Ed Miliband and the battle of the narratives


9:10 am - January 14th 2011

by Septicisle    


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Before Christmas almost everyone was in agreement that Labour was doing horribly and that Ed Miliband was completely hopeless. The party was in disarray and some were already manoeuvring towards overthrowing the man who hadn’t even been in the job for 100 days.

A couple of weeks later and it’s clear that such thinking was absurd. Ed Miliband is now doing superbly, making himself seen and besting the government over the VAT rise. This is sealed with the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election win last night.

For those ever so slightly cynical, it should be noted that the only real change that’s taken place is that Miliband has brought in a new head of press and “director of strategy and communications”, both of whom just happen to have been journalists.

Labour’s biggest problem isn’t Miliband, even if he’s still showing up in the polls as an ineffective leader, it’s that the Tory-led government’s biggest success has been painting the party as being wholly responsible for the deficit. Even if the polling is coming towards the party on the cuts being bad for the economy and not being done fairly, they’re still not trusted to run it themselves, with the key reason being the stewardship of the past administration.

It doesn’t matter whether or not Labour did what it had to, through the constant repetition, they’ve successfully managed to win the battle of the narratives.

This is why it’s especially daft to posit that this is the perfect time to get rid of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor. This isn’t to deny that he’s out of his depth, or at the least hasn’t even bothered to read that economics primer for beginners. It’s that the very last thing Labour should be doing is putting either Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper back in charge of policy when both are so associated with the Treasury and Gordon Brown.

While Labour could attempt a real fightback against the coalition’s countervailing narrative, it isn’t likely to succeed as the party has so few allies in the wider media. It’s also to deny the inevitable: the party, despite make clear that it would cut the deficit more slowly than the Tories, hasn’t proposed closing the gap entirely through taxation.

Cuts are going to have to be made somewhere, just not as brutally or as cruelly as the coalition is doing. Alongside this the party should make the case for raising public spending again once the deficit has been closed, something the coalition has if not entirely ruled out then mostly suggested it will not be doing.

This, sensibly, seems to be the position the party is moving towards. It might just help with the yo-yoing press coverage too. That really would be something.

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About the author
'Septicisle' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He mostly blogs, poorly, over at Septicisle.info on politics and general media mendacity.
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Reader comments


“the Tory-led government’s biggest success has been painting the party as being wholly responsible for the deficit”

This has not exactly been a difficult task for coalition given that Labour were the government for a boom period where spending exceeded receipts year after year. You can claim that such spending, (no it was not ‘investment’ on the whole), was necessary but the impression given by the Labour party at the moment is just that they like to micturate money against vertical planes. Some degree of genuine contrition is going to be required before people will trust that Labour will not indiscriminately turn on unsustainable levels of spending as soon as they get in power.

“Cuts are going to have to be made somewhere, just not as brutally or as cruelly as the coalition is doing.”

Then by all means suggest them. “Don’t cut the mobility allowance, cut X instead.” sounds perfectly reasonable not to mention good political tactics. “Don’t cut anything ever.” comes across as a spoilt child unconnected with the realities of income and expenditure.

I can’t help but feel that Labour could do better than, “We wouldn’t have cut so much so quickly.” We all knew in May that every party was downplaying what they would do and that VAT rises would happen. Is Labour starting to believe its own propaganda?

Balls’ revision of Labour’s election proposals during the leadership campaign, rebalancing payment for the structural deficit towards higher taxes rather than cuts, was a good start.Sadly they seem unable to shed their centralising instincts and control-freakery to allow themselves to consider the benefits of real localism rather than the Tory version (you can have power but, guess what, no money). I would see movements in this direction as very positive.

Perhaps more dangerous for Labour, risking as it does accusations of social engineering, would be to look at how regional variations can be balanced out better. England is more like two or three different countries by itself, let alone considering the UK as a whole.

Is there anyone in Labour who will shake off the focus group mentality and take a long look at the state of Britain and come up with some intelligent answers? If not, I fear the Tories will retain the upper hand as their narrative will remain foremost in the public mind.

“would be to look at how regional variations can be balanced out better. ”

Spot on.

My impression is that labour’s initial thoughts were that this was best done by regional assemblies and mayors for large cities, but UKIP blocked that one. They then didn’t have another idea.

I see the argument:

1. The govt has managed to pin the blame on previous Labour administration
2. Balls & Cooper were part of previous Labour administration

but does that really mean voters would view Labour badly if Balls or Cooper were in charge? it looks to me that you have an argument on paper, but not necessarily an accurate empirical prediction.

I’d be surprised if most people know or care about Balls & Cooper’s past, and won’t see much difference between the Conservatives saying “it’s Labour’s fault” with either Balls, Cooper or anybody else in place.

Meanwhile, having a Shadow Chancellor who knows how to knock the Tories about a bit over economics might help. Lord knows any half competent economist ought to be able to land a few blows.

Cherub: The Tories and Lib Dems seem just as wedded to focus group nonsense as Labour ever were: look at the “alarm clock Britain” silliness we suffered earlier in the week. Much as I’d like Labour to rip almost everything up and start again, when you start saying that you’re a “blank piece of paper” the other parties tend to quite understandably rip you to shreds.

I also get the feeling Jennete Arnold didn’t quite get the rapier like subtlety of my sarcasm. Twitter, eh?

This headline may be the most Liberal Conspiracy headline ever.

@6 !

Jennette Arnold: “”Ed Miliband is now doing superbly, making himself seen, besting the government over the VAT rise” and winning #oes”

HAHAHHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!

Seriously?

Why do people think the public will respond well to Labour constantly attacking what the government does with people like Balls, whilst not offering a credible alternative? If “the public have already rejected cuts and the Tories” etc etc than what they need from Labour is an alternative that a) isn’t built on the idea of just spending our way out of this mess that overspending got us into in the first place, and b) not proposed by people associated with the economic idiocy of the last government. If there was a proper proposal on the table as to how we generate growth without relying too much on the banking sector, that might help. But even then, why should people pay any attention to what Labour have to say when they have had 13 years to implement any ideas they say they have.

This reminds me of the mid eighties: good poll numbers for the party but not for the leader. This translated into a series of encouraging by-election, local and euro results but invariably defeat at the general, when the voters decided they couldn’t see the leader as PM.

Tories have extended a lifeline to a sinking Clegg and his Lib-Dem crew and in the process have sunk Kashif Ali, one of the very few Muslim politicians to carry the Tory torch.

Cameron should reward Kashif Ali in some way or risk total resentment in the North-West.

“Alongside this the party should make the case for raising public spending again once the deficit has been closed”

National debt is forecast to be £1.2trn byApril 2012. Even when the £170bn per annum deficit has been closed this debt will still be outstanding. Before any party considers raising public spending again the debt needs to be reduced substantially and this is going to take many years. Future taxpayers are going to be paying for our over spending.

Even at the current historically low interest rates the interest bill on the public debt is £43bn or £1,800 per annum per household. This is only going to increase.

We should not be considering raising public spending.

12. Stuart White

This article is representative of a certain kind of Labour fatalism. The Tories/Coalition have ‘narratives’. They get them over and shape how people understand the world. Labour then has to work tactically within the narrative chosen by its opponents.

While I don’t underestimate the power that the Coalition – and the social interests it represents – has to push its ‘narratives’, by any means, I also think that the key to any successful left politics is to find ways of pushing back against and contesting these narratives and presenting alternatives.

Labour just isn’t very good at this. Indeed, does it even try? Contrast with, say, UK Uncut on tax avoidance or The Broken of Britain on disability benefit cuts. Contrast with anti-cuts campaigners who just go out on the street and leaflet and talk to people, challenging the narrative that the cuts are inevitable.

I’d have more sympathy for the author’s perspective if Labour were trying to do these things too, rather than just standing there rather passively, continually triangulating between right and wrong.

Stuart: I think you’re overestimating the reach of both UK Uncut and the Broken of Britain. I hadn’t heard of the latter until I came here this morning.

That suggests just what Labour is up against. Much as I’d love the party to come out all guns blazing against the cuts, it leaves the party wide open as argued above. To be able to frame a narrative it first has to get out of that bind, and it hasn’t managed it yet. I am as against triangulation as anyone on the left, yet on the economy at the moment at least there isn’t another way to go.

@13 I’m forced to agree with you regarding the consensus about the economy. What is lacking in Labour is any sense that things will be better once the hardship is over. The Tories know what they want are are getting it done lickety-split. Where are the alternatives from Labour?

I would like to see good ideas about creating a diverse economy that encourages innovation with policies to help SMEs without obsessing about the big corporations. I’d also like to see less reliance on the financial sector and safer banking systems to protect us from another meltdown. Luis Enrique has posted some useful links on Limited Purpose Banking.

Let’s see some vision about the housing market and how to overcome the problems caused by the cost of housing. Let’s see some commitment to improving our railways and integrating them better into Europe. Labour made some steps towards training a more skilled workforce to let’s have some more ideas there. We can’t compete in the cheap goods market, we need to make the best.

Labour will always be apologising for New Labour unless it stops behaving all embarassed and moves on. They are rightly blamed for some aspects of the current mess, not least setting in place the foundations for many of the Tory changes. Triangulation, as you put it, merely makes them look pinky-blue. Where are the red-blooded alternatives?

15. Shatterface

‘This headline may be the most Liberal Conspiracy headline ever.’

No, that would be ‘105% of Mumsnet say BBC and Nick Cohen lie about Ed Milliband and the battle of the narratives’.

This is a classic: ‘…something the coalition has if not entirely ruled out then mostly suggested it will not be doing.’

Haven’t they not already, if mostly perhaps?

Shatterface: I blame desperately trying to finish off posts at 2 in the morning for that.

“the party should make the case for raising public spending again once the deficit has been closed”

Am I missing something? The deficit is the gap between tax revenue and public spending in any given year. So if you raise public spending after it’s been closed, it just opens up again – unless you raise taxes to compensate. And if you were prepared to raise taxes, why wouldn’t you just get on and do that *before* the deficit’s been closed (so you didn’t have to cut spending so much in the first place)?

I could see the logic in spending a period of time *paying off debt* and then raising spending, because you’d have extra money available to spend on public services rather than interest payments. But you don’t have extra money available just because you’ve closed a deficit; you just stop running up new debt.

I suppose the Tories face the mirror-image problem on this one: they can’t promise to cut taxes once the deficit is closed because it would open up again unless they cut spending even more to compensate.

So the most either party can really do is to express a preference as to whether, if we ever end up with a surplus, the money should be used for tax cuts or for extra spending.

G.O.: That’s exactly why I said they should be making the case for raising spending. The original Tory plan prior to the crash was to share the proceeds of growth without really stating what they were going to do about the borrowing they were also occasionally complaining about; whether we do ever get to the point of a surplus as you point out is another matter.

“So the most either party can really do is to express a preference as to whether, if we ever end up with a surplus, the money should be used for tax cuts or for extra spending.”

How about instead of tax cuts or increased spending we reduce the National debt to reduce the crippling interest bill?

“Let’s see some vision about the housing market and how to overcome the problems caused by the cost of housing.”

Easy, relax the planning laws and the cost of housing will drop like a stone, (most of the current cost of land you can build on being the permission to build on it). NEXT!

‘A week’s a long time in politics’ To quote a Wilsonian truism. By the same token – 24 hours is millennium in the life of an opinion on Liberal Conspiracy. What seems urgent and essential today will be superseded and forgotten by tomorrow. Battle of the Narratives? – that subject will also be old hat and irrelevant in less than a week.
Narratives – shmarratives – just fodder for the keyboard pundits.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Ed Miliband and the battle of the narratives http://bit.ly/fp5W1X

  2. Tyrone C.

    Some very good points made RT @libcon: Ed Miliband and the battle of the narratives http://bit.ly/fp5W1X

  3. JennetteArnoldAM

    "Ed Miliband is now doing superbly, making himself seen, besting the government over the VAT rise" and winning #oes http://bit.ly/fp5W1X





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