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You've Been Framed

12/09/2013 12:51 BST | Updated 11/11/2013 10:12 GMT

When Rachel Reeves is dismissed as 'boring snoring' and Harriet Harman is labelled Harriet 'Harperson', a familiar stereotype is revived: the worthy yet dull Leftie. The speeches of Conservatives, from Hannah More to Margaret Thatcher, so often seem snappier and sassier, as though there's something intrinsically charismatic about Right-wing polemic. But must the devil always have the best tunes?

The relative lack of opposition to austerity in the UK is in part the result of nifty metaphor-mongering by the titans of coalition spin. They've brought us 'scroungers and strivers', 'shirkers and workers', 'debt is dangerous' and 'welfare is a drug'. 'The nation has maxed out its credit card', they say. 'Austerity is a necessary evil'.

But now Left-leaning campaigners and think tanks are attempting to regain rhetorical ground with a concept called framing. The New Economics Foundation has released a report this week entitled 'Framing the economy: The austerity story', and at an event on 4 October the TUC is revealing the results of a poll on 'the best language and messages that make our case'. There's a concerted effort to pepper the mainstream political lexicon with 'Wonganomics', 'citizens not consumers', the 'bedroom tax' and the 'casino economy'.

The progressive critique of Right-wing frames is big in the US, inspired by George 'Don't Think of an Elephant' Lakoff. Lakoff notes that once people believe in a frame strongly enough, they ignore facts that refute it. So even though austerity is now criticised by none other than the FT's Martin Wolf, the metaphor of the economy as a household purse still resonates with the public. The NEF report's authors argue that the battle for the economy must be won with stories, not statistics, which is true, but they are up against a formidable problem.

The Right has very effectively created the impression that it doesn't 'do' rhetoric, it simply deals in common-sense reality. Any progressive alternative is scorned as pie-in-the-sky idealism, a luxury we can only afford in prosperous times. The seemingly neutral word 'taxpayer' exemplifies this covert freighting. Austerity, the Right insinuates, is not a frame. It's an unavoidable fact.

The Left has long been labelled more ideological than the Right. Even uttering the word 'capitalism' marks you out as not only an anti-capitalist, but also an incorrigible dreamer. Capitalism may have an 'ism' on the end, but it's presented not as a belief system but as a force of nature, as ineluctable as evolution.

This is of course nonsense. Cutting millionaires' taxes is both ideological and expensive. I welcome this departure from a compulsion to fight the Right on its own narrowly economic terms, this attempt to escape from the need to quantify homelessness or climate change as a purely fiscal liability. I'm glad to see political activism embrace the necessity of rhetoric. Ideology is dead; long live framing.

But can the British public be persuaded that austerity is a story among stories, a matter of political choice rather than down-to-earth necessity? Free-market capitalism is no more natural than egalitarian democracy. But it's a mark of how internalised it has become that progressives have to be so explicit. When was the last time you heard a Tory use the word 'narrative'?