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How the left can win the debate on the economy

9:19 am - September 12th 2013

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by Carys Afoko

Every economic issue comes with its own competing frames. Have we ‘turned the corner’ into recovery or did Plan A choke off growth? Is the government inflating a housing bubble or giving hard-working families a foot on the property ladder? Is it a spare room subsidy or bedroom tax?

But the Coalition’s story about austerity shapes how most of us think and talk about the economy. It uses powerful frames, vivid imagery and has been repeated with incredible discipline for several years.

The result is many people understand the economy on the Government’s terms: dangerously indebted due to Labour’s spending, dependent on welfare, and in need of austerity to balance the books.

Our research into how economic debates are framed found this story has strong popular support. Polling data shows that month on month, no matter what people think about the Coalition, they continue to believe their spending cuts are necessary for the economy.

That’s the bad news. But there is hope for opponents of the Coalition’s spending cuts. Our research unearthed numerous examples of issues where campaigners and NGOs had changed the economic conversation, from the living wage to tax justice and the bedroom tax.  

What opponents of the Government lack is an overall story about the economy; what is wrong with it and how we fix it. Hooks to hang different single issue campaigns off, and engage people on an emotional level.

In our research we suggest seven frames that could be a building block for a new story.

But the austerity story can be defeated, if its opponents identify and activate their own powerful frames. The frames must be developed from values and resonate with public opinion. They must be tested and refined based on what works. We outline some frames we believe could be used to build a new narrative, and a story that brings them together.

1. Casino economy – our economy is like a casino, it is in need of reform so that it can be stable and useful.

2. Treading water – we are not making any progress as a nation; we are running to stand still, struggling but not moving forward.

3. Big bad banks – our current problems are the result of a financial crisis that we, and not the banks that caused it, paid for.

4. Big guys and little guys – there are two types of people in Britain, the little guys who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and power and play by their own set of rules.

5. Jobs Gap – the biggest issue facing our country is the jobs gap: people who want to work but can’t, people who work hard but don’t take home a decent wage and young people who cannot be sure of a good job.

6. Time for renewal – we need to rebuild and renew what made Britain great – from the railways to our education system. We need to invest.

7. Austerity is a smokescreen – The Coalition uses the deficit as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do like shrink the state and privatise the NHS.

That focuses on jobs instead of welfare, blames banks instead of the government and taps into public anger at the uneven playing field we have in Britain. We hope they’re a helpful conversation starter for those looking to challenge the austerity narrative about the economy.

The battle for the economic narrative will be won with stories, not statistics. It is time the opponents of austerity tell a story of their own. To win, they will need to do more than find their frames, they will need to be more coordinated, responsive to public opinion and find more credible messengers.

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Reader comments

1. Man on Clapham Omnibus

Great maybe at winning arguments but these are symptoms you are outlining not the underlying causes.

2. Paul peter Smith

It is true that the Banks caused the crash not government spending but its also true that their recklessness was enabled by Labour accelerating Thatcher’s economic vision of Britain.
Maybe if Gordon Brown hadn’t spent so much time taking the credit for the end of boom and bust people wouldn’t associate Labour with the result of New Labour/Conservative policy.

So as usual according to the left anyone with money does not work hard and are playing by their own set of rules, what a load of rubbish.

You may win the hearts and minds of those who know nothing about economics and those with envy, catch phrases such as “the big bad banks”…some of us would like the country and the way its governed to mature beyond this crap, it is good for nothing other than getting you elected so you can sink the place into a deeper hole.

You’re right, on the phoniness of the Austerity narrative, but you ignore the fact that it is successful because it is also the mainstream media narrative (the neoliberals having already moved into the mainstream media and started interpreting all information in its terms before the crash became a reality). The moment Northern Rock had to be saved by the New Labour (neoliberal) Government, the BBC was saying there must be savings in public spending to make up for it, and setting the scene for this government’s war on the poor.

No more boom and bust. Seriously?

6. Paul Cotterill

This is ok as a bit of thinkpiece but I don’t really buy the suggestion that it’s research-based.

The 18 ‘communication experts’ interviewed for the nef publication behind this article include several people that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t describe themselves as such,and who know no more than me about what works (indeed I could construct a pretty valid case for knowing a lot more, what with me living where I live and doing what I do in life).

There’s quite a lot of echo chamber stuff going on.

I think you’re right, these are good starting points. We need to take the opportunities given us too, something Labour have spectacularly failed to do. There is a lot of anger that no bankers are suffering, for example. The sense of injustice can be used to counter the Coalition lies about “fairness”.

The screaming opportunity that is coming is the privatisation of the Royal Mail. It is an open goal waiting to be compared with the mess our water services have become. It needs to be emphasised that the sell off is simply to generate cash to enable Osborne to say he’s cut the deficit; it’s asset stripping for electoral purposes. If they don’t sell then the failure to cut the deficit will be plain and will play against the Plan A narrative.

Over to Labour…?

@7 Would you be relying on the same labour that featured a Peter Mandelson try to flog off Royal Mail in the past?


It’s their chance to show they’ve changed.

Who is the left for god sake your not saying Miliband are you.

Only a minority takes the pronouncements of trade union barons seriously. Frankly, the avowed “left” doesn’t have a great deal of credibility.

OTOH the economics writers in the Financial Times have been persistent critics of Osborne’s austerity programme. Thursday’s edition has an article by Chris Giles, the paper’s economics editor, saying: “The economy might have turned the corner but nominal growth is too slow and too fragile.”

In the Telegraph, we have read in June: Recovery far off for families as disposable income sees biggest drop for 25 years – Families have seen the biggest drop in disposable income for more than 25 years amid warnings of “unprecedented” pressure on living standards.

There is nothing about those news reports suggesting all is now well with the economy. In early July, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, was saying in an interview in the Telegraph: “Britain is in a ’20 year generational battle’ to rebalance the economy and return the country to financial health.”

Osborne says that austerity is essential to get government borrowing down or the cost of borrowing will rise. But in July, the BBC was reporting:

Government borrowing fell in the 2012-13 fiscal year after all, the latest official estimate suggests. Public sector net borrowing, excluding the cost of interventions such as the Royal Mail pension transfer, was revised down to £116.5bn. It means that total borrowing actually fell, by £2.1bn, from the year before, contrary to a previous estimate in May.

In other words, there has been little change in government between last year and the year before.

We need to recognise that Cameron has successfully distracted attention from the economic reality by attacking Labour and Ed Miliband.

Remember how George Osborne went on after the 2010 election about how the New Labour government had allowed British consumers to borrow a mountain of debt amounting to £1.3 trillion?

Try this in Telegraph news as was reported on 28 June:

British households are now more indebted than those of any other major country in recorded history, it has emerged.

Families in the UK now owe a record 173pc of their incomes in debts, official figures have shown. The ratio of debt to income is higher than any other country in the Group of Seven leading industrialised economies, and is sharply higher than the 129pc of incomes it was five years ago.


There have been recent problems with the website of The Economist but try this from 6 July for an assessment of Britain’s economy:

On a wing and a credit card: Britain is growing again – but in perplexing and unsustainable ways

In Friday’s Financial Times, on the front page, is this:

Surveyors urge Bank of England to damp house market.

Roughly speaking, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors is the trade union of estate agents so we have to take this seriously.

But so much for George Osborne’s claim that Britain’s economy is growing in a balanced and sustainable way.

Of course, what the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors is asking for is regulation of the housing market. John Redwood, previously Conservative shadow minister of competitiveness, wont approve of that.


“So as usual according to the left anyone with money does not work hard and are playing by their own set of rules, what a load of rubbish.

You may win the hearts and minds of those who know nothing about economics and those with envy, catch phrases such as “the big bad banks”…some of us would like the country and the way its governed to mature beyond this crap, it is good for nothing other than getting you elected so you can sink the place into a deeper hole.”

On the contrary, it is the scum that rise to the top who operate by the politics of envy! As the immensely rich HL Hunt commented several decades ago, “money is just a way of keeping score.”

Or how about this:
In 2006, the researcher responsible for calculating his wealth writes, “when Forbes estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than he said he was, he called me at home the day after the list was released, sounding nearly in tears. ‘What do you want?’ he pleaded, offering up his private banker in Switzerland. ‘Tell me what you need.’”

For what precisely? That prince wanted to be seen as richer that the other super rich, and because he wasn’t, collapsed in a self pitying whine about how hard done to he was. As if his palatial residences and a gold plated throne on his private jet wasn’t enough. How precisely was all that wealth paid for perchance? Did he build that palace himself, or pay peanuts to some immigrant worker? Did he slave away himself for that private jet, or skim a percentage off the Quatari oilfields? What did he actually do in his life, apart from been born in the right family, to justify such a profligate lifestyle and pathetic obsession?

If you Think that is somehow the exception, think again. Power and privilidge act in the same way neurologically as heroin and cocaine. You always need more, and more and more until you need stupid amounts just to feel normal, and it is extreme wealth inequality that makes that effect more potent. Just think about that when you get your next pay cut for doing more work, while some Rentiers, or executives skim the profit you generate for themselves.

Try Mervyn King, the previous governor of the Bank of England on who is to blame for our present economic plight:

In a remarkable newspaper interview, Mervyn King complained that banks’ only concern was to “simply maximise profits next week” and that “imbalances” were returning to the sector. He also criticised the bonus culture, and appeared to suggest that he will find ways of clamping down on banks making money out of “gullible or unsuspecting customers”. [Independent 6 March 2011]

Mr King urges high street banks to take a better, longer term view towards their customers and to stop focusing on the need to “simply maximise profits next week”.

He accuses them of routinely exploiting their millions of customers. “If it’s possible [for financial services firms] to make money out of gullible or unsuspecting customers, particularly institutional customers, [they think] that is perfectly acceptable,” he says. [Telegraph 4 March 2011]

“People have ‘every right to be angry’ with banks for the UK’s financial crisis, the outgoing Bank of England (BoE) governor Sir Mervyn King says. In one of his last interviews before stepping down, for BBC Radio 4?s Desert Island Discs, he expressed sympathy with public frustration as slow growth takes its toll on living standards.” [BBC website 2 June 2013]

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