I was reminded to blog about Mehdi Hasan's discussion of Labour's economic policy by his recent blog post on how Labour's position on welfare reflected a poor "Framing" of the issues of economic credibility and competence*.
Mehdi's argument in both the original New Statesman article and his subsequent blog post shows the difficultly of separating out a debate about political rhetoric from the policy position which underlies the rhetoric itself.
Labour are, Mehdi argues, trapped by an Conservative frame, in which "cuts and credibility" become the test of political virility, and since this is a battle Labour cannot hope to win, this is a foolish attempt to fight the enemy on their own turf. This creates, he argues a position in which "There is a theme here – the Tories set the agenda, Labour operates within it."
It is perhaps worth comparing this with what is allegedly a strategic phrase of George Osborne: "in opposition you move to the centre, in government you move the centre." I think a fair few Conservatives would look at the journey their party has undertaken over the last five years and question whether they were really setting the agenda until they entered government. Indeed, the whole history of the last century suggests that the conservatives are not notably successful at setting the agenda, but very successful to adapting to newly set agendas (witness Cameron's position on gay marriage.)
Mehdi's argument is that Labour has conceded to a Conservative narrative framework on the deficit, and that since this is a battle Labour cannot win – we cannot "out-austere" the Tories, we are destined to lose this debate, Mehdi prays in aid the work of George Lakoff, saying that it is a great shame that the Labour front bench haven't read Lakoff's "Don't think of an Elephant"**. Now, I have read that book, and also Lakoff's "Moral Politics". Indeed, I was a minor evangelist for his work inside the Labour party, finding it a useful tool to emphasise particular words and themes in copy we were producing.
Tip: If you don't want to buy Lakoff's book, his ex-colleagues at the Rockridge Institute keep PDFs of their practical guide to reframing "Thinking points" here
Lakoff's work is ultimately about the power of language. He believes that particular metaphors, or ways of framing arguments, allow you to make a more persuasive case for that argument.
For example, A conservative should argue for "Public Sector Restraint", not "Cuts". Why? Because Conservatives already have the "Cuts" group bagged up, and need to reassure those who have a bit more of a "nurturing parent" in their make up and fear the pain a cut might bring (I simplify). A progressive on the other hand, should not accept the language of "a Death Tax" because it accepts a Conservative frame. Instead, call attempts to reduce estate taxes a "Paris Hilton Tax break".
To me, this is a powerful -technical- insight. it helps a politician to understand whether they are doing their job, well, or badly. Want to appeal to environmentally minded left wingers about GM crops? Then don't talk science. Talk about the historic mission of ending hunger on our shared planet. Want to sound reasonable and non-threatening while demanding a restriction on Child Benefits? Talk about encouraging a culture of responsibility, not of dependence.
In many ways, it's worth thinking of some of Lakoff's work as a liberal response to Republican strategist Frank Luntz's "Words that Work". Indeed, when looking at the practical application, they often feel like very similar Vade Mecums for political comms professionals***. Further, Lakoff himself will admit that much of his political work was driven by a sense that the Conservatives in America somehow knew how to "Frame", while Liberals and progressives did not.
It is here that I raise my first concern with the use of Lakoff's linguistic approach as a critique of a particular policy agenda. If Lakoff is right that we can use words to appeal to those who disagree with us by constructing a frame in which it is difficult to dissent from, and which then defines the debate in the public sphere, then two things follow:
First, this approach is, in itself, essentially neutral. You should be able to construct a "frame" for any given proposition which maximises its likely appeal.
It doesn't matter whether you are arguing for or against a progressive tax rate, if you can apply the correct linguistic frame to it, you will maximise likely success. Same goes for the deficit. In Moral Politics, Lakoff gives the example of Reagan's approach to the Federal Deficit as an example of how a Conservative can justify high deficits using a moral framing. It should follow, therefore, that a liberal-leftist should be able to successfully promote long term fiscal restraint using similar framing techniques. There should be no policy position that cannot be successfully "framed" by a skillful practitioner.**** In essence therefore, any policy critique based on framing must be incorrect. Any position should be susceptible to skillful framing.
However, my deeper critique is that if both sides take the advice of simply developing the "best frame" for their existing position, there is essentially no interest in the voter at all, merely a competition of framing devices. You end up with a left winger trying to bludgeon a right winger with their superior frame, and the right winger returning fire in kind. The person left out of the debate is the most important – the shifting, variable concerns of the voter.
I believe politicians prosper not when they seek a retrospective linguistic justification for their preferred policy agenda, and seek to impose it on the electorate via strong framing, but when they put the worries and concerns of the sympathetic but unsure elector first, and try to construct their rhetoric around addressing these concerns, first in policy, then in framing terms. (If you cannot find enough potentially sympathetic voters to win you an election, then you probably have a bigger problem than framing to think about).
So for example, Labour might discover that the barrier that prevents a significant number of "open" voters from supporting Labour is a concern about whether Labour will tackle issues of crime. Labour can then develop a policy agenda that demonstrates a firm approach on crimes of particular voter concern, and use these as the framing device to persuade the voter their concerns are unfounded, without undermining our essential policy agenda or image. So an ad for a party perceived as being "Weak" on Crime, might emphasise a focus on strong action on violence against women, and of toughening up the legal threshold for prosecution of sex crimes, or demonstrating that the leader understands why these issues matter. In advertising terms, this is called "overcoming the benefit barrier" – removing the obstacle that stands in the way of a potential consumer desiring the overall benefit your product offers.*****
Now, how does this apply to the debate about the deficit?
At one level, it doesn't at all. After all, the first question about the deficit is not "What frame shall we seek to apply to our plan?" That's a second order question. The first question is "What are we actually going to do. and why?".
While an argument about language is helpful in deciding how to frame a debate, it doesn't in any way help you to resolve the policy tensions that are fundamental to successful governance. Labour is proposing a policy of short term stimulus, long term restraint, not because it fits in within a frame, or because it overcomes a voter benefit barrier, but because we think it is the right thing to do.
Now, if we are wrong about that, this is a whole other debate. But let us accept that it _is_ the right thing to do and that we are not prepared to jettison this for electability, because our overall purpose – a fairer society- is important to us.
We next need to understand what the barrier of key parts of the electorate are to our offering. These are, I think, likely to be along the lines of – "why should we trust you after what just happened, you're profligate with our money, you can't be sure that spending more money will work, you say you'll pay off the debt, but never when".
So, the purpose of the political rhetoric we use should be to overcome those barriers. If they are the ones I have identified, that suggests focus on cheeseparing, on being anti-waste, on the value of state restraint, of being careful with pennies, of setting boundaries for government spending for only productive purposes, for being – to borrow a phase- both "tough on the deficit, tough on the causes of the deficit".
You can frame your policies in this light of this need. So If your policy agenda is one of spending to save, then you come up with specific examples where spending will clearly and measurably reduce expenditure, and emphasise these, rather than assert the vale of spending more generally, If the policy is "spend now, save later", you might need to prove your commitment to the second part of that equation.
This is not "submitting to the frame" of your opponent, but focusing on people who might be interested in the benefits a centre left government offer (for example, more jobs, or a more equal society, or a better run NHS or school system), but who have doubts which leave them unconvinced.
An emphasis on overcoming voter "barriers" through both policy and framing should not undermine your fundamental purpose. In the same way Ariel overcoming concerns about cost or stringency by telling consumers it is not as expensive as they think, or is recommended by Washing machine manufacturers does not imply Ariel is rubbish at washing clothes, then saying Labour is concerned about reducing the deficit over the long term does not imply an abandonment our mission of a fairer, more just society.
Using this approach to overcome barriers voters have erected to voting Labour allows those who sympathise with our aims and hopes to believe we are addressing their fears and doubts. Consider the alternative – often recommended on the centre-left – of trying to somehow distract the attention of the voter from a concern about the deficit, by focusing on some other policy – say jobs and growth. If enough voters regard a lack of commitment to debt reduction as an important barrier, then no amount of well framed distraction is going to succeed, not least because your opponents will surely not neglect propagating doubt in the voters mind. Indeed, by seeking to avoid a focus on the issue which produces the greatest doubt among voters, you may even underline their concerns about you. Imagine if Labour responded to questions on Unilateral Nuclear disarmament in the 80s by simply claiming it wasn't an issue. Or if the Tories decided that public concern over their NHS policies was best dealt with by talking about Europe and immigration (they did try this, with limited success)
If, Instead, we emphasise that we will reduce deficits best by both employing public restraint and encouraging private growth, we frame our policy in the light of voter concerns and worries.
Is this employing someone else's "Frame" to decide your rhetoric?
It's applying the frame of the doubtful voter. I reckon they're probably quite important if you want to win elections.
*I await eagerly the publication of "White flag Labour", which has been trailed by Mehdi and Neal Lawson as a brilliant riposte to the sallow collection of Blairite Zombies who have assumed control of the Labour party through the famously pliant puppet of Blairism, Ed Balls.
**The Title is a play on the old game of it being impossible not to think of something you've been told not to think of, as Mehdi notes. It's also a play on the elephantine symbol of the Grand Old Party
*** Luntz's book came after Lakoff's but his direct political influence, over Gingrich and the GOP, came much earlier.
**** There's a danger of this lapsing into the sort of poorly understood NLP stuff that comes dangerously close to bullshit here. Forgive me if I cross the line on that one. I'm not saying you can get people to buy more beer by saying tier name when they walk in the door, or somesuch.
*****When I worked on Daz, one of the benefit barriers was that people thought, since it was cheap, it _had_ to be bad. So proving that Daz buyers were confident enough to show their clothes to the nation helped overcome that barrier. Later, one of the barriers was that Daz was cheap and brash and not something people would be pleased if others new they used, so I see the latest advertising reassures on aspiration by using popular celebs, and stresses things like good fragrance.