Miliband and Balls have fallen into a Tory trap

Without a focused and consistent message, any political party is stuck. Voters make decisions based not on specific party policies or positions, but on larger "frames" or metaphors.

There is one word that dominates the debate over the Labour Party's economic strategy: credibility. It is a word that is much used but much misunderstood by the political and the media elite. "We're talking a lot about the need for Labour to win back credibility," says Lisa Nandy, one of Labour's sharpest new MPs, "but we're not asking who we're trying to win credibility with - the financial markets and credit rating agencies, or the public?" The interests of the latter do not always coincide with those of the former and, as Nandy points out, the latest polls show that voters believe the coalition is cutting "too much, too quickly".

Yet the Labour leadership seems to have outsourced its definition of fiscal credibility to the right. In the hands of conservative politicians and commentators, not to mention BBC journalists, credibility becomes code for austerity - ironically, at the exact moment that austerity is choking growth and driving up unemployment and borrowing across Europe.

Labour's renewed focus on credibility-as-austerity has forced some of the party's biggest hitters into all sorts of verbal slips, intellectual contortions and tactical errors. On 10 January, Miliband used his first big speech of the year to claim that "the next prime minister will still have a deficit to reduce, and will not have money to spend". This is economically illiterate: Prime Minister Miliband could choose to fund new spending by raising taxes or collecting the billions of pounds in unpaid taxes.

On 14 January, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, arch-Keynesian and architect of Labour's "too far, too fast" attacks on the coalition's cuts, seemed to go further. "My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have to keep all these cuts," Balls told the Guardian as he endorsed George Osborne's public-sector pay freeze.

Balls, who has yet to retract or modify the line, was denounced three days later by the leader of the Unite union - and ex-Miliband ally - Len McCluskey as one of "four horsemen of the austerity apocalypse" (along with his Blairite shadow cabinet colleagues Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg).

Behind the scenes, as aides briefed journalists that Balls had not renounced Labour's opposition to Tory cuts or ruled out reversing some of them in 2015, some Labour figures suggested the shadow chancellor may have gone beyond the agreed formula. "All we were supposed to say was that we will review everything when we're back in government," said a member of the shadow cabinet. A senior Labour MP who backed Balls for leader said: "Ed was trying to pacify the right, who were after his blood. He probably thinks it helps to have the unions baying for his blood instead."

It was left to Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, to try to clarify the party position in response to McCluskey's full-frontal assault. "It's simply not the case that we're accepting the government's spending cuts," she said on the BBC's Today programme. "That couldn't be further from the truth." But, given the rhetoric from Miliband and Balls on the need for "tough choices", she wasn't quite convincing. "Aren't you trying to have your cake and eat it?" the presenter Sarah Montague asked Harman. So much for a clarification.

Shifting goalposts

It's not just clarity and coherence that the party should be worried about; it's the lack of a distinct Labour narrative. Consider the recent past. The Tories obsess over the deficit; Labour tries to find a compromise position on deficit reduction ("halving the deficit over four years"). The Tories shout about the need for cuts; Labour tries to find a softer position on cuts ("too far, too fast"). The Tories announce that austerity will continue into the next parliament; Labour's response is to say that it can't guarantee it will reverse any ("all"?) of the Tory cuts.

There is a theme here - the Tories set the agenda, Labour operates within it. On the economy, in particular, the Tories have displayed extraordinary message discipline. At the start of the financial crisis in 2008/2009, they settled on a theme - that "big government" was to blame, that Labour had "overspent" and that the budget deficit threatened to "bankrupt" Britain - and have repeated it since like robots: in speeches, interviews, articles and at the des­patch box. "We're clearing up Labour's mess," goes the Tory mantra. In his resignation letter in October 2011, the outgoing defence secretary, Liam Fox, even referred to the "vital work of this government, above all in controlling the enormous budget deficit we inherited".

By defining deficit-reduction-through-austerity as responsible and unavoidable, the Tories have defined those opposed to such austerity measures as irresponsible and deluded: as "deficit deniers".

At this point, it is worth invoking George Lakoff, the Berkeley University linguistics professor who is one of the US's most influential progressive thinkers. His landmark book Don't Think of an Elephant! explains, using cognitive science, how voters make decisions based not on specific party policies or positions, but on larger "frames" or metaphors. Lakoff shows how the right has long used loaded, image-laden language and sustained repetition to exploit our unconscious minds. (The book title relates to the way you can't help but think of an elephant when you hear the word, even if you are asked not to.)

Lakoff outlines "a basic principle . . . when you are arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame - and it won't be the frame you want."

What conservatives have done, he told the New York Times in 2005, "is find ways to set their frames into words over many years and have them repeated over and over again and have everybody say it the same way and get their journalists to repeat them, until they became part of normal English". (Think Tories, austerity, deficits, deniers.)

Lakoff argues that attacking your opponents' frame - be it on deficit reduction or a cap on immigration - ends up reinforcing their message. When I mention to him the Balls line on "keeping the cuts", he groans. Loudly. "There is a view on the left that says if you take the other guy's language you can then undercut them - but it just shifts the discourse to the right," Lakoff says. Instead, progressives should "use their own language and frames".

So what should the alternative, Labour frame be? The answer is obvious: growth and jobs. In November 2011, a YouGov poll found that more voters (37 per cent) wanted the government to focus on growth, "even if this means the deficit stays longer, or gets worse", than on reducing the deficit (36 per cent), "even if this means growth remains slow". Given that You­Gov's polls show Labour leading the Conservatives by 18 points on job creation but trailing them by 22 points on deficit reduction, it seems strange to focus all the rhetoric and airtime on closing the deficit gap.
One of Miliband's chief advisers disagrees. "We have internal polls and focus groups showing people don't think Labour treats their money with respect or spends it in the right way. We have to move Labour's reputation on this issue and close the gap." He adds: "Growth is still our message, by the way."

You could have fooled me. All of the chatter since Christmas has been around cuts, austerity and "tough choices". Credibility continues to be viewed through the Tory prism; voters hear a Tory, not a Labour, world-view.

It is the wrong place, both tactically and strategically, for the opposition to be. Tactically, it hobbles the ability of an opposition party to oppose in the here and now. Strategically, it bolsters the Tories' economic frame.

If the next general election comes down to which party can best manage austerity, Labour is finished. Party strategists say that the aim is to appeal beyond the Labour base to those in the middle, who need reassurance about fiscal responsibility. Lakoff calls this "the myth of the centre". "People in the so-called centre are partly conservative, partly liberal," he says, and he argues that it is the job of progressive poli­ticians to use language that "activates" the liberal parts of their brains.

Down a dead end

Lakoff's book has been in print since 2004 and yet, he points out, progressive politicians across the west - including those in our own Labour Party - do not seem to want to understand its simple message or take its ideas on board.

“They assume the Enlightenment and reason rules," Lakoff says - "that if you just tell people facts, they'll reach the right decision." But language matters, metaphors and images matter, clear narratives and frames matter.

Most senior Labour figures I spoke to haven't read Lakoff; Miliband, despite his passion for ideas and US politics, does not own a copy of Don't Think of an Elephant!. Douglas Alexander does. So, too, does Chuka Umunna. But they are in a tiny minority - and, incidentally, Alexander is said to be one of those shadow ministers pushing for a more "credible" Labour position on deficit reduction.

The Labour Party has been going through colour-coded policy phases since the last general election. First, there was Blue Labour, with its emphasis on communities, relationships and tradition. Then there was The Purple Book, with its reassertion of Blairite values and its rhetorical assault on the "big state". Then came the pamphlet In the Black Labour, which calls for Labour to centre its economic strategy on "fiscal conservatism".

Where are we now? Are we witnessing the birth of "white flag Labour"? That is the pro­vocative title of a new report from the centre-left pressure group Compass. Its author, the economist Howard Reed, defines the phrase as a "tame surrender to the misguided economic policies currently wreaking havoc on the UK's economic and social fabric".

Senior Labour figures tell me that they have no plans to abandon their opposition to the depth and timing of Tory cuts; they are, however, intent on taking on the Tories over the deficit in order to establish their (you guessed it) "credibility". Yet, as Lakoff shows, austerity is not just an economic but a political dead end for progressives.

It's time to change the subject - and build an economic strategy in which so-called credibility revolves around the promotion of growth and creation of jobs. As the spending cuts begin to bite and Britain heads back into recession, Labour's front bench should not be fixating on austerity or the deficit, but focusing on restoring growth and employment levels.

Memo to the two Eds: read George Lakoff; don't take on the Tories on their terms; don't think of an elephant.