On Framing Austerity

Popular support for austerity as a response to economic crisis remains very high in the UK. Statistics on unemployment, child poverty, homelessness seem to fall on deaf ears. So far none of the campaigns which have been launched to challenge the austerity agenda appear to have had the slightest impact. Why is this?

One very convincing explanation lies in idea of framing. According to the work of George Lakoff and others, people do not simply evaluate the available evidence and form their opinions on this basis. Rather, they tend to accept facts which fit into their picture of the world, and reject those that don’t fit. A great deal of research into the way that people perceive events, think and form opinions supports this.


And it is not just a conscious thing – research into the brain shows that we take metaphors much more seriously than was previously assumed. When we hear it repeated endlessly and everywhere that the national credit card has been maxed out and that we urgently need to cut back on spending, we tend to believe it, whether we want to do so or not.

A recent report <http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/framing-the-economy-the-austerity-story>from the New Economic Foundation addresses this problem head on. Over the last few years a very effective story has been told, which barely bears repeating here: The country is broke, austerity is a necessary evil; government spending has grown out of control; many are addicted to welfare and have no incentive to work; many are simply lazy and their outright refusal to work conflicts with the hard-working efforts of the rest of us; the national debt is a ticking time bomb which simply must be addressed.

This story has been effective because it contains key elements: it relates powerfully to people’s own experience of the world; it contains vivid and memorable metaphors; it consists of a simple message repeated endlessly and consistently.

If we want to challenge this agenda, we need to change the terms of the debate. It is clearly not enough to claim, as Labour has done, that austerity is too fast or the cuts too deep. Those of us who oppose austerity have to develop alternative frames which make sense to people and have an emotional appeal.

To this end the NEF report makes a series of suggestions. They suggest the following would be effective messages that the left should try to communicate as much as possible:

*1. **Casino economy – our economy is like a casino, it is in need of reform so that **it can be stable and useful.*

*2. Treading water – we are not making any progress as a nation; we are running **to stand still, struggling but not moving forward.*

*3. Big bad banks – our current problems are the result of a financial crisis that we, **and not the banks that caused it, paid for.*

*4. Big guys and little guys – there are two types of people in Britain, the little guys **who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and **power and play by their own set of rules.*

*5. Jobs Gap – the biggest issue facing our country is the jobs gap: people who **want to work but can’t, people who work hard but don’t take home a decent **wage and young people who cannot be sure of a good job.*

*6. Time for renewal – we need to rebuild and renew what made Britain great– **from the railways to our education system. We need to invest.*

*7. Austerity is a smokescreen – The Coalition uses the deficit as an excuse to do **what they have always wanted to do like shrink the state and privatise the NHS. **We cannot trust them; they aren’t out to help ordinary people.*

We can, indeed should, debate which of these messages may resonate more powerfully with the public. Some would clearly be much more effective than others. We also need to use whatever resources we can to find out which ones work best. They all potentially present alternatives messages which exploit certain sentiments which are widely held and deeply felt. Whichever messages we choose will need to be repeated as consistently, as clearly and as widely as possible.

One hopeful sign that Miliband and co may be aware of the potential of such an approach was his recent instruction to MPs and ministers to refer to ‘social security’ rather than ‘welfare’. But if Left Unity is serious about having any sort of impact on public debate in this country it will have to take up this challenge and go much further.

I’m sure that these ideas will provoke a furious reaction from some on the left who are allergic to any attempt to rethink the way we use language to formulate and communicate our ideas. For me such a debate will be very welcome. We cannot just keep trying, and failing, to appeal to people’s rationality.

The same goes for climate change. No amount of appeals to people’s rational sense of self-interest has worked in trying to raise awareness of the coming catastrophe. The need to behave sustainably does not fit into people’s framework for understanding reality, which is based on infinite economic expansion and ever-increasing consumption. We have to develop frames which are based clearly on the notion that we cannot separate economic and social development and environmental impact, that the economy and the environment are not two separate entities but one. Thinking in new ways, seeking to reframe debates about all aspects of how we perceive and organise our social reality has to be an integral part of the project to build an effective left movement in this country and elsewhere.

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