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If the Left wants to win again, it must learn the art of storytelling

In post-truth Brexit Britain, politics has become a storytelling competition. The Left must respond with a vision of solidarity and liberation.

An infographic illustrating the cognitive power of storytelling. Infographic by the One Spot. (Fair use)‘Take Back Control’ – it was the slogan wot won it. Those three words offered everything and promised nothing. They appealed to the desire for dignity and autonomy, but allowed voters to project their own grievances and remedies. The slogan appealed to the precariat as powerfully as it did to the aristocracy, because it suggested that order could be (re)established in an age of dizzying instability. In response to this vision of emancipation – however dishonest and deceitful – the Remain campaign offered an arid set of data, based on the mean-spirited calculation that people ultimately only care about money. There was one spark of inspiration: ‘Lead not Leave’, which promised a post-imperial nation, still grieving for its Empire, the influence that it craves. But Remain sidelined the messenger, Gordon Brown, for fear of his unpopularity over immigration.

Why is a story so important? Recent neuroscientific research illustrates what the ancient poets knew: that our comprehension and retention of information is enhanced when it is presented in a narrative. UKIP donor Arron Banks’ infamous quote about the Leave campaign’s “American-style approach” (“Facts don’t work…You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success”) actually frames it incorrectly: rather than facts vs story, facts have power only as part of a story. To adapt the adage of the other Clinton: It’s the story, stupid!

  Stories don’t stand alone: they compete with one another. Stories don’t stand alone: they compete with one another (hope vs fear; change vs status quo). For the social democratic Left, and for the Remain campaign in particular, this has led to a defence of the status quo – an unsustainable position in an unpredictable global climate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, social democrats were both averse and unable to develop a new narrative, instead embracing technocracy, embodied by the European Union. The shortcomings of this approach were demonstrated by the political fallout of the 2008 financial crash. Although the market meltdown and the stunted recovery exposed the New Right’s economics – a failure of de-regulation and austerity – in subsequent elections almost every centre-left party in Europe was defeated at the ballot box. The Right has been able to draw on simple but powerful analogies that are persuasive despite being economically illiterate (e.g. the national budget as the household budget). By contrast, social democratic technocratic concepts such as ‘predistribution’ have had little appeal and no imprint on the public imagination.

Ahead of the Democratic National Convention next week, it’s worth listening to Mario Cuomo’s Tale of Two Cities, a visionary speech delivered at the high watermark of Reaganism. The speech offers both a profound early critique of neoliberalism (it resonates strikingly in 2016) and a counter-narrative to its logic (“Democrats believe we must be the family of America, recognising that at the heart of the matter, we are bound one to another”). It gives a glimpse of how progressives can foster a collective consciousness and fashion a story that challenges the governing narrative (‘a shining city’). Although Obama has proven to be a transactional rather than a transformational president, his candidacy resonated strongly because his story reflected and enlarged America’s sense of itself. For Democrats in 2016, the need for a narrative encompasses a yearning for racial harmony in a time of radical polarisation. The whiteness of Bernie Sanders’ campaign cost him dearly, but Hillary Clinton’s candidacy of continuity is out of sync with the desire for change.

 Theresa May’s abolition of the Department of Energy & Climate Change is a decision even more suicidal than the Brexit vote.Fortunately, there is a narrative large enough to encompass the Left’s ambition, and compelling enough to unify and mobilise its diverse supporters. It is not just the Left that faces extinction – global warming is an existential threat to us all. Despite growing public consciousness about the issue, it has been starved of media coverage since the financial crash, and excluded from public discussion about how best to rebuild the economy. This process culminated with Prime Minister Theresa May’s abolition of the Department of Energy & Climate Change during the hottest year on record – a decision even more suicidal than the Brexit vote. Let’s be clear: the survival of the human species is not an issue – it’s the issue.

So what’s the story? It’s a tale of coercion, and the transformation to liberation. Man has exploited man, and man has exploited earth – with catastrophic consequences. Against this exploitation of the many by the few, the Left exists to fight for the commons: for shared public services and public spaces, against the privatisation of land and labour; for a democratic and transparent media, to illuminate rather than obfuscate; for a transnational politics of solidarity, which acknowledges the limits of national borders in an era of globalized capital; for clean, sustainable energy, harnessing the earth (solar, wind) instead of mutilating it (fracking, opencast coal mining). Already the UK is failing to fulfil its obligations under the Paris climate agreement.

Why is this green agenda so vital for the Left in 2016? Because the only way progressives can win again is through a broad electoral alliance bound together by a core concern. It will not be easy to convince long-time members of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the nationalists to unite tactically behind a candidate from another party – tribalism is at the core of British politics, and the cause of much of what is rotten. (Even prior to the 2010 coalition deal between the Tories and Lib Dems, there was toxic animosity between Lib Dem and Labour activists, particularly in three-way marginals). If an agreement is reached, the logistics will be tricky – but faced with the threat of a resurgent UKIP (likely led by Steven Woolfe) and the prospect of another term of Tory authoritarianism, the choice is clear. In post-Brexit Britain, the forces of reaction are in the ascendency, threatening people and planet. There’s no more inspiring story than a fight – quite literally – to save the world.

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm


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