Reclaiming ‘political narrative’ from New Labour

There was a fascinating article by Gary Younge on the Guardian’s website at the weekend. He argues that the last  few months of British politics has seen the right enjoy considerable success in establishing a dominant framework within which mainstream political debate plays itself out. If you listen to the mainstream news on British TV or radio it would seem there is unanimous agreement that New Labour’s profligacy has caused a budgetary crisis and in order to make up for ‘living beyond our means’ it is necessary for the new coalition (as a post-political government of national unity) to impose unavoidable austerity measure.

The coalition government have successfully entrenched a prevailing narrative which legitimises their radical ‘slash-the-state’ agenda while casting the blame for any ensuing social hardship onto the former govenrment. In many ways this is pure propaganda resting on an entirely fictional account of international finance, political agendas and economist history. Yet however nakedly ideological this picture may seem to us, it is indisputably compelling:

As we in Britain edge towards an autumn of swingeing public sector cuts, it is crucial that the left reframes popular understanding of the origins of, and options emerging from, this economic crisis. So far the right has made all the running. According to Ipsos Mori, in March the number of those who opposed the Tory strategy was double that of those who backed it. By the end of last month the tables had turned, with 44% backing swift deficit reduction and 35% against it.

The narrative draws upon a metaphor of the ‘public household’ (i.e. understanding public finances in terms of managing a household) which helps reduce the abstract and complex systems of global finances to the concrete realities of everyday life. As Cameron asked in the TV debates, “Who hasn’t had to make sacrifices because of the recession?”  Leaving aside the fact that 23 cabinet members are millionaires and can likely say “I haven’t!” to that question, it is important to recognise not just that the implicit analogy is false (managing a household budget and managing a national budget are different endeavours with different logics) but that fighting against it should involve an appreciation of its simple plausibility as well as its factual inaccuracies.

Given the role that ‘political narrative’ played in the New Labour project, it’s reasonable for the left to be cautious when it comes to narrative. However unless we wish to acquiesce to the austerity agenda being imposed across Europe, it’s surely necessary for us to consider how to effectively, plausibly and powerfully tell our stories.


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