Taking back the centre: how the left in Britain can regain its voice

The right in Britain increasingly dominates the discourse on all major political issues. Is the answer for the left to move to the centre? Or can it pull the centre towards itself?
Clifford Singer
30 September 2011

In a recent, thoroughly bleak article for LabourList, Owen Jones summed up the progressive predicament:

"The left – in its broadest sense – has to face an alarming reality. The right is now hegemonic on the main political issues of the day: the economy, social issues and law-and-order. As the right taps into a reservoir of anger and resentment in our divided society, it is harder than ever for the left to get a hearing on practically anything."

His lament is relevant not just to the traditional institutions of the left – the Labour Party and trade unions – but to newer initiatives like the online campaigns whose innovative tools to organise supporters have arguably outstripped their ability to communicate beyond the politically committed.

How do we respond?

Twenty-five years ago, with Labour struggling to be heard following two humiliating election defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould's response was to set up the Shadow Communications Agency – part of a strategy that was bold, brilliant and deeply flawed. It was bold and brilliant because it put effective communication techniques at the heart of Labour's modernisation. But it was deeply flawed in its assumption that Labour's only hope was to move ever rightwards, capturing the prized swing voters of the centre ground with a set of policies dictated by opinion polls and focus groups.

Writing in Renewal, Robin Archer contrasts this "centre-seeking" strategy with Thatcher's predominantly "preference-shaping" approach, which sought to pull the centre towards it. All political leaders use both approaches to some extent – therein lies the art of politics – but New Labour got the balance wrong:

"The great paradox of the centre-seeking strategy is that it too has preference-shaping consequences. They are just not the consequences that are anticipated by its proponents. For by moving Labour to the centre, this strategy creates a new centre to the right of the old one: a new centre which, this strategy dictates, the party must now in turn move to occupy."

Now, with the neoliberal model decapitated by the economic crash, yet staggering on zombie-like while the left stares in bewilderment, it is ever more urgent for the left to get a hearing – and this time on its own terms. But that means facing some hard truths about our failure to communicate.

Archer cites Tony Benn as an example of a politician of the left who adopted an – "albeit unsuccessful" – preference-shaping strategy. If so, that doesn't bode well. But did the Bennite left really pursue such a strategy? They certainly denounced the centre-seeking approach – but in doing so threw the baby out with the bathwater. For Gould and Mandelson were quite right to argue that Labour needed to transform its communication machinery and to win the centre ground. The problem was that the strategy they used to win those swing voters was ultimately self-defeating. But at least they had a strategy, which is more than can be said for many of their critics.

So we must search elsewhere for inspiration – and a particularly fertile source is the rich literature on political language and framing that has emerged in the United States over the last decade. Three writers stand out: on the Democratic left George Lakoff and Drew Westen, and on the Republican right Frank Luntz (recently described on LabourList as "a kind of evil Peter Mandelson" – which will surprise those Labour members who thought Peter Mandelson was the evil Peter Mandelson).

Luntz makes extensive use of opinion polls and focus groups, but employs them to find ways to communicate effectively rather than determine policy. His 2007 book, Words That Work, explores his mantra that "it's not what you say, it's what people hear":

"You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs. It's not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking and feeing in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart."

Luntz, whose lessons have been studied closely by Cameron's Conservatives, provides a fascinating insight into what the left is up against. In the US he rebranded inheritance tax as "death tax", oil drilling as "energy exploration", and privatised social security as "personalised" retirement accounts. Tellingly, his reaction to being labelled Orwellian is to redefine Orwellian to mean acting in the spirit of George Orwell – perhaps making Luntz the first Orwellian Orwellian.

Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist who takes his cue from philosopher David Hume's 18th century observation that "reason is the slave to emotion, not the other way round". In his 2007 publication, The Political Brain, he argues that the left's tendency to depend on fact-laden appeals and shopping lists of policies is doomed to fail:

"If you think about voters as calculating machines who add up the utility of your positions on 'the issues', you will invariably find yourself scouring the polls for your principles. And as soon as voters perceive you as turning to opinion polls instead of your internal polls – your emotions, and particularly your moral emotions – they will see you as weak, waffling, pandering, and unprincipled. And they will be right."

Westen stresses the need to reach out to the centre, arguing for a narrative that draws on "shared sentiments that have become associated with the other party, allowing moderates to cross over without feeling like strangers in a strange land". But he adds:

"Conversely, if the master narrative doesn't alienate about 30 percent of the electorate, it isn't a good narrative, either. About a third of the electorate won't turn left under any circumstances, and if the Democrats' story doesn't make them angry, there's something wrong with it."

Lakoff, like Westen, challenges the notion that "the truth will set you free". A cognitive linguist, he is best-known for 2004's Don't Think of an Elephant, though a more developed account of his views can be found in 2006's Thinking Points – available as a free pdf. Lakoff explores the role of "frames" – the "mental structures" through which we understand reality. He gives an example:

"Think of the framing for relief. For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction, and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame."

To be accepted, the facts must fit people's frames. If not, the frame stays and the facts bounce off – even when this goes against their economic self-interest. Lakoff distinguishes between "deep frames" and "surface frames":

"Surface frames are associated with phrases like 'war on terror' that both activate and depend critically on deep frames. These are the most basic frames that constitute a moral worldview or a political philosophy. Deep frames define one's overall 'common sense'. Without deep frames, there is nothing for surface frames to hang on to. Slogans do not make sense without the appropriate deep frames in place."

Crucially, Lakoff rejects the idea of an ideological centre made up of "moderates", but instead says the centre consists of "biconceptuals" – people who are conservative in some aspects of life and progressive in others. The left must engage those progressive values – just as Ronald Reagan understood that blue-collar workers were often progressive in their union politics but conservative at home, and so used political metaphors based on the home and family to extend this way of thinking.

Lakoff's ideas cannot be imported from the US ready-made. They assume a closer correlation between economic and social conservatism than exists in Britain, and a more influential church (distorted by a powerful strand of Christian fundamentalism). Lakoff's conservative model is characterised by the "strict father", whose progressive nemesis is the "nurturant parent". This is a very different perspective to Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour, which pitches a working-class conservatism of "faith, family and flag" against economic neoliberalism.

There are ethical issues too. Even if we reject Luntz's Orwellian excesses, are we proposing a form of campaigning that is overly manipulative? And is it predicated on a continued "professionalisation" of politics, albeit one where linguists and psychologists displace the spin doctors and special advisers of old? (On the other hand, grassroots campaigns like UK Uncut have made imaginative use of framing and metaphor.)

Over the last year or so, a serious attempt to apply these ideas in a UK context has been launched by a loose coalition of mainly environmental and development charities, whose findings are published online at Common Cause. Alongside this is Green Words Workshop, run by Green Party activists Rupert Read and Matthew Wootton. While Common Cause has operated at a more theoretical level, Green Words Workshop offers more applied analysis, including a sharp critique of the alternative vote campaign.

Yet the broader left and labour movement has been largely absent from this debate. A first step would be to create a more practical and political version of Common Cause. This is a long-term project that involves defining the basic values we campaign on, establishing the frames that reinforce those values, and then disseminating those frames. Right-wing think-tanks have spent many millions of dollars on this over several decades. We have some catching up to do.

A good starting point for defining those values could be Marc Stears' observation that the "Labour tradition is at its strongest when it strives to overcome the constraints placed on people's lives by the unaccountable power of capital". (For an excellent study of how that power is wielded, see David Beetham's recent Unelected Oligarchy.) But this highlights a problem: Luntz said "it's not what you say, it's what people hear" – but it's also what you do. So while Tony Blair proclaimed "for the many, not the few" – a neat summation of the sentiment expressed by Stears – his policies and actions often suggested otherwise, symbolised by a proclivity to party beyond the call of duty with unsavoury billionaires ranging from Silvio Berlusconi to Rupert Murdoch. You can't frame your way out of that.

The recent experience of Labour in power thus continues to constrain its ability to be heard – and more so than its choice of words. There may be deeper trends at work here too – perhaps our mainstream political leaders simply no longer have the credibility and authority to shape public opinion. One group that understands this is the TaxPayers' Alliance. Instead of trying to push the Conservative Party rightwards from within, it has targeted public opinion directly in a bid to shift the political centre (and thus all three major parties) to the right.

For the Conservatives it's a win-win: groups like the TPA help to bolster party support, but their independence means they can act as outriders, putting on the agenda policies that party officials cannot (yet) support. This is what the TPA did in 2009 when, along with the Institute of Directors, it called for £50 billion of spending cuts; in hindsight their only mistake was to underestimate the size of the cuts to come. Labour and the broader left desperately need equivalent organisations (and so, for that matter, do the Tea Party-battered Democrats, which is why the Campaign for America's Future is organising a conference next month aimed at founding such a movement).

Take, for example, the 50p tax rate on the richest 1%. Imagine an organisation – let's call it the Other 99% (not a completely original idea) – that targets the media TPA-style. It would rebrand attempts to cut the top rate in a way that echoes Barack Obama's framing of proposed inheritance tax cuts in 2006 as the "Paris Hilton Tax Break". And because Luntz, Westen and Lakoff all agree that repetition is crucial, this frame would need to be used consistently throughout the left. One more thing: the demand must be for a 60p top rate. That way Labour gets to occupy the comfortable middle ground – backing 50p – and for once that middle ground doesn't move to the right.

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