Recently politicians in Europe and the US have been utilising political narratives to collate policies & philosophies into easily digestible sound bites much more frequently than their predecessors. The European Right, particularly nationalist groups, have so far been the dominant users of these narratives. The most recent example occurred in June when the Leave campaign won a surprising victory in the British EU referendum, utilising an anti- immigration narrative developed by the UK Independence Party and newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Despite the success enjoyed by the political Right, the Left has largely failed to utilise such narratives and has suffered in elections as a consequence.
The slogan “Make America Great Again”, a nod to Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, perfectly encapsulates Trump’s simplistic but also clear and digestible narrative.
The current US presidential election has demonstrated how important narratives have become in Western political discourse. Donald Trump is infamous for his rhetoric, which largely falls within a narrative that is nationalistic, xenophobic, and seeks to empower US foreign policy. The slogan “Make America Great Again”, a nod to Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, perfectly encapsulates Trump’s simplistic but also clear and digestible narrative. It is this narrative that has galvanised the support of the Republican core pushing him from joke candidate to the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Bernie Sanders has deployed political narratives to propel himself from the political periphery to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Sander’s narratives were focused on criticising the ultra-wealthy, fixated on economic inequality and the use of campaign donations to influence Congressional policymaking. The “top one per cent”, an iconic phrase from the Occupy Wall Street protests, was frequently used by Sanders and epitomises the nature of his narrative. It is a clear and easy to digest message (the wealthy are disproportionately powerful) which galvanised both independents and liberal Democrats.
Whilst Trump and Sanders are polar opposites of each other politically, the methods by which they galvanise their supporters and communicate their ideas are very similar. Weave a narrative, bind policy suggestions to that narrative, and then encapsulate the two into clear and often simplified sound bites the electorate can easily understand and rally behind. Clearly then, narratives are useful for fringe candidates and parties; but why should the European left use them?
Conventional Leftist parties, such as the British Labour Party, have generally suffered from two major problems that have electorally undermined them over the past decade. Firstly, the Left has struggled to collate what are often popular individual policies, into coherent campaigns and messages that the electorate can understand and support. Labour suffered from this problem during its failed 2015 general election campaign, which was largely incoherent and lacked the clarity present in the Conservative Party’s campaign. Secondly Leftists are increasingly struggling to connect with traditional core voters from former industrial heartlands, who feel politically and economically disenfranchised following the growth of globalisation and neoliberalism. Labour also faces this problem, notably during the 2016 EU referendum when Labour heartlands, like Sunderland and Middlesbrough, rejected the party’s campaign and voted Leave.
Labour has already attempted to create narratives in the recent past
The Left should embrace narratives because they can resolve these issues, by binding policies into narratives that both clarify policymaking, and galvanise voters because they resonate emotionally as well as politically.
This isn’t a radical idea, as Labour has already attempted to create narratives in the recent past. Ed Miliband tried to develop the “cost of living crisis” narrative, as a means of generating support for state interventionist policymaking, and to critique the government’s austerity measures. Unfortunately Miliband failed to achieve this goal, largely because of the delivery lacking clarity and coherence, as well as Miliband not being perceived as a potential future Prime Minister.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a stronger, but nonetheless flawed, attempt during the EU referendum. In a video set in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, bombed during the Second World War, Brown made an emotional appeal to remain in the EU. He cited the objectives of the European Economic Community (EEC) as being to prevent another world war through economic interdependence, and he began creating an emotionally engaging narrative to counteract Vote Leave’s anti-immigration rhetoric. Unfortunately Brown’s well-conceived narrative was not reinforced with the support of other Labour leaders, notably Jeremy Corbyn, to significantly affect the referendum.
To remain politically viable the Left must meet the Right head-on, and use narratives not for xenophobic or misleading purposes, but instead to clarify Leftist policymaking and reinvigorate disenfranchised voters.
A better approach would be to conceive a central idea and then orient policymaking towards that concept. For example, let’s assume the Labour Party creates the slogan “Labour for Growth”. One policy could be to invest in infrastructure to support the growth of the UK’s economy. Another policy could be to divert more resources to apprenticeships, thereby growing the skill of the labour force. Alone these policies are rather dull and mundane, but when oriented towards a central idea they become part of a narrative, which binds these policies together into an easy to understand message that can galvanise the electorate’s support.
An approach such as this already solves the first problem by creating a central theme that policymaking orients itself towards, which makes it easier for the electorate to understand. The second problem, galvanising disenfranchised voters, is far more dependent on the delivery of this message. Gordon Brown’s EU referendum video is a strong example of effective delivery of core campaign messages, but the entire party apparatus must demonstrate this style of delivery for the message to resonate with voters.
Narratives are nothing new in politics but since the financial crash narratives over immigration, national independence, and wealth inequality have become increasingly significant in Western political discourse. To remain politically viable the Left must meet the Right head-on, and use narratives not for xenophobic or misleading purposes, but instead to clarify Leftist policymaking and reinvigorate disenfranchised voters.