Individuals draw on narratives to make sense of the world and their own life choices and decisions. They construct structures of meaning, making a sequence of complex events understandable. Influential psychologist Ted Sarbin argues that “human beings think, perceive, imagine, and make moral choices according to narrative structures.” Powerful narratives conjure up stories that reaffirm an audience’s sense of their collective and individual identity.
In political life, narratives are used to frame how events and issues are perceived, and to influence voting behaviour. While the media may direct public attention to certain issues the framing of these stories can be contested. Political parties are preoccupied with their own narratives - the messages they want to present to voters. However, the public narrative - the stories that the public themselves are sharing - is far more significant. Stories are not simply transmitted and received, they are decoded by an audience, based on their own experience and in the context of other stories. Powerful political narratives understand this relationship and seek to shape the public narrative.
The Power of Concise Narratives
A story is more likely to be shared if it can be understood and retold simply in everyday language. It is therefore helpful to develop a concise narrative. This is not the same as a slogan. The fundamental feature of a political narrative is that it tells a story of the past, the present and of an imagined future. A concise narrative such as ‘take back control’ or ‘make America great again’ tell such stories and conjure up a view of the past, present and future. They also conjure up a worldview, and associated stories, within the overall narrative. A concise narrative can become a slogan, however, a slogan that does not tell a story of the past, the present and the future can never be considered a narrative.
A powerful political narrative has an overall arc that resonates with voters, one that they use to make sense of the world. Stories that do not align with experiences or perceptions of reality will gain less traction than those that do. The need for an overarching narrative may seem simple to the point of restating the obvious but there are many examples of political parties and campaigns that did not develop a clear overarching narrative. Following the global financial crash of 2008 the Conservatives created an overarching narrative that the previous Labour government had been profligate, overspent and built up debt, and that austerity was required to save the UK economy. It contrasted Conservative economic competence with the alleged incompetence of Labour. It was a powerful narrative which Labour has struggled to overcome.
The narrator of the story controls the selection of events and information for inclusion. This is not a transparent process. A story doesn’t make explicit why it has selected certain events or left out others. The process of selection means that narratives are not neutral, they communicate a particular perspective of what happened, they seek to persuade an audience through the process of narration. Truth is relatively unimportant to the value and effectiveness of a narrative.
An effective political narrative must address three fundamental issues outlined below.
1. Economic Narrative
Core to any political narrative is an economic vision. Equally importantly for Labour is creating a narrative of economic competence. Robert Shrimsley, the UK chief political commentator for the Financial Times, claims that for Labour in 2020 “creating a cogent economic narrative is more important than new policies.”
The coronavirus pandemic may create an opportunity for a new economic narrative as the response has highlighted the role of the government in supporting the economy. Joseph Stiglitz has noted that it has also “been a powerful reminder that the basic political and economic unit is still the nation-state.”1 He argues governments must find a better balance between globalisation and economic self-reliance. This chimes with former Red Wall Labour MP Caroline Flint’s call for a ‘muscular economic nationalism’ and a greater focus on the manufacturing industry. The crisis might focus attention on greater national self-sufficiency and local purchasing policies. Robert Schiller also argues that the pandemic might be a window of opportunity to look at new approaches, for example government emergency payments to individuals and furlough schemes might open the door to new ideas involving greater government intervention.
Regardless of the narrative the Labour Party develops around the economy, at its core has to be a strong story about economic competence. Labour’s own internal review of the 2015 election found that the party failed “to shake off the myth that the last Labour government was responsible for crashing the economy.” Analysis by Thomas Prosser at Cardiff University shows that “millions of voters prioritise competence over values, including in Red Wall seats.” Yet in 2019, just 14 % of the public saw the Labour Party as economically competent, compared to 63 % who saw it as incompetent on economic issues.
2. Vision: An Imagined Future
A new Labour narrative has to connect the past and the present with an imagined future. To resonate with voters this imagined future must be desirable and perceived to be realistic. The future is by its very nature complex, there are so many economic, political, technological, social, and cultural strands. A vision has to act as a heuristic, something that is easily understandable, and which sets a clear direction and tone. Again, this may seem obvious but there are many examples of political campaigns which singularly failed to do this.
In developing a new narrative Labour has to be cognisant of a significant divide on cultural issues. Analysis by Datapraxis for the Labour Together review indicates this divergence on social and cultural issues is growing. This presents a major challenge for Labour in developing a narrative that reaffirms the audience’s sense of identity and reflects a sense of shared values. In her book The New Working Class, Claire Ainsley, argues that to win working class hearts and minds political parties should root their policies in their collective values. Ainsley argues these working class values include family, fairness, hard work and decency.
The appointment of Claire Ainsley as Head of Policy by Keir Starmer could signal that the party is serious about creating a narrative vision which connects with the identity and values of traditional working class voters. Ainsley has written about the positive aspects of Brexit and says “leaving the EU creates an opportunity to design a regional policy that responds to local priorities and opportunities, and increase the chance for local areas and city regions to determine their own futures.”’ Ainsley places a strong emphasis on family and communitarian values. Her views align with those of Stephen Kinnock who argued that Labour needs to move back towards the values and economic priorities of Communitarians. Importantly Ainsley says understanding and connecting with values is more important than specific policies.
3. Link the Narrative to Leadership
Leadership is a key cornerstone of an effective political narrative. It is therefore essential to align and associate Labour’s new narrative with the Leader of the party. In the case of Blair, his youth and energy were associated with the party’s vision of renewal and modernisation. Boris Johnson was strongly associated with the party’s vision of breaking from the EU and greater economic nationalism. A leader’s personal narrative needs to chime with and exemplify the overall political narrative. As Gaffney argues “the relationship between narrative and leadership, between rhetoric and performance, between doctrine and its voicing, are crucial to party politics, and are crucially underrated.”
A political leader’s persona is a narrative construction that matters to voters. This narrative construction is constantly created, mediated, and challenged through the media and increasingly social media. The latter gives leaders and all public figures the opportunity to communicate directly and has created a new currency of authenticity. However, the reality is that we only see the projected persona of a political leader rather than the real person. This persona is constructed through a narrative.
For Keir Starmer a core narrative is around competence. However, the Leader narrative is likely to be undermined if the party is not seen as competent and vice versa. The duality of party and Leader must work together as a coherent narrative.
Developing A New Overarching Narrative
The coronavirus pandemic presents a major opportunity for Labour to create a new overarching political narrative. In developing this new narrative, Labour would be well advised to pay attention to and be guided by the following points:
- There is no shortcut to creating a new political narrative even though there will be opportunities to leverage events such as the pandemic crisis. Developing a new narrative is a long-term project and needs to be viewed as such.
- The aim of a political narrative is to influence and shape the public narrative, the stories that people share about themselves, their communities and what has to be done. It is therefore essential to be constantly listening to these public narratives, partly using focus groups but also by listening to feedback from members and councillors on the ground who are involved in public discourse. It is important to understand the stories that resonate, the language that is used and the way that stories are told. It is also important for a political party to demonstrate it is listening by reflecting the stories and language of communities.
- The new political narrative must connect the past and the present with a clear vision of Labour’s imagined future. In the same way the Conservatives created a narrative of Labour’s overspending and profligacy to explain the consequences of the 2008 financial crash, Labour needs to create a narrative of the recent past since 2010. Narratives have to be rooted in, and relate to, existing trends and events. The narrative created around the 2020 pandemic crisis will be critical, as this event will be subject to reports and inquiries that play out over the next four years and in the lead up to the next election.
- Labour must craft a vision which is desirable and perceived to be realistic. Absolutely core to this is a clear narrative about the future political economy. The right has successfully developed a negative narrative about tax. It has become a deep story, calling up Benjamin Franklin’s 1789 comment that there are only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. Tax has been framed as something deeply negative, something that the monster of the state imposes to take your hard-earned money away from you. An alternative narrative is that tax is something that communities use to smooth the path through economically turbulent times. It is a shared selflessness that lets the community care for those who are ill or fall on hard times and to protect the community. The pandemic crisis has highlighted the critical role of government spending to support communities. This creates an opportunity to push an alternative narrative around taxation, highlighting the links to solidarity, community, public services and investment.
- The new political narrative must reflect themes that voters are familiar with. This may include leveraging themes emerging from the pandemic economic crisis such as greater national self-sufficiency, the value of communities, localism and more active state intervention.
- The narrative must also appeal to the voters’ sense of collective and individual identity, where do they fit in this new world? The narrative will need to appeal to a British identity, and navigate the fraught issues of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish identity.
- The political narrative must be aligned with and exemplified by the leader’s personal narrative.
- The overall narrative architecture needs to bring many complex elements together into a single story and make sense of them as a coherent and meaningful whole. To do this the overall narrative arc must be supported by multiple stories that reinforce the overall message. It is not enough to identify the overall narrative arc, the multiple stories that support the arc must also be identified and shaped to support the whole.
- Despite the dangers of heuristics and single stories, possibly even their lack of reality, the new political narrative must also be capable of being conveyed as a concise narrative that communicates the overall story, its symbolism, imagery and individual stories.
- Finally, an effective political narrative must use vernacular language. The power of a political narrative is in the retelling. Hence, it must be capable of being understood, discussed, and retold in everyday language.