Recovery or not, the problem for Labour is that the Tories have framed the debate

The opposition should worry less about the growth rate and more about developing its own story about the economy.

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 nef is publishing research into how economic debates are framed on both sides of the political spectrum to win support for different policies. Our main finding? 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.

Carys Afoko is head of communications at the New Economics Foundation

George Osborne and Ed Balls attend the State Opening of Parliament, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Carys Afoko is head of communications at the New Economics Foundation

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.