The need for 'narrative'

Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in

George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language many moons ago warned politicians against the overuse of clichés and dead metaphors. He argued that political discourse at the time suffered from two problems: a staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. I expect he would find the situation has worsened ten-fold if he were to read and listen to some of our discussions at the conference, and in particular, the use of the word 'narrative' to describe the lack of a guiding direction for the party.

This was made plain to me when Andrew Neil's first question as I sat trembling on the Daily Politics set yesterday was: 'so Progress has called for a new narrative', what's that when it's at home?' I had to concede that this was not a particularly audience-friendly word for sure, and suggested that a better way of expressing it to the viewers at home would be to say that the government lacked a story. Oasis after all, didn't write 'What's the narrative, morning glory' ...

So why, after accepting that Orwell would thumb his nose at the word, and its poor translation to the wider public, do I think that 'narrative' is still a good shorthand for describing what is desperately needed at the moment? The first reason is that simply coming up with a better 'story' about what the government is doing or has done, won't be enough to reconnect to the public and win a fourth term. Using the word 'story' suggests we are talking about something fictional rather than factual. The actions of Prescott et al are definitely needed to motivate the troops and to make sure we remember that elections can't be won without action on the ground. But what the troops are crying out for is a distinctive and enervating 'narrative' to be able to relate to voters on the doorstep. A bit more PR with a few touchstone words which resonate with the public won't achieve their 'go fourth' ambitions.

The second reason is that the word narrative is one of the few words which relates how future events might unfold. So it's not about simply regurgitating Labour's successes over the last 11 years, and certainly not the endless list of statistics and schemes which David Miliband criticised at Progress's Rally on Sunday. Instead Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in the next decade and how we will achieve them.

Which brings me to my third reason for sticking with this graceless word. In creative writing at school, you were told to remember the narrative - the beginning, the middle and the end. And it is precisely this progression through the process of determining what Labour is going to offer the public at the next election which is missing at the moment. How we will get from where Britain currently is, to where Labour thinks it should be in the years to come. This is something which Progress has been working hard on and last week we launched the first of a number of interventions (http://clients.squareeye.com/uploads/prog/documents/Role%20o...) which we hope will help the process of debate. I can't apologise in the future though if we're still bemoaning the lack of a narrative - it's the only word in town.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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