In search of a political narrative
Liberator, August 2005
It is an amazing thing – not to say an amazing blessing – when almost everyone agrees what the Liberal Democrats need to take them into government.
Nearly everybody you run across inside and outside the party, at least in London, agrees that the urgent requirement is for what they call a ‘narrative’.
Exactly what this elusive beast is, and how you bag yourself one, is never explained. What the narrative ought to be, of course, still leads to some debate. But the fact that we need one seems to be undisputable.
I shouldn’t be too flippant about this. I agree as well.
Whatever the merits of the last election strategy, and whatever might have been most effective in the past, we are no longer able to base a campaign on a handful of unconnected policies that happen to be popular with key groups.
That approach might keep us bouncing along with an impressive number of MPs compared to what we once were – but it will not win for us the electoral breakthrough we need to deliver real change.
Small ideas do not move the tectonic plates of politics; big ideas do – hence the requirement for this mystical ‘narrative’.
But what is a narrative? Last time this came up at a party meeting, it was clear around the table that we all had rather different ideas.
So, as my contribution to the debate I thought I would set out – generously, and in a purely unbiased way, of course – what it is, and what it isn’t.
‘Narrative’ is a marketing buzzword, and it still has some leverage because it has only been doing the rounds for a few years.
It is a response to people’s growing resistance to marketing of all kinds. They are exposed to subtle and clever messages almost all the time they breathe: they don’t trust slogans, they ignore advertisements – but they do listen to stories.
That’s why ‘viral’ marketing, or blogs, or ‘authenticity’ are now the stuff of marketing debate – because there is something real at the heart of it, a person, a place, a tale to tell.
But of course – and here’s the clever bit – the story might not be explicit. But if we can understand it from what we are told, then we trust it more as a result.
Let’s be clear what a narrative doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, for example, a unique selling point – the marketing buzzword of the 1970s.
A political party might be completely unique but still wholly unelectable. Many of them are, let’s face it.
Also, looking for a USP is not very good for politicians. It encourages them to think like supermarket managers, as if people actually search manifestos for unique or interesting policies, and vote accordingly.
They may think that’s what people do, but actually they don’t.
People react to political parties morally: their reaction to policies may be basically self-interested, but it is expressed in terms of right and wrong. That’s why people care, sometimes at least.
They have a moral stance towards a party, informed of course by whether they agree with what is said, but it comes before any idea of what policies they hear about – and may have nothing to do with them.
The second thing a narrative is not is a slogan, the marketing buzzword of the 1920s.
Politicians spend a great deal of time worrying about slogans, and usually compromise with three random words stitched together in no particular order.
Actually people have long since become immune to slogans. They have no meaning for them any more, carry no conviction.
The only other enterprises still addicted to slogans are some evangelical Christian churches who paint them up on big billboards in the road. One just near me says: ‘We’ve got to talk – God’.
They mostly look crass these days, because they seem patronising to us. They look glib, because they are.
The exception to this in politics is slogans which somehow imply a narrative behind them: ‘Don’t let Labour ruin it!’ had a kind of oafish power to it, simply because a whole story was implied.
Even Stanley Baldwin’s uninspiring ‘Safety First!’ implies a tale whereby his predecessors had driven the country wildly down narrow roads without looking where they were going.
So, a narrative is not a slogan and not a USP. It is – for a political party at least – an idea or set of linked ideas that lies behind what we say and believe.
It provides an explanation for the policies we have, a way of remembering and believing them.
Supermarkets can sell anything, after all. Political parties are there for a purpose – get that purpose across to people and they might begin to hear what we say.
Four other things about a narrative:
It implies a story
Narratives have an implied beginning, middle and end. Mrs Thatcher’s narrative was about victory won in 1945, thrown away again through three decades of permissiveness, laxity and inflation, restored by iron will.
Do we have a Liberal Democrat view about the past half century in the UK?
If so, how does it go? Not quite enough public spending, not quite enough tax?
Neither carry much real conviction because both assume the basic narrative of other parties.
Wouldn’t we tell the story completely differently? That a nation of enormous diversity lost its heart, soul and sense of responsibility during endless rounds of centralisation – leaving us with a legacy of inevitable inefficiency, centralised bullying and technocracy?
Well, we don’t all have to agree now anyway. The point is that we need something like that – and even that needs a back story too: that a party dedicated to individual freedom emerged in the 1850s and provided the only periods of good government the nation has had since – and will do again.
Or something similar.
It frames the debate
When you abandon the battle of narratives, the danger is that you just have to accept your opponent’s.
Remember Mrs Thatcher’s narrative? We might have had a few things to say about inflation; we did have a few things to say about nuclear weapons, I seem to remember, but the basic assumptions of the debate were hers.
Even now we endlessly attempt to intervene in a debate which assumes the basic issues are about tax or spending – as if the reason for the inadequacy of our public services and infrastructure was simply money.
And of course, once the general election has been called, all these debates are pretty much set in stone. Narratives count in the years before, in the assumptions about problems and explanations.
When they are shared, by think-tanks and commentators alike, then we get to manage the debate.
When they are not, we struggle along with frustration while the umpteenth BBC interviewer seems to miss the point in exactly the same way as the last one.
It implies a big idea
Or a series of big ideas which it connects in a coherent way. A narrative without a big idea is just like a story for toddlers. We woke up, we strung together a number of policies we believed were popular, we offered them to the electorate. That’s a story without an idea: it’s a narrative, but a very unimpressive one.
Barely any more impressive is the one that goes: we started small, we worked hard, we won key by-elections, more and more people believe we are credible, and so on. It is a useful narrative, but it doesn’t answer the question of why we are doing it in the first place.
It may be that any Liberal Democrat narrative borrows a little from the big idea that has driven our tradition. Unlike socialists, who believe that the problem with the status quo is that it tends towards poverty, we believe the status quo tends towards slavery. They believe the underlying problem is wealth; we believe it is power.
That is not to say that we don’t think poverty is important – quite the reverse – but we believe it is primarily an issue of freedom. Conservatives believe freedom is the means – but only for the rich and powerful; we believe it is the end.
Those big ideas must be in there somewhere.
It explains the big ideas
Political campaigners are a little wary of big ideas these days. So are ministers, but that’s another story. If they are not widely shared, they can make you look like a crank. There is a fear that they offend people and make you look a little less than suave.
But equally, if all your ideas are small – a small shift in the national budget here and there – why should anyone get excited about you? How can you generate the loyal following and income you need? Big political changes require big ideas to drive them.
If you have a narrative that explains the problem, a back story that articulates the basic crisis, then big ideas can slip into the debate and start uniting a constituency of interest round them.
Narratives make them safe. They explain why the big ideas are important.
Occasionally in discussions around these issues, a slightly sceptical voice pipes up. Did Labour and Conservative have a narrative in 2005? If they did without one, why can’t we?
The answer is first that they require tinkering with their narrative far less than we do. If you want more public spending, there has been in previous generations a tendency to vote Labour. If you hate foreigners, then you vote Conservative.
Blair and Brown made do with a mini-narrative about their own mutual confidence and competence that carried some dubious conviction at the time. It implied a story about their predecessors, which is widely shared.
Of course the lack of a big narrative for New Labour is increasingly obvious and will be a major Achilles heel for them at a later date.
But Liberal Democrats are the outsiders in the race. Despite everything, a worrying proportion of the population do not understand where we are coming from and why.
Without that, they don’t disagree with us, they never hear us in the first place.
So let’s knuckle down and articulate, shall we. We have a narrative already, of course. We just locked it away somewhere some years ago and have to find where we hid the key.
Norman McLaren: Spectacular Abstractions – ‘Third paragraph’