Flipping the script on our economic stories

What is the story of the economy in Britain? Who gets to shape public opinion about what it’s for, how it’s broken and how it can be fixed? Christine Berry explains the findings of the new report 'Framing the Economy'.

March 15, 2018 · 15 min read

‘Framing the Economy’ is a report by NEON, NEF, Frameworks Institute and PIRC. For more details click here.

In 2004, George Lakoff’s book ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ popularised the idea that the way we frame issues radically shapes the way people think about them. Many on the left became increasingly convinced that our tactics needed a radical rethink – that trying to combat a simple and powerful story with facts, statistics, myth-busters and appeals to fairness was doomed to fail. As one senior press officer put it to us, “We brought a spreadsheet to a knife fight.” More fundamentally, many began to suspect that our efforts to rebut the austerity story were actually reinforcing its boundaries . We were playing into the hands of our opponents, and urgently needed to tell a new story of our own, a story which convinces people of the urgent need for radical change, steering our society towards a sustainable, equitable and democratic economy.

In the years since then, British politics has been turned upside down. Brexit, Trump, the increasing polarisation of party politics, economic collapse and an age characterised by an increasingly discredited economic ideology: austerity. From 2010-2015, the defining story of British politics – the one that gave many progressives a rude awakening to the power of narrative – was the austerity story. The airwaves were full of politicians repeating that we had maxed out the nation’s credit card and needed to stop borrowing; that the Labour government had spent too much and crashed the economy; that without drastic cuts to public spending, the UK could end up like Greece.

This story was remarkably resilient – against sluggish economic performance and failure on its own deficit reduction measures; against the reasoned arguments of Keynesian commentators; against the anger of anti-cuts campaigners. It not only reinforced austerity politics but crowded out space to talk about real threats to our economy, like climate change. It spread the feeling that sustainability and social justice were luxuries the UK could no longer afford.

In 2017, we saw a glimpse of what could happen if the British people were offered a more positive story about our collective future. Against virtually all expert predictions, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party came to the brink of power with a message of ending austerity, rebuilding the public sphere and reclaiming common ownership of resources like energy and the railways. Ideas which had been taboo for a generation were suddenly back on the political agenda. The stories we tell ourselves about the economy have radically shifted.

The power of these stories lay not just in their content, but also in their context, in way they spread. During the Brexit campaign, economic experts lined up to warn of dire consequences to the UK economy if we voted to leave the EU. This was not only ineffective, but even seems to have strengthened the anti-establishment credentials of the Leave campaign. This challenges the widely-held assumption that the austerity story was powerful partly because it was presented as the expert economic consensus. Meanwhile, the 2017 election demonstrated the power of both grassroots organising and social media to mobilise people and upend the political consensus. The mainstream media may have been telling one story, but people’s votes told quite another.

This forces us to think again about what it means to shift the narrative, and to be much more imaginative about the channels through which we try and do this. This is challenging, but also exciting: if the battlefield is indeed shifting from the difficult terrain of the elite media discourse to the more natural territory of the doorstep (and the Facebook page), this surely presents a huge opportunity for the left to fight on stronger ground.

Understanding how people think

Beneath the tumult and upheaval, what are the shared assumptions – the durable ‘cultural models’ – that organise and shape people’s thinking about the economy? Which of these can be leveraged productively to support new thinking, and which do we need to avoid or counter? We investigated this via 40 interviews with a demographically diverse sample of people from across the UK.

The cognitive hole

The first and perhaps most striking finding was how few models people have available to help them think about the economy. The economy is intimidating. Most people struggled to answer questions about how they thought the economy worked, and the models they did draw on provided only the sketchiest accounts of the actual mechanisms that structure economic outcomes. This is unsurprising: previous research found that only around a third of British people feel comfortable engaging with economics, only 17% think they have a good understanding of how big businesses work, and most could not accurately define key economic concepts like GDP and the deficit.

This ‘cognitive hole’ presents a challenge for progressive communicators, but also an opportunity. The challenge is that our communications about the economy have a very thin base to build on: there’s a lot of work to do if we want to help people join the dots between different economic issues and progressive solutions, and feel empowered to act. Just think of the housing crisis as an example: how can we translate the complex problems of financialisation, privatisation and rent extraction into a story that points towards real solutions, that rejects the simplistic mantras of “build more homes” or “stop housing immigrants”, but that is empowering rather than overwhelming?

There’s no cause for despair. We aren’t up against a solid, well-constructed neoliberal account of the economy that people draw on consistently to explain why things work the way they do. People may have internalised aspects of neoliberal ideology – such as the idea that people are inherently greedy, that the economy is synonymous with money, or that competition is inevitable, all of which came through strongly in our interviews – but these are piecemeal and sporadic: they do not add up to a coherent model of how the economy works that needs to be dismantled. (Again, this chimes with the findings of previous polling that the British public never fully bought into the dogma of privatisation, with large majorities consistently favouring public ownership.)

At one level, this may mean that progressives can cut through the public debate and begin to shift its terms with relatively straightforward and simple frames. But the deeper goal here goes beyond communications itself. Through grassroots public education initiatives, integrated with campaigns, political movements and community projects, we can begin to empower people so that they do feel the economy is something they have the right to an opinion on, something they are confident talking about, and not just an intimidating black box that only experts can understand.

Who’s pulling the strings?

In some cases, this ‘cognitive hole’ was linked to a belief that the economy is simply a force of nature that cannot really be understood or controlled – rather than a system constructed by humans that can be rebuilt by humans. As one focus group participant put it, “You can’t redesign something that wasn’t designed in the first place.” But our interviews also revealed a powerful and consistent sense that ‘the system is rigged’: that the economy works the way it does because powerful elites have structured it to serve their interests. Many on the left would argue that this instinct is essentially accurate – that reshaping the economy around the interests of economic elites has been at the heart of the neoliberal project, from deregulating the banks to enabling landlords to exploit tenants. Perhaps tapping into this instinctive understanding could provide a starting point for a compelling story about what needs to change.

The problem is that, without a clear understanding of how and why this has happened, this model is much less useful for the left than we might assume. Firstly, it tended to lead people to focus on the actions of ‘bad apples’ rather than on how the system needs to change – on nefarious individuals rather than broken structures. Second, the idea that these elites have almost complete control over what happens made people deeply fatalistic about the possibility of changing the economy. When asked about how the economy could be different, most of our interviewees found it almost impossible to imagine alternatives. While this no doubt reflects the left’s failure to develop and articulate alternatives, it is also a logical result of the dominant cultural models at play.

People tended to conflate economic elites with political elites – so rather than seeing democratic control as a way of curtailing elite power, government potentially becomes part of the problem. (It’s worth noting that interviewees consistently felt that government was responsible for solving economic problems – they just may not trust it to do so.) As one interviewee put it: “I think politicians forget that we live on one planet and it’s all about their own greed. I think the economy is set by men in suits basically and they will always profit from it, and profit enormously.” 

The success of right-wing populists like Nigel Farage at co-opting anti-elitist rhetoric for regressive ends has left many progressives bewildered and angry. But on this evidence, perhaps we should not be so surprised. To build a compelling case for change, we need to do more than simply stoke people’s anger at elites. We need to situate this within a wider story that explains how this has come to pass and how, by acting together, we can build something different and better.

Telling new stories

We wanted to build more positive stories about how the economy works – and how we could build a positive economic future. In doing this, we had in mind a very live debate between two different types of story: what I think of as the ‘take back control’ story and the ‘all of us first’ story. The ‘take back control’ story is exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn’s left populist relaunch, under the retro slogan “for the many, not the few”. Perhaps the purest expression of this story in actionCorbyn’s recent face-off with Morgan Stanley – “when they say we’re a threat, they’re right. We’re a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few”. The idea goes that the anti-establishment rage being harnessed by the far-right is something that properly belongs to the left – that taking on elites is our job, and only by credibly promising to do it can we successfully take on right-wing populism. This sometimes goes along with an argument that only by pointing the finger at a new ‘enemy’ can we deflect the blame currently being directed at immigrants and benefit claimants.

We found that messages which combined an explanation of how neoliberal policy has empowered elites, whilst forgerounding values of equality or economic strength produced a significant rise in support for a range of progressive policies. The value of economic strength seemed particularly effective at shifting attitudes among Conservative voters.

Separately, we tested a metaphor of ‘reprogramming the economy’, comparing the economy to a computer program to which elites have gained the password, so ordinary people are ‘locked out’. This significantly enhanced people’s perception that the economy was designed by people, that we could and should act together to redesign it, and that policy had a role to play in shaping these outcomes. Given that people tend to see the economy as a ‘black box’, metaphors are useful because they invite comparison with something more familiar – demystifying the economy and providing a frame for thinking about how it works. Combining these various ‘frame elements’ into a coherent story about how we can redistribute power away from elites has real potential to open up new ways of thinking about the economy, without inadvertently reinforcing fatalism or anti-government sentiment.

But this wasn’t the only story which proved effective.

All of us first

The ‘all of us first’ story is exemplified by the work of Common Weal to build a positive progressive vision for Scotland. Their manifesto for change characterises neoliberalism as “me-first politics” and contrasts this with a politics that puts “all of us first”. Advocates of this story argue that countering neoliberalism with a populist story that pits ‘us’ against ‘them’ just fights fire with fire. We can hope to overturn a neoliberal story that emphasises competition and individualism with stories  that unify, that testify to the enormous benefits of collaboration and cooperation. We should focus on the world we want to build and the lives we want to lead, not the people we want to take on. Some also worry that stoking a politics of blame will ultimately exacerbate racism and xenophobia rather than deflecting it: after all, history shows that hating economic elites and hating immigrants are far from mutually exclusive.

second story plays on values of fulfilment and flourishing, and it too significantly boosted support for progressive policy. However, it behaved in the opposite way to stories which emphasised values of equality and economic strength. Where the latter two values only seemed to be effective when coupled with a story about elite economic capture, the former was only effective when separated from this story. These two frames reflect two different types of argument. Where the populist story is essentially a story about power – who has it, why this is bad and how it needs to be redistributed – the common ground story is essentially a story about priorities. It argues that the economy isn’t meeting our real needs – anyone’s real needs. It says we need to look not only at how money is distributed but also at what we want that money for. It taps into a deep sense that our society has the wrong priorities: that things like community, safety and time to enjoy life are more important than chasing growth and profits.

We used the metaphor of ‘railway tracks’ to talk about how the economy isn’t taking us to the places we really want to go, or about how we’ve built tracks that are only serving some parts of the country while leaving others stranded. The key thing is that people built the tracks and people can remake them to better serve our needs. Like the ‘reprogramming’ metaphor, we found that this significantly boosted people’s sense that the economy was designed and could be redesigned. However, it lends itself less to talking about imbalances of power and more to talking about the ‘destination’: the needs which economic activity should help everyone up and down the country to fulfil.

With everything we tested, we were careful to avoid language that could play into a narrow or exclusive concept of the British nation. We found no evidence that these ‘new stories’ encouraged people to blame immigrants or those at the bottom for economic problems – though it’s worth noting that we also didn’t find compelling evidence they made this less likely.

What next?

Efforts to shift the narrative must fill not just a communications gap, but an intellectual gap and an organising gap. We need new ideas, new solutions and new ways of making them a reality just as much as we need new messages.

These are times of great possibility and also of great danger. For the first time in decades, there is a sense that the economic consensus is fracturing, that a change must and will come. A space has opened up to talk and think differently about the economy. The question is what this space will be filled by: a narrow, nationalistic story which scapegoats outsiders, or a positive vision for a just and sustainable future? It is imperative that civil society rises to the challenge. We hope that Framing the Economy provides a solid foundation for this vital task  – but the real work is only just beginning.

For those wishing to learn more either about the findings or about methodology, the full report of the Framing the Economy project is available here.

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