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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle