The Importance of Political Narrative

Telling stories is an important part of who we are, as a nation and as a species. There’s a huge amount of data thrust at us by the world, and, given that we can’t be experts in everything, the stories we tell ourselves and others are a very useful short-hand to help us make sense of the chaos around us.
By failing to realise the importance of storytelling, politicians and voters underestimate the ability of influential leaders to shape public opinion, rather than just chasing it.

In this essay we’ll begin by examining two the standard narratives that have been constructed around the 1983 and 1997 general elections; we’ll look at the part the idea of ‘economic competence’ played in returning the Tory Party to power in 2015; we’ll examine the way people latch onto tangible details over more important but more abstract details; move on to look at Labour’s messaging in the 2015 general election and the question of whether Miliband’s Labour or the SNP were more left-wing; examine debates around the minimum wage and the living wage; look at contemporary failures of political journalism; and then ask whether Jeremy Corbyn is electable.

1997: The Genius of Tony Blair

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Tony Blair is Labour’s most electorally successful leader, and won by appealing to the ‘centre ground’ between traditional Labour and Tory positions, so the explanation is given that this is the route to success. Labour lost in 1983 after launching an extreme left-wing manifesto described as the ‘longest suicide note in history’, so this proves how dangerous it is to be radically left-wing in the modern political era.
Both of these narratives are so broadly accepted in the political mainstream that they are repeated as if they are self-evident, with no further detail required to back them up. But there’s sufficent evidence that both are wrong.

Blair won three national elections from three, the only Labour leader to have a 100% record. But Harold Wilson won four national elections from five, in tougher circumstances.
After winning a tight election in 1992, John Major’s Tories imploded. ‘Black Wednesday’ resulted in the loss of billions of pounds; the Maastricht Treaty led to Tory government proposals for further integration into the EU to be defeated by their own backbenchers; and Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ message contrasted against a broad range of sleaze by high level members of the Tory Party, both in terms of marital affairs and economic conflicts of interest.
Blair, Campbell et al deserve credit for the size of the 1997 victory. Without the 177 seat margin over the opposing parties, potentially divisive legislation like the introduction of the minimum wage could have been scuppered by rebellious backbenchers. But given the way the Tory Party imploded after a tight victory in 1992, we struggle to see a competent Labour leader losing in 1997.

Iain Duncan Smith is the only Tory leader to have been replaced before fighting a general election. William Hague performed so poorly as Tory leader that it has been claimed that Blair was going easy on him during Prime Minister’s Question Time in case he was replaced by a stronger leader.* In 2005 with anti-Labour resentment rising as a result of the Iraq War, alongside fears that immigration was taking jobs away from native Brits, Michael Howard responded with the childishly immature, watered down UKIPpity of his “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking” anti-immigrant campaign.

We’re not saying that Howard’s Tories should have opportunistically exploited the Iraq War and fears around immigration, but it would have been relatively easy for them to put together an anti-immigrant, anti-war message that presented themselves as the party of solid, measurable facts and Labour as the party of spin; apologising for their party’s pro-war stance by saying that they too had been taken in by Labour lies.
In contrast to the stories told by Hague and Howard, David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept was a good narrative (provided you don’t examine the facts behind it), one which locked in public opinion in a way none of his predecessors’ narratives had done.

Harold Wilson won four national elections from five as Labour leader, and had to manage on small majorities or with a minority government, making it far harder to get legislation passed, and more likely that he would be scapegoated for events beyond his control.

Tony_Blair_at_the_White_House_(2001-11-07) by Paul Morse

Blair’s electoral results are undeniably better, but he didn’t face an opponent of the sharpness of Ted Heath. It’s also worth bearing in mind that his ‘success’ against a Tory Party so mismanaged that they elected Iain Duncan Smith as leader involved losing roughly 2.8 million voters from 1997 to 2001. He then lost another 1.2 million in 2005.
What kept the Labour Party in power was the fact that Labour lost these votes to the ‘none of the above’ category – a pattern which seems to have been repeated when social democratic parties in other countries have moved to the ‘centre ground’ between parties.
Given the increasing growth of UKIP and the Green Party into the ‘alternative’ niche, it’s a strategy that is no longer viable for the Labour Party.

Nevertheless, it has been presented as self-evident that Blair’s methods are the road to electoral success.

* We’re relatively confident that this was an anecdote related in an autobiography of one of the New Labour insiders, but can’t find proof to confirm whether my memory is correct. If any reader can confirm whether this is true or untrue, please comment below.

1983: Michael Foot’s Suicide Note

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Another apparently self-evident narrative is the idea that Labour’s 1983 manifesto was so extremely left-wing that it cost Labour the election. According to Labour MP Gerald Kauffman, Labour leader Michael Foot was reading “the longest suicide note in history” when he set out his plans to reverse the first four years of Thatcherism.
Like all good stories, this is a story with a moral lesson – that Britain does not accept the kind of wide-eyed idealism Foot was setting forward, and any left-wing leader who attempts to be so bold will drive away swing voters. Ed Miliband was compared to Michael Foot during his time as Labour leader, and Foot has been cited during the 2015 leadership campaign as evidence that Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral disaster as his replacement.

But this isn’t necessarily true – the manifesto included ideas such as a national minimum wage and a ban on fox-hunting; for Britain to take the lead on nuclear disarmament, encouraging both sides of the Cold War to follow; and to re-nationalise assets sold off on the cheap by Thatcher.
So what is the evidence, in terms of primary sources? How did voters react at the time?

From 1979 to 1983 the Tory share of the vote dropped by 680,000 and 1.5%, but their number of MPs and Parliamentary majority increased by 58 and 101 respectively. Blaming Michael Foot entirely for this is to deliberately miss the elephant in the room – the formation of the Social Democratic Party.

400px-Polly_Toynbee_(4798660783) by Chatham House 2010-07-14The SDP were a Labour Party splinter group who broke away around this time, standing in alliance with the pre-existing Liberal Party. From our understanding they were essentially the kind of ‘moderates’ who would eventually become Blairities, including Polly Toynbee, one of Blair’s biggest supporters. Toynbee’s performance in Lewisham East was strong enough to divide the left wing vote and elect a Tory for the first time in more than forty years.

In her first two elections as Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory Party fell in popularity from 13.697 million votes to 13.012 million. (43.9% to 42.4%). The ‘left-wing vote’ (defined as the combined figure first for Labour and the Liberals then for Labour and the Liberal SDP Alliance) rose from 15.845 million to 16.236 million. (50.7% to 53%).
While this suggests that, on the whole, the people of Britain didn’t like their first taste of Thatcherism, her Parliamentary majority rose from a relatively slim 43 to a huge 144.
An added complication was the recent Falklands War. The war had increased Thatcher’s popularity but Michael Foot’s pro-war stance meant that Labour weren’t positioned to appeal to voters who opposed military intervention. (This, we feel, is a more legitimate reason to criticise Michael Foot than for being too left-wing).
On top of this, Britain is a different nation now – one where huge numbers of people have experienced the effects of national assets being outsourced and sold off; a nation of Jobcentre sanctions and foodbanks; a nation redesigned to work for the greedy few instead of the selfless many. While his appearance would be mocked by the corporate media (doubtless his donkey jacket would be presented as symbolically important as Ed Miliband’s inability to eat a bacon sandwich) we genuinely can’t see which parts of Michael Foot’s 1983 manifesto would be thought beyond the pale by a modern electorate. The full manifesto is available online, so feel free to draw our attention to the more laughable parts in the comments below.

There’s a number of different legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from this data, but we can’t see how the commonly repeated one – that the manifesto alone and Foot’s left-wing extremism sunk any chance of victory – is supported by facts that we’ve seen.

‘Economic Competence’

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During the last six years the Tory governments have cut further than even Thatcher did, using the excuse that they had to ‘balance the budget’ after Labour’s ‘overspending’, often using the metaphor of a household budget. But national economies don’t work this way.

To quote Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman:

For an economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: my spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall — and unemployment will soar.

A little counter-intuitive, but fairly simple. If the customer decides to save money and not buy his wife flowers, that’s less money in the florist’s pocket. If a hundred customers decide to save money in the same place at the same time, the florist may well go out of business.

And yet the Miliband opposition failed to make this distinction. The reason given for this is that Labour ‘needs to be trusted on the economy’. But the smart response is not to give in to Cameron and Osborne’s lies, but to build on Krugman’s example and introduce a better metaphor.
Of course this would require a small amount of skill to communicate. Instead, the Labour Party altered their policy to fit the public’s false perception, a false perception which was caused by an over-simplistic Tory metaphor. Miliband and Balls’ failure was that they allowed the Tories to set the terms of the debate.
In fact, as the tax campaigner Richard Murphy has pointed out, historically, Labour governments have reduced debts more consistently than Tory governments, despite the opposite being public perception.

Most people will see the Tory and Labour parties as the party of cruel rationality and soft-hearted incompetence respectively. But the evidence – in terms both of economic theory and hard data – suggest that the opposite is closer to the truth – the Tory Party are the party of cruel incompetence, and Labour the party of rationality. So how does public perception drift so far from what the experts and facts say is true?

The Importance of Tangible Details: Is Tom Blenkinsop a good MP?

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In case we’re in danger of being taken seriously as political thinkers, we’ll now undermine ourselves by drawing on the ideas of a film critic. One who’s based mainly on the internet. And goes by the name ‘Film Crit Hulk’.
‘Hulk’, a pseudonymous critic, has written about the idea of ‘tangible details’ to describe how audiences often describe their reactions to a film wrongly.

The central argument, in basic terms, is that films are complicated, abstract things, and viewers often can’t immediately get a solid sense of why a film caused the emotional reaction it did. As a result, audience members will often find a film unsatisfying for reasons they can’t quite understand, and often latch onto the wrong explanation. Hulk described this idea using the notorious Spider-Man 3. He argues that the film suffers because of lack of narrative energy, and unclear character motivation, among other factors. But, he argues, most viewers will latch on to the fact that the film has multiple villains, as well as the dance section of the film, a segment which is unusual in a blockbuster superhero film.

Whether or not you agree with this particular example, the idea is a useful one – that in trying to provide explanations and solutions for complex, abstract questions that we don’t have the experience or the time to fully analyse, we’ll generally latch on to a particular set of tangible details as a short-hand. Sometimes we’ll latch on to the wrong tangible details, or analyse them in the wrong way. Given that very few people have the technical expertise to fully fact-check candidates’ claims (and that many of them will lie anyway) we’d argue that this represents how most people do politics. The problem comes in that we often latch onto the wrong explanation when trying to find explanations.

To give an example of how this works in practice, we’ll look at the Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop. Shortly before this essay was published, August 22nd saw #BlockedbyBlekinsop trending on Twitter. The MP has long been notorious among left-of-Labour campaigners for blocking anyone who he has the slightest disagreement with, or pre-emptively blocking those he might disagree with. This includes prominent Labour campaigners; Labour councilors and left-wing campaigners who claim not to have heard of Blenkinsop; and one tweeter who claims his block came immediately after supporting a pro-steel campaign Blenkinsop was running.

BlockedByBlenkinsop screenshotHe blocked us the first time he interacted with our account, and one of us is blocked by him on two other accounts for similarly minor disagreements. We’ve been told that a Labour councilor in Blenkinsop’s constituency was blocked despite their only conflict being over whether or not to support Jeremy Corbyn. He even engages in what could be classed as abusive attacks on relative nobodies.

The logistics of this are difficult to comprehend – is a member of Blenkinsop’s staff tasked with finding campaigners who may disagree with the MP and pre-emptively blocking them? Does he relax during long train journeys by seeking out those he considers to be far left and blocking them himself? Is there a list passed around, which more sensible people know should be used as a guide on who to mute, rather than block? Though childish and easy to laugh at, there are serious consequences to this behaviour. In the run-up to the 2015 election, Blenkinsop retweeted criticism of the Green Party’s time in charge of Brighton council. When a local Green campaigner disputed the version of events Blenkinsop had retweeted, he was blocked. MPs will almost always have a higher profile than local campaigners, so shutting down debate in this way makes it harder for grassroots campaigns and rival political parties to dispute Blenkinsop’s version of events. His behaviour is actively anti-democratic, and makes it harder to hold those in relative power to account.

The most vocal backer of Blenkinsop on the day his behaviour was making waves on twitter was Peter Smith – a Labour member and food bank volunteer in Blenkinsop’s constituency. In Smith’s words “Tom’s made life better for us constituents. May be blunt but he’s a good man and excellent MP”.

We stand by our argument that the MP’s Twitter behaviour is childish and anti-democratic, but this is obviously only a very small part of an MP’s job. Blenkinsop has been, along with his neighbour Anna Turley, a prominent campaigner for the steel industry in his area of the country, as well as holding Tory MPs and UKIP campaigners to account for the practical impact of the vote to leave the EU. Blenkinsop also currently sits on four Parliamentary committees.

Has Blenkinsop done all he could to protect his local steel industry? For most of us without a technical knowledge of the industry, it’s hard to identify what more he could have done, especially given that the Tory Party under Cameron and Osborne seemed to be set on the destruction of the British steel industry.
Odds are that the average reader couldn’t name which are the four committees he currently sits on. We’ve looked a little into Blenkinsop’s record, but we have no idea whether he’s performing well or not. His childish behaviour on Twitter is more tangible, and therefore, for most people, that is what he’ll be judged on. It’s unfair of course, but communication is a vital part of politics. And Blenkinsop is currently communicating the message that he’s childishly self-indulgent, more interested in name-calling and dividing the left than challenging the Tories.
Unfortunately, the state of our political discourse is at this level – we need to go beyond the superficial stuff, to dig deeper into the meaning behind the tangible details.

We need to focus debate more often onto the technical analyses of the impact people and schemes have had. But it’s vital that those tasked with holding the government to account don’t allow attention to be distracted away from what’s really important.

‘One Nation Labour’ and #Gareth

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A few months before the election, when speaking with a friend who was campaigning for Labour, his response included the phrase “that’s the whole point of One Nation Labour”.
This threw us – he’d used the phrase as if we were supposed to know what it meant. A few days later we googled the phrase, and found a few sources that fired up some memories – that this was one of Labour’s primary slogans for the campaign, representative of their desire to represent the whole country. But, for whatever reason, the concept hadn’t lodged itself into our brain – we had heard it, but then forgot about it again. As superficial as it may sound, slogans are important. They are simple ideas that you can hang more complex ideas on, a foundation stone for a deeper conversation.

By comparison, Ed Miliband’s Conference speech about wandering around and meeting random members of the public (including Gareth) was memorable – mainly for the wrong reasons.
There was a Newsnight caption that introduced Gareth as a person who ‘met Ed Miliband on Hampstead Heath’. The speech itself struck us as a recollection of a series of encounters with the kind of middle-class people a political leader would seek to have photo opportunities with, sterile and devoid of the anger that stories of people like David Clapson would provoke.
Gareth (also known as “Gareth” and #Gareth) stuck in our mind in a way that the phrase ‘One Nation Labour’ didn’t. This might sound unimportant, but it speaks to Labour’s inability to build up their core message, to get across their key points.

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ concept – of people working then doing a bit of community work in their spare time – was well communicated. It was completely detached from the reality that his government implemented, essentially making cuts to voluntary organisations and expecting them to do more… but the idea was well communicated.

We genuinely couldn’t explain what ‘One Nation Labour’ meant, beyond a vague concept of looking out for both working class and middle class Britons. We have no idea how this slogan would connect with Labour policy. The party failed to tell a story about how their policies would make it possible for a middle-class software designer like Gareth to afford a mortgage, while protecting vulnerable people like David Clapson from poverty.
Given the tightness of election results in 2010 and 2015, it’s not much of a stretch to say that poor storytelling has cost Labour two successive elections – and made millions of Britons more vulnerable as a result.

Labour and the SNP

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The SNP swept across Scotland in May 2015, in large part down to a left wing message. The SNP formed an ‘Anti-Austerity Coalition’ with the Green Party of England & Wales and Plaid Cymru, with all three parties promoting their shared belief that further ‘austerity’ cuts to the state are unnecessary and harmful to ordinary people. After April 2015’s first televised debate, one of the most googled terms in England was to ask if English voters could vote SNP.
Hopefully most of these googlers had worked out that the answer was probably going to be no, but it reflects a willingness to listen to the SNP message, and a sign that they had fans in England.

There are problems with the ‘SNP are left-wing’ narrative, problems which Labour could have exploited had they been smarter. For instance, the SNP manifesto called for the state to subsidise the building of 100,000 private sector houses across the UK, whereas Labour’s manifesto called for the state to subsidise the building of 200,000 private sector houses across the UK. Whatever you might think of those pledges (personally we preferred the Green Party’s call for 500,000 social housing (state-owned houses for rent)) there is an undeniable like for like comparison between Labour and SNP policy. Whether the SNP policy was more achievable, on this one issue at least, Labour were undeniably more left-wing.
Another route of attack could have been the SNP privatisation of ferry services, which have apparently led to a lowering of standards, and which, crucially, could have been backed up with testimony from ordinary people who’d experienced the effects.

The hug between the three female leaders of the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru is not proof of anything substantial, but indicates how outclassed Labour have been in their efforts to tell a story.
The hug between the three female leaders of the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru at the end of a televised debate is not proof of anything substantial, but indicates how outclassed Labour have been in their efforts to tell a story.

It boggles our minds that Labour chose to appeal to SNP – Labour swing voters by essentially saying ‘we know it’s tempting to be racist, but…’ rather than pointing out that on some issues Labour’s proposals were measurably more left-wing.

Minimum Wage and Living Wage

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The concept of a ‘living wage’ has been around for decades – in essence it’s the principle that a person working full-time hours should be paid enough to live on. Since 2011, this has been calculated and campaigned for by the Living Wage Foundation, who periodically recalculate their definition of what a living wage would be, based on rising costs. The Living Wage Foundation encourages employers to commit to paying a living wage to all their staff, and publicises those who do.

Although it’s not always the case, the ‘living wage’ tends to be higher that then national minimum wage in most societies. (This has always been the case in the UK.) As a result, the Living Wage Foundation’s work includes lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage, so workers in low paid jobs are able to live on the fruits of their labours.

In 2015’s post-election ’emergency budget’ George Osborne announced that the Minimum Wage would be replaced with a National Living Wage, which would be a higher figure and rise to £9 by 2020. However, the same ’emergency budget’ contained cuts to tax credits, meaning that most low paid workers would be worse off overall. Tax Credits are part of the calculation the Living Wage Foundation uses to work out what a ‘living wage’ is, and as the new National Living Wage is below this level, the National Living Wage is not a ‘living wage’, but a rebranded minimum wage.

The commitment to raise the National Living Wage to £9 an hour by 2020 is also a careful political maneuver, apparently an improvement on the Labour election manifesto promised to raise the Minimum Wage to £8 by 2020 (which would not include the lowering of tax credits). Economics is difficult and abstract, and often very difficult for us non-professionals to wrap our heads around. But this kind of tangible detail is easily conveyed in a headline, adding to the impression that the Tories are doing more to look out for ordinary people than Labour.

We don’t find it conceivable that Osborne could have gotten this muddled by accident, which only leaves the possibility that he has set out to deliberately mislead the people as he makes them poorer. Every major news network should have been able to see what he was doing, and the lead story on every news programme that night (or the following morning at least) should have been an explanation of how Osborne was twisting the meaning of technical terms to confuse ordinary people into supporting policies which are bad for them. This is – without exaggeration – Orwellian Doublespeak, designed to confuse and lead the listener away from understanding. In a just world, for a leading politician to seek to confuse the electorate so blatantly would be a major scandal, that would see them forced to resign within days, and live out the rest of their career in disgrace.

Storytelling is the key here – Osborne was taking money out of the pockets of low-paid workers, while telling those same workers a story about how he’s helping them. It’s devious to the point of being evil, but it shows how important presentation and storytelling are to politics.

The Failures of Political Journalism

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The duplicity at the heart of Osborne’s ’emergency budget’ is not a matter for debate, or differences of opinion. George Osborne set out to mislead the people of the United Kingdom; to make the low paid workers of our country feel that he is standing up for them while his policies make them worse off. There is no other legitimate interpretation of the raw facts. And yet, there was very little of the media reaction pointing out exactly how devious Osborne was being. There’s been coverage of various campaigning and representative bodies saying that the National Living Wage will be bad for low paid workers worse off, but we didn’t see any economic journalists, with their ‘impartial expert’ hat on, pointing out that this is the only legitimate interpretation of Osborne’s actions. Why not?

Because our leading journalists internalise the interests of the powerful, rather than the masses.

If you’ve got quarter of an hour it’s worthwhile watching the above video, in which Noam Chomsky explains to Andrew Marr his concept of the ‘propaganda model’, a “filtering system” that “selects for obedience” and promotes those who know not to ask too many difficult questions. In the video above, Chomsky’s explanation of the propaganda model is intercut with examples of Marr playing his part in the propaganda model. These include interrupting PJ Harvey when she puts David Cameron on the spot about government cuts, and commenting at the beginning of the Iraq War in terms of the implications for Westminster’s political games, rather than the matter of life and death that it is.
For most political journalists, the politicians are the protagonists, the main characters. The masses who suffer are extras – unimportant people to be hidden off-screen, important only in their minor part of the politicians’ narrative.

This obviously limits the range of views the public are exposed to in the mass media, and prevents our leaders from having to be confronted with the harsh reality of their policies.

Is Jeremy Corbyn Unelectable?

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We don’t think the manifesto and message presented by Miliband’s Labour really enthused anyone – in our experience reactions ranged from “they’re all as bad as each other” to “we need to get the Tories out”. Even at a time of near unprecedented attacks on the poor, Labour didn’t create a vision of a better Britain in the public imagination.

In Stockton South, an ‘ultra-marginal’ in 2010 (separated by 332 votes), only 69% of the electorate chose to take part in the 2015 election. Full turnouts are never going to be achievable, but the same seat saw turnouts of 79% and 83% in 1987 and 1992.
The overall average turnout across the UK in 2015 was 66.1%, with Scotland averaging 71.1%, suggesting that it’s possible to get a significantly higher turnout with an electorate who are more engaged. (The Scotland average is still far from great, but we’d assume that a lot of those who turned out to vote in Scotland would have done so thinking that they were in a Labour safe-seat that had no chance of changing hands. There probably wouldn’t be many people who thought there was a serious chance of 20-year-old Mhairi Black unseating Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander until after 10pm on election night. For the purpose of motivating turnout, Paisley and Renfrewshire South was effectively a Labour safe-seat, which will also apply to a number of other seats that changed hands.)
There’s a number of possible explanations for one of England’s most volatile seats being below Scotland’s average, but I think the most logical is that a large number of that 31% weren’t happy with either of the possible winners.

This is probably a direct result of the First Past the Post electoral system, and a trend which Tariq Ali calls the ‘extreme centre’ with both major parties battling over an increasingly similar philosophical ground, reducing national political discussions to a very narrow choice. This doesn’t allow for a more nuanced discussion, and results in Labour being dismissed as ‘Red Tories’. If Labour continue to try and tell a story about how they’re not that different to the Tories really, more of their once core vote will believe it.

There are broader philosophies, even within those people likely to vote Labour.
The Blairite philosophy is for a low tax, corner-cutting form of socialism, reliant on outsourcing work to private companies who’ll do the work cheaper (often with fewer employment rights) and advertising to pull in doctors and nurses trained in poorer countries, rather than investing in our own.
The Old Labour philosophy represented by Jeremy Corbyn calls for higher taxes on the super-rich to pay for things which benefit society as a whole, such as hospitals, energy, education.
Green Party philosophy, while overlapping with ‘Corbynism’ has an emphasis on sustainability and adaptation to the automation of work which traditional Labour policy lacks, but many people who’d prefer this philosophy vote Labour as the ‘realistic’ option.
None of these nuances are represented by our limited system, which leads to our politicians telling the people ‘Vote X because Y are Worse’, and leads to legitimate; workable ideas such as the ‘Green New Deal’ not being properly discussed in the mainstream media; or even presented to the electorate as a serious option.

That’s not to say that electoral reform would be a cure-all (and it would bring it’s own problems). But, among other things, it should lead to political journalists accepting that there are legitimate political schools of thought outside of a narrow window, rather than dismissing Corbyn and the Green Party when they are expressing mainstream economic thought backed by Nobel Laureates.

Jeremy_Corbyn_April_2016 by Garry Knight 2016-04-26If the Labour Party is to defeat the Tory Party in 2020, then one of two things need to happen. Either the Tories have to implode in a similar manner to Major’s Tories and keep imploding, or the left have to persuade people to listen to some fairly complicated stories about how the economy works and how it can be fixed. That means that Labour (who are going to be the figurehead of the British left, whatever the specifics of their leadership) need a communicator or communicators who are trusted.

Some of the initial reactions to Corbyn’s election – including from the media, which are supposed to be relatively fair carriers of information – were hysterical. (In both senses of the word.)

The long line of Labour grandees attempting to de-legitimatise Corbyn’s campaign for leader seem to have inadvertently done the opposite, and solidified his reputation as being different from a party elite that is associated with spin and deceit. In both leadership campaigns, all around the country crowds of thousands turned up to listen to Corbyn – this is a man that people are willing to listen to. And in an era when a large number of people believe that politicians have nothing to offer but spin and lies, that is a very solid foundation to build on.

That’s not to say that Corbyn’s leadership has been an uncomplicated positive, as it clearly hasn’t been. A recent poll has shown only 24% of respondees, and only 48% of self-defined Labour supporters believe that he has been doing a good job.

Owen Jones, probably Corbyn’s most prominent supporter in the political media, has raised a series of practical criticisms of his leadership, which included practical criticisms of how Corbyn’s team allowed the Tories and the media to define him as a man who hates his country. Jones also points out that Miliband was ahead of Cameron in polls for most of the 2010-15 Parliament, so minor leads for Corbyn are no indication of victory. (Laughably, the reaction we’ve seen to Jones’ essay have dominated by the accusation that he’s ‘sold out’ by asking difficult questions, as he predicted in the essay he would be.)

The open disrespect within the party, whether Hilary Benn speaking against him from the Labour frontbenches on Syria, or Simon Dansczuk seemingly writing a column a week about how awful his party leader is, obviously adds to a sense of a party in chaos.
But Corbyn can be a major positive if the Labour Party can, one way or another, discover a sense of unity. Reaction to Corbyn from the unions tend to be particularly enthusiastic, with the general feeling being that it had been a generation since either of the major party leaders showed the same respect to the union movement that Corbyn has.
Corbyn is a flawed and inexperienced leader, but in terms of telling a story at the next election, the grumpy, less polished but honourable Corbyn could become the same kind of trusted figurehead that Blair was in 1997.

Just like Owen Jones, we have our doubts about Corbyn’s leadership. But in the current leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent is a man who has claimed that Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood gets media attention because of her gender; argued that voters should choose him because he’s “normal”; has falsely claimed that services in his area are under pressure because of 18 refugees; has personally threatened legal action against activists for reporting what he’d said; and claims he had his “arm twisted” into standing for leader, despite one of Corbyn’s bigger Parliamentary critics says he was approached in January to back a challenge.

We’re not blinkered about Corbyn, and at the moment think that defeat in 2020 is more likely than victory. But Smith is awful. He comes across as a less likeable, less media-savvy version of Ed Miliband.

Conclusion

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It’s important that we, the electorate, are aware that everything we are told by the media and politicians are a series of stories. These might be linked to the truth of the politicians’ policies, or they may be totally separate.

Political operators will shape a vast and incomprehensible set of ideas into stories whose moral is that the world should be ran in accordance with the speaker’s own beliefs. And thus Tony Blair is a genius for winning elections while the Tory Party was falling apart, and Michael Foot is incompetent for losing an election while his own party was tearing itself in half.

The Tories have misled the people over the effects that their changes will have, while the Labour Party have failed to challenge their ridiculous assertion that it’s possible to cut our nation’s way to growth. Instead they fell in line with an economic world view that seems to be common sense, but is factually untrue.

The political media at times appear totally disinterested in doing their job of communicating what the full implications of new policies will be for the people of Britain. Instead they report on Westminster’s Game of Thrones – informing the evening news audience whether the Lannisters or the Tyrells have benefited most from the policy of bombing Qarth.

The Labour Party approach while in opposition from 2010 to 2015 had been to try and work out what kind of story the people want to hear, and changing party policy to fit into that template, practical reality be damned. Instead the Labour Party leadership needs to believe in something, then communicate to the people how their vision for a better Britain will work.

Questions for Further Debate

  • Given the collapse of the Tory Party after the 1992 election, would a different Labour leader have failed to win the 1997 election?
  • Should Tony Blair be praised for three consecutive Labour victories, or criticised for losing 4 million votes (ending with 2 million fewer Labour voters in 2005 than Kinnock achieved in 1992)?
  • Is there any way of knowing whether, as popular memory insists, that Labour’s 1983 was down to Michael Foot’s incompetence, rather than the left vote being split between two major parties?
  • Can the Tory Party be trusted with the economy? Have they ever been economically competent?
  • Were David Cameron and George Osborne cynically using a ‘household budget’ metaphor that they know doesn’t make sense, or did they honestly not understand that within a nation one person’s spending is another person’s income?
  • Do you agree with the argument that superior storytelling has resulted in the Tory Party picking up a larger share of the vote than Labour in the last two general elections?
  • Are the SNP or Labour more left-wing?
  • How did George Osborne get away with his blatant attempt to mislead the public with the ‘National Living Wage’?
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Author: Mulder and Scully

Left-wing politics bloggers trying to make sense of the world. Green, Chomskyite, uncertain, pro-debate, anti-woo, Keynesian, sceptical, angry, hopeful. #PoliticsForBeginners

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