case beyond my scope here.
Tribalism and soundbites
For most of the last century Britain operated a two party system governed largely by tribal allegiances, again reflecting a political culture where people didn’t want to think too hard about the choices in front of them. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for spin, for the reduction of serious questions to trivial soundbites and slogans, fed by a populist (if patronising) media heavily entrenched on the Right. There are parallels with the US in all this, though I’ll leave it to others with more specific knowledge to explore them.
This was the political culture that the Blair project, drawing inspiration from Bill Clinton, sought to exploit by outplaying the hostile media at their own game. It was a project that sought to grab the parts of a right wing agenda that might be confusingly reassuring to its media, while sneaking social democratic reform beneath the radar. In electoral terms it was clearly successful, but it had two dire consequences. The first was that it drew those Labour administrations into such close continuity with their Conservative predecessors that they hardly scratched the surface of the structural reform we really needed (the upshot was Britain’s exposure to the fallout from the catastrophic failure of neoliberal market policies in the crash of 2008, an abject failure still barely acknowledged in British political narratives). The second was that winning elections became a game of spin, soundbites and story manipulation, lessons quickly understood by that ex-PR man and Blair admirer David Cameron.
Truth be told
It’s axiomatic both in political life, and in wider professional communication circles, that every political party needs to find its narrative. It’s a lesson that to some extent politicians have learned from businesses, even if businesses themselves don’t face the same pressure to simplify that has fallen on politicians. Also in the commercial world the growth of the internet, of uncontrollable scrutiny in social media and alternative commentary has created a real pressure on business narratives to ground themselves in truth rather than wishful thinking and the platitudes of spin. It’s an idea businesses are still exploring, however hard it is for them to let go of old habits.
This change is overdue in politics. The English are not just often ignorant about politics. They are also generally cynical, with some justice feeling that life in the Westminster village is completely detached from their own. That cynicism is fuelled by politicians’ own apparent readiness to treat the idea of truth as a matter of interpretation.
Politicians have long been blamed for making promises they don’t keep, and then being evasive when challenged. But this election campaign hit new lows in the way the Tories peddled downright lies about Labour, and Labour’s failure to counter the biggest lie of all is almost certainly the reason why they failed to regain the support of middle England.
Tony Blair and his supporters are already saying that Labour’s failure lay in their abandonment of the centre ground, and their lurch to the left. This is dangerous claptrap, partly because their centrist position clearly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats at all, partly because Miliband’s flagship populist policies (raising the minimum wage, clamping down on energy prices, ending the non-dom tax anomaly) were only “red” in the hysterical doublespeak of right wing media.
For their part it has to be said that the Tory campaign was a shambles, pitching around for any idea that might lift their apparently frozen approval rating, even throwing in an unfunded pledge to protect NHS spending which undermined whatever claims they were making for fiscal rectitude (and with it what little they have in the way of a positive narrative for their programme).
But none of this mattered because they were able to draw on a single, overarching idea, historically and apparently still currently fatal to Labour.
It’s the economy, stupid.
And it’s also the biggest lie in post war British politics, but there you go. It’s quite true that Labour is always likely to favour more state involvement in national life than the Tories, and so are ideologically inclined to favour higher public spending than any party on the Right, but the consequent and pervasive notion that every time Labour takes power the Tories have to clean up their mess is the mirror opposite of the truth. In the 1960s Roy Jenkins and in the 1970s Denis Healey were far more competent chancellors than their Tory predecessors, though both took the rap for the hard decisions they had to make to rectify the mistakes of those predecessors. To be fair in the 90s it was the Tory Kenneth Clarke who began to pick up the pieces from the failures of his party colleagues Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, a job continued by Gordon Brown.
The return to form
The critical change for Labour in the Blair years was that they seemed to upend this core (and false) narrative about economic competence. In this they were probably lucky: Britain’s exit from the EU exchange rate mechanism under Norman Lamont in 1992 had taken on a totemic importance. I doubt many people understood its real causes or what it meant, but it offered a ready peg on which to hang an accusation of Tory economic incompetence, and until the crash of 2008 that accusation stuck.
Until the crash the Tories’ ideas about the economy had barely deviated from Gordon Brown’s. It’s hard for politicians to argue with what looked like a successful formula. If pushed (though no one has even tried to do that) I don’t suppose David Cameron or George Osborne would really argue that Brown’s government had caused the banking crisis. What they would say is that his policies had weakened the UK’s ability to withstand such a shock. Never mind that before the crash the Tories themselves had put forward no ideas or policies that would have made any difference, or the inconvenient truth that between the crash and the 2010 election Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had already achieved the first movement towards a recovery, a movement quickly squashed by the Coalition’s own incompetent economic management.
We were back with the familiar story. In fact, the Coalition leaders were quite happy to imply that the crash had been caused by Labour incompetence, by Gordon Brown’s reckless spending, and the public seemed to revert to the default view of Labour as wreckers of the British economy, even if (as usual) the policies then being pursued by the Tory led coalition have demonstrably hampered recovery.
Astonishingly the Labour front bench seemed unwilling to counter. Perhaps they lacked faith in themselves. Perhaps they believed the standard PR idea that to engage with such a false argument would only give it credence. It was a catastrophic misjudgement, giving the Coalition ample opportunity to turn a lie into received wisdom. It seems then with hindsight, that Labour lost the 2015 election somewhere around 2011.
Simple, clear, and wrong
There’s a miserable paradox at work here. Electoral appeal really is about the economy (stupid), but the English don’t have a political culture in which economic issues can be intelligently or adequately discussed. By swinging to the Tories last week did the English prove that on the whole they are as selfish and vicious as the ideology of the party they have just elected? I doubt they thought about it that deeply, being led (and inevitably misled) by an instinctive reaching for managerial reassurance.
Changing that core narrative once more is going to be tough. Blair and Brown were able to capitalise on the memory of Black Wednesday and the ERM exit. Such a totemic failure may well crop up again in the next five years, or it may not, and in its absence progressive parties are going need to find a better and more enduring way than in the past of showing that their ideas offer a more reliable route to sustainable prosperity.
Doing this probably means moving beyond distinctive party political narratives. Arguably it’s about putting over and embedding a more truthful narrative about what’s happened in the UK and beyond in the last forty years. It’s a narrative in which inequality is not seen as an inevitable and necessary by-product of sensible political behaviour, but as an economic problem in itself, a problem that threatens both social cohesion and commercial productivity, a sign that capital itself is no longer supporting productivity and competitiveness.
Does it matter that this narrative is strictly truthful? After all, respect for veracity has hardly held the Tories back. Having truth on your side is clearly not enough, but then it seems that putting a progressive case against the grain of England’s embedded political culture is going to need all the help it can get.
Ironically I think Miliband’s camp was well aware of the need to push this different narrative, but never found the means or created the space to articulate it in terms that the politically indifferent English would understand and accept. It’s apparent too that a leader needs more than decency and integrity (qualities Miliband had in spades) to put such a narrative across. It needs charisma too. Such charisma was Bill Clinton’s special gift. Obama is probably the better orator, but he’s never been as liked, and therefore trusted. Blair too had some of the same gift, though his political vision was so narrow that it never served anything but his desire to win.
Old ideas die slowly. The fact that the English have clambered onto what they mistakenly see as safe ground doesn’t mean they will be able to stay there. An old lie has served David Cameron well, but the next five years are going to be turbulent to say the least. The big electoral issue in five years’ time will still be the economy, but at this stage it’s impossible to say how much that issue will have been reshaped or indeed further distorted by the resurgent nationalist forces witlessly unleashed by the Tories in their campaign. But just as businesses are having to learn to deal with reality in how they see and speak of themselves, so too will the pressure of political reality (and a more grounded narrative about the state we’re in) assert itself. The question for progressive parties is whether they want to sit around waiting for that to happen, in the meantime indulging themselves with old and irrelevant factional battles, or whether they work to take hold of that real narrative, make it their own, and somehow lead the English to understand it’s their story too.