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17 May 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 9:53am

Why compelling narratives are the key to political success

Labour’s current problem is not that its vision lacks resonance but that it doesn’t have one at all.  

By Quassim Cassam

In the aftermath of its poor showing in the 2019 election, many Labour supporters thought that the party had hit rock bottom and that the only way was up. Not so, if Labour’s by-election defeat in a former stronghold such as Hartlepool is anything to go by. The resounding loss of a seat that has been in Labour hands since it was created in the 1970s indicates that the party has broken through rock bottom and is now plumbing new depths. As it embarks on its latest bout of soul-searching, Labour faces a familiar question: why isn’t it doing better?

Perhaps surprisingly, there are hints of an answer to this question in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his 1981 book After Virtue, one of the classics of 20th-century moral and political philosophy, MacIntyre argues that humans are essentially story-telling animals. We make sense of the world we live in by telling stories that aspire to truth. There is, MacIntyre argues, no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through a stock of stories about who we are.

Walter Fischer, a theorist of communication who took up MacIntyre’s ideas, distinguishes between the “rational-world paradigm” and the “narrative paradigm”. In the rational-world paradigm, humans are essentially rational beings who make decisions based on logic. In the narrative paradigm, we are much more influenced by stories than by rational argument. Homo sapiens is Homo narrans. From this perspective, Labour’s problem is that it lacks a convincing narrative that speaks to people like the voters of Hartlepool.

Stories are the most effective means of expressing one’s political vision and policies. For example, Barack Obama argued for his policy agenda by telling the story of a nine-year-old who handed over the contents of his piggy bank to his father when he heard that he had lost his job. “This is not who we are”, Obama concluded. “We are not a nation that leaves struggling families to fend for themselves.” This is not just a story about an individual family but a story about the American dream and what it entails.  

When voters complain that they don’t know what a particular political party stands for, this is often understood as the complaint that they do not know the party’s policies. However, it is more plausible that they are complaining about the absence of a narrative. Narratives are not policies. They are stories that make sense of policies and make it clear to the electorate what the point of a party’s policies is supposed to be. The left and the right have their own narratives, and politics can be understood as a competition between rival narratives.

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A narrative is not just a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a story that tries to make sense of events in the world. Narratives are not primarily vehicles for conveying information. What they offer is explanations. The strategic studies expert Lawrence Freedman defines them as “compelling story lines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn”. Narratives serve to frame issues. They have emotional appeal and resonate with their audiences.

In recent years, populists have been much better than traditional politicians at coming up with effective narratives. Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election on the back of a potent narrative about corrupt elites and “American carnage”. The Leave campaign for Brexit promoted the narrative of a thriving Britain freed from the shackles of EU bureaucrats. The best that Remain could come up with was that Brexit would be economically costly. True, perhaps, but hardly a rousing call for continuing membership of the EU. What the Remain campaign lacked was the ability to frame Britain’s EU membership in a compelling narrative about Britain and its place in today’s world.

Although narratives are not primarily vehicles for conveying information, they are always based on claims about the current state of society or politics. These claims may or may not be true. Critics of the Leave narrative argue that it was based on a series of falsehoods, such as the notorious claim that “we send £350 million a week to the EU”. While campaigning in 2015, Trump tweeted a graphic about homicide rates in which, according to fact checkers, almost every figure was wrong. Narratives that are politically effective in the short term don’t have to be truth-based.

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[See also: Why social liberals are not moral relativists]

Narratives that are truth-based have what might be called “narrative fidelity”; those that strike a chord with voters have “narrative resonance”. Resonance without fidelity is possible. The Leave narrative resonated with many voters even though it was based on falsehoods. Similarly, Trump’s dubious narrative resonated with enough Americans to land him in the White House for four years.

All of this points to a disturbing conclusion: what matters in politics is not actual fidelity but what Fischer calls felt fidelity. Felt fidelity is all about being true to what voters feel or believe to be the case. Narratives that resonate with voters may or may not have genuine fidelity, but they have felt fidelity. The UK did not send £350 million a week to the EU, but the result of the referendum suggests that perception can trump reality.

This is the kind of thing that leads people to talk about “post-truth” politics, in line with the Oxford Dictionary definition of “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.  Yet it is not just appeals to emotion and personal belief that are influential but felt fidelity.

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Before concluding that false narratives are just as effective as true ones, however, it is worth pointing out that the notion of fidelity in the context of narratives is more complicated than one might think. Narratives that resonate with voters are typically ones that are true to their lived experience. For example, a narrative of rising crime will resonate with voters who have been the victims of crime because it is true to their own experience, whatever the crime statistics say. This blurs the dividing line between actual and felt fidelity because truth to lived experience is a kind of fidelity.

Here, one might distinguish between truth and truthfulness. True narratives are based on claims that would be recognised as literally true by fact-checkers. Truthful narratives are true to our lived experience. In this sense, narratives that aren’t true to the facts can nevertheless be truthful. In politics, both truth and truthfulness matter, but truthfulness may matter more.

The sweet spot for any political party is a narrative that is both true and truthful, that has both actual and felt fidelity. What stories with genuine narrative fidelity have going for them is that they engage with the world as it really is. As a result, they are best-placed to offer authentic solutions to society’s problems. The advantage of narratives with felt fidelity is that they are able to connect with the day-to-day concerns and lived experiences of voters. Both types of fidelity are required for long-term political success.

As well as narrative fidelity – both actual and felt – the most effective political narratives are positive rather than wholly negative. They embody a hopeful vision of the future and tell a story about what is possible. This was the genius of Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan. In the UK today, the Conservatives have their “levelling up” agenda to improve the prospects of “left behind” regions and communities. Critics say that the policies of Boris Johnson’s government will do little to tackle structural inequality, but many also recognise that the Prime Minister is selling a seductive story of a thriving, more equal Britain outside the EU. If the polls are to be believed, it is a story the voters like.

In the 1990s, New Labour’s pitch to the electorate was a narrative of national renewal. The narrative painted a compelling picture of what had gone wrong during 18 years of Tory government and told an optimistic story about the future. The resulting landslide in the 1997 election was not just a landslide for Labour but a landslide for a narrative. 

Labour’s current problem is not that its narrative lacks fidelity or resonance but that it has no narrative. The question that the party needs to answer is: what’s the story? Carping about the government’s incompetence is not an inspirational vision. Labour needs to develop an overarching narrative that frames its policies and is both true and truthful. Inspired by philosophers like MacIntyre and Fischer, it needs to become a story-telling political animal, with a compelling and positive narrative for today.

Quassim Cassam is professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick. He is the author of “Conspiracy Theories” and “Vices of the Mind: from the Intellectual to the Political“.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.