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

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.