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The Battle of the Narratives

The Conservative general election campaign can be condensed to one word: security. Years of Labour's sky high spending, particularly on benefits scroungers, resulted in a deep recession, bankrupting our country.

The Conservative general election campaign can be condensed to one word: security. Years of Labour's sky high spending, particularly on benefits scroungers, resulted in a deep recession, bankrupting our country. It was up to the Tories to come in and make the tough decisions to fix our economy. Even if it hurt in places, it was needed to cut our debt. Labour, however, not content with destroying the economy once, wanted to do the same again under the leadership of Ed Miliband who was even more socialist than Blair and Brown. With this in mind, plus the fact that the SNP, who wanted to see the destruction of Britain, were going to hold Labour to ransom, the only stable way forward was a Tory majority. The narrative of the Tories being the secure way forward was strong, clear and concise. It was also a lie.

Mervyn King, former Bank of England governor, quite correctly stated that Labour spending in no way caused the recession but was instead due to an international banking crisis with 'shared intellectual responsibility across the political parties and financial institutions'. Anyone arguing that spending on schools and hospitals led to a worldwide economic meltdown is either an idiot or wilfully misinforming you. Admittedly, if Labour had been running a budget surplus prior to the crash then this would have given them greater scope for borrowing to stimulate the economy. However, the deficit prior to the crash was in no way large, smaller than when the Tories left office. It was only in November 2008 that Cameron dropped his support Labour's spending plans. Clearly, we cannot blame Labour's spending record for the crash.

The Conservative claim that they were doing the right thing, despite being difficult, is in equal need of questioning. It is generally accepted that, in a no pain no gain kind of way, the cuts were in the public interest. This assumption is false. The pain of austerity, particularly in the form of wage freezes and benefit cuts, choked off economic growth, hence why GDP per capita is still way below the pre-recession levels. Additionally, our productivity crisis has worsened, putting us significantly behind the supposed basket case of socialist France, not to mention Germany and the US. Potentially the most damning of all, the key policy that the coalition was founded on and the reason for the cuts, to eliminate the deficit in one Parliament, utterly failed by any measure, with the Conservatives creating more debt in five years than Labour did in thirteen. Quite how they became the party of economic credibility is rather questionable.

The claim that a Labour government, backed by the SNP, would be something akin to a communist takeover is rather bizarre. Miliband, while possibly being a millimetre left of Blair, during his tenure as special advisor to Brown constantly stressed the importance of keeping to the Conservative's spending plans. While the new manifesto might have backed slightly higher taxes and increases to market regulation, his refusal to reverse many cuts and plans to cut welfare even further are not signs of a government addicted to spending. As for the danger north of the border, considering the SNP had promised to do everything it could to keep the Tories out, the chances of them having a strong negotiation position was minimal.

Yet despite the narrative being laughably incorrect they still won. Why? Because it needed to be convincing, not factual. Labour failed to challenge this narrative. Admittedly, it would have been difficult due to the fact that Labour was in power during the crash for which it received the blame. A crisis of capitalisim was portrayed as a crisis of socialism. Additionally, the counterarguments are far more nuanced than the original narrative. Most people will switch off beyond the simple and clear statements. This clearly creates a challenge for Labour who need to work out how to effectively rebut this narrative, not to mention creating a narrative of their own. While I was strongly supportive of Miliband's policies, I must admit my ability to summarise the Conservative campaign to one word does not stretch to Labour. If Labour wants to win in 2020 they must realise this.

Sadly, it seems as if the leadership want to duck this issue. The Blairites seem to be under the assumption that a shift to the right will suddenly solve all our issues. However, becoming Tory-light will not win us back our lost votes. People didn't sit down and analyse where each policy fell on the left-right spectrum. Only political geeks like me do that (which might explain why I don't have a girlfriend). Saying aspiration a million times won't do us any good either. Tristram Hunt recently argued that Labour needed to win over the John Lewis shoppers like we did in 1997. What Hunt fails to realise is that many of those John Lewis shoppers now go to Aldi. The world has changed and reverting back to 'New' Labour would not be relevant. A shift to the right now would be about as sensible as Tony Benn's suggestion that Labour lost to Thatcher because they weren't left-wing enough. Instead, Yvette Cooper was correct when she said that Labour need not shift to the left or the right. This is not a battle between sides on the economic spectrum; this is a battle of narratives.

This blog was written by Thomas Diamond. His views are entirely his own.