Why the Coalition’s austerity story is so powerful - and how we can counter it
September 11, 2013 // By: Carys Afoko
Over the summer a new consensus emerged in the media that our economy was back on track. Tabloids proclaimed “Britain is booming” as a raft of positive figures and forecasts suggested the economy had returned to growth. It’s been enough to embolden George Osborne - this week he announced we had “turned a corner” and claiming victory for his economic policies.
Positive growth rates (even if they are low) are obviously good news for the Coalition, but the truth is that their narrative about the economy doesn't rely on statistics at all.
Today we have published research into how economic debates are framed on both sides of the political spectrum to win support for different policies. Our main finding? That the Coalition has an economic narrative that is the textbook definition of a powerful political story. They have developed a clear plot, with heroes and villains, and use simple, emotional language to make their point clear.
Repeated with remarkable discipline over several years, their austerity story has gained real traction with the British public. In fact, the polling data we analysed showed that month on month, no matter what people think about the Coalition, they continue to believe spending cuts are necessary for the economy.
The story relies on a small set of frames to understand our economy. That austerity is the inevitable price we pay for decades of overspending. That spending cuts are the only medicine for our sick economy. That Britain is broke, hobbled by dangerous debts, and government spending is a bad habit we need to kick. It casts the Coalition as its heroes, cleaning up the mess of the last Labour government. George Osborne faithfully retold it on Monday as he reminded us pre-crisis Britain was dependent on state spending and blamed falling living standards on his predecessors.
The Government has successfully framed all economic debates on its own terms, but what is most powerful about their narrative is how resilient it is to different circumstances. If the economy is strong the medicine is working; if the economy is weak we need more medicine.
Meanwhile those who oppose the Coalition have struggled to find their voice. Challenges to the Government's policies tend to rely on academic instead of emotional language. Many fall into the trap of accepting Coalition frames (a basic principle cautioned against by framing expert George Lakoff). Very few are rooted in a core story about how the economy works that is simple to understand and retell. That uses memorable visual metaphors, like the maxed out credit card George Osborne refers to when talking about the public finances.
George Osborne may have been right when he said “those in favour of plan B have lost the argument” –rightly or wrongly the austerity story has almost become orthodoxy. But it can still be challenged with another story about what is happening in our economy. One that will resonate with people when growth is low and unemployment is high. That explains why the cost of living is rising and how we can deal with it. That is simple, coherent and emotional, so that it is likely to be retold.
The headlines may have changed, but the story the Coalition is telling about the economy is still the same. Opponents of the Government should worry less about the growth rate and more about developing their own story about the economy.
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