George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language many moons ago warned politicians against the overuse of clichés and dead metaphors. He argued that political discourse at the time suffered from two problems: a staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. I expect he would find the situation has worsened ten-fold if he were to read and listen to some of our discussions at the conference, and in particular, the use of the word ‘narrative’ to describe the lack of a guiding direction for the party.
This was made plain to me when Andrew Neil’s first question as I sat trembling on the Daily Politics set yesterday was: ‘so Progress has called for a new narrative’, what’s that when it’s at home?’ I had to concede that this was not a particularly audience-friendly word for sure, and suggested that a better way of expressing it to the viewers at home would be to say that the government lacked a story. Oasis after all, didn’t write ‘What’s the narrative, morning glory’ …
So why, after accepting that Orwell would thumb his nose at the word, and its poor translation to the wider public, do I think that ‘narrative’ is still a good shorthand for describing what is desperately needed at the moment? The first reason is that simply coming up with a better ‘story’ about what the government is doing or has done, won’t be enough to reconnect to the public and win a fourth term. Using the word ‘story’ suggests we are talking about something fictional rather than factual. The actions of Prescott et al are definitely needed to motivate the troops and to make sure we remember that elections can’t be won without action on the ground. But what the troops are crying out for is a distinctive and enervating ‘narrative’ to be able to relate to voters on the doorstep. A bit more PR with a few touchstone words which resonate with the public won’t achieve their ‘go fourth’ ambitions.
The second reason is that the word narrative is one of the few words which relates how future events might unfold. So it’s not about simply regurgitating Labour’s successes over the last 11 years, and certainly not the endless list of statistics and schemes which David Miliband criticised at Progress’s Rally on Sunday. Instead Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in the next decade and how we will achieve them.
Which brings me to my third reason for sticking with this graceless word. In creative writing at school, you were told to remember the narrative – the beginning, the middle and the end. And it is precisely this progression through the process of determining what Labour is going to offer the public at the next election which is missing at the moment. How we will get from where Britain currently is, to where Labour thinks it should be in the years to come. This is something which Progress has been working hard on and last week we launched the first of a number of interventions (http://clients.squareeye.com/uploads/prog/documents/Role%20o…) which we hope will help the process of debate. I can’t apologise in the future though if we’re still bemoaning the lack of a narrative – it’s the only word in town.