Organising metaphors and austerity: what the left can learn

09 February 2016

Adam Leaver - Professor of Financialisation and Business Analysis at Manchester Business School

Progressives need to think differently about political narrative to shape the political agenda to their advantage

Arguably one of the most memorable moments of last year in the UK featured a tearful, Conservative-voting mother on BBC1’s weekly debating programme Question Time explaining how cuts in tax credits would affect her ability to provide the basic requirements of food and shelter for her family; ‘shame on you’ – she shouted at the Conservative government minister Amber Rudd, whose discomfort was visible to all.

It was a remarkable intervention in many ways: it highlighted stark tensions between the commitment of the Conservatives to reducing the deficit and their stated desire to reward ‘strivers’ in a context where many working families were reliant on tax credits to subsist. It also indicated that the political constituency which brought the Conservatives into power so emphatically last May might in fact be thinner, more febrile and prone to rapid changes of sentiment than pollsters previously thought.

Craig Berry’s new SPERI Paper is a further timely reminder of the fragility of the Conservative Party’s political narrative against the backdrop of a credit-fuelled growth model that may already be exhausted. His central argument is that political rhetoric without a viable growth model is susceptible to challenge, whilst a growth model without a legitimising discourse is doomed to fail.  The challenge for the Labour Party, therefore, is how to build something akin to a Gramscian hegemonic project – a unified economic and political worldview with supportive programmes for growth that inspire public support and galvanise an electoral base.

Berry points to the themes of ‘value, place and equality’ as the discursive sites upon which such a project might be built, but he argues that the right has traditionally been far better at claiming these domains as their own. Berry suggests a gradualist strategy which resists Conservative appropriations of these themes and rearticulates their importance within a popular/populist centre-left frame that then connects to alternative economic principles, such as the subordination of finance to industry, workplace empowerment, local autonomy and a collectivist state and other social democratic concerns.

This is no small or easy task, as Berry acknowledges. So maybe there is some utility in reflecting further on why the Conservatives have been so successful and what their vulnerabilities are, if we are to learn how the left might construct a successful alternative political strategy.

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

There are many ways we can break down and analyse the electoral success of Cameron’s Conservative Party. But one striking aspect has been their use of language, which is laden with what George Lakoff might call a ‘strict father morality’.  The desirability of attributes like self-denial or sacrifice, discipline, prudence and personal responsibility become an injunction to moral conduct in all areas of life, including those which pertain to matters of value, place and equality. These metaphors infuse political debate and can be used to quickly foreclose alternatives by simply highlighting their transgressive values. Think, for example, how often the term ‘deficit denier’ has been used to silence any questioning of the government’s austerity programme, denying airtime to the substance of that view. Progressives need to learn from this form of (moral) argumentation and consider which organising metaphors might act as a platform from which to build alternative strategies, to deny the right the opportunity to frame political debate on their terms.

But it is also important to understand the weaknesses of current Tory strategy. The largely successful attempt to impose an abstract moral frame on political debate has been accompanied by a set of short-term policy manoeuvres designed to outflank Labour tactically on key issues in a bid to seize the political centre-ground. This has also been a source of short-term success.  Often opportunistic in nature and informed by the latest polling data, the Conservatives have devised strategies to marginalise or divide political opponents whilst taking the political initiative on an issue-by-issue basis. This has proved remarkably effective as an electoral tool, but is now creating problems for them in government, reinforcing the argument that, although opinion polls may tell you how to win power, they can’t tell you how to govern.  The tactic of chasing small, isolated policy land-grabs now looks increasingly incoherent as a strategy, given that the Conservatives have now had to choose whether to attack the living standards of its fragile electoral base or risk reputational damage by missing deficit targets in the future – the paradox expressed so succinctly in the Question Time programme discussed above.

These tensions are only likely to increase – as Berry notes – because the Conservatives have no alternative to the current credit-based growth model which is already under extreme pressure. The cracks first appeared in the Coalition Government’s key response to austerity-driven slow-down, which was to crank up the machine further through ‘Help to Buy’ and ‘Funding for Lending’.  These programmes did not fit the austerity/self-sufficiency rhetoric, but they were the necessary compromises struck to stave off a recession and bolster a failing Plan A in the run-up to an election.

These and other interventions undermine political rhetoric (provided the opposition is able to capitalise) and are likely to store up more pain for the future. And another financial crisis would pose a challenge, not only to the tactics of short-term positional manoeuvring, but to the core ideas around fiscal discipline and individual responsibility which form the moral centre of the current Conservative project.  For that reason a phased strategy for the left is sensible, but it should concentrate on establishing an alternative organising concept which could gain traction in the event of another crisis.

A concept like ‘resilience’ might be one answer. It is already widely used in a positive sense to think about issues from food supply to IT systems and health.  It would enable the left to connect back to past successes – what was the welfare state, after all, if not an attempt to provide stability and structural fortitude to society and economy after the disruption of war? In the same vein privatisation could be represented as an attempt to dismantle institutions that add security for the people.  Furthermore, as a political concept, resilience would allow the left to ask telling questions about the sustainability of asset-price growth and the susceptibility of assets to shocks; the power and organisation of the financial services sector; the economic balance between the regions and London; and even about the quality of jobs needed to maintain a stable and vibrant society.

What features undermine resilience and add risk and what structural changes might be introduced to improve the durability of the system for the people? Berry’s paper is a useful starting-point from which to think through these important matters of political strategy.

Adam’s response to Craig Berry’s new SPERI paper ‘The Resurrected Right and Disoriented Left’ can also be read here. The paper also includes four other responses to the paper from leading thinkers from the worlds of politics, policy and academia.

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