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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.