The big three words: communicating economic competence

"Let there be no doubt – May's election results were nothing but devastating. But out of such a low point, there is no alternative other than to keep our heads high. We must re-build and re-organise so we can look towards 2020 and win.

It was with this objective in mind that the Young Fabians hosted an event in Parliament last month on "the Path to Renewal". The event provided a space for members and guests – including Diane Abbott and Wes Streeting – to give their views on what went wrong, and what to do next.

A range of opinions were presented. But one of the take home messages was that using language intelligently is critical to succeed. As former PPC Sarah Sackman put it, we need to be a lot smarter in how we communicate our ideas to voters, and in how we communicate opposition to political opponents. Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that the election was lost in large part as a result of serious shortcomings with our communication strategy.

The first challenge here – and it shouldn’t be underestimated how crucial this is – is to debunk the idea that the Conservatives are the party of economic competence. Under the Tories, insecurity in the labour market has snowballed, inflation has on the whole outstripped wages, and working people have borne the brunt of cuts. The simple truth is that when the Conservatives are in power, the economy only works for narrow interests, and the majority miss out.

But Tory party machinery has successfully convinced many of precisely the opposite. They’ve parroted soundbites like ‘our long-term economic plan’ and 'Labour's great recession'. And so they’ve sold the idea that (a) they are the only party that can secure prosperity and (b) we caused the crisis. Both are objectively untrue, but that’s not the point – what matters is that large chunks of the electorate have come to believe these Tory myths.

Overcoming this will require a massive and coordinated effort. We’ll need to work together to re-equate the semantics of 'strong economy' with that of our party. To Labour activists, it's obvious: the very purpose of our party is to build prosperity from below so everyone, regardless of background, can live a fulfilling and prosperous life. The fact that many have lost sight of this party purpose shows how urgently we need to challenge embedded misperceptions.

We’ll need a clear narrative, one which re-frames the debate so that the Tory ‘strivers v. skivers’ myth is exposed for what it is – a device to pit ordinary people against each other. In its place an alternative model will have to be proposed; one that commits the party to re-organising the economy so that prosperity can exist in everyone’s lives, not just those who are fortunate enough to have been born into a life of economic security.

Ed Miliband arguably had many of the right ideas; his focus, for instance, on the cost-of-living crisis resonated with large sectors of the electorate whose living standards have stagnated, if not worsened, since the Tories came into power. But where he failed was in doing enough to show that fairness in society and developing a strong, robust economy are co-dependent. That strategy was doomed to fail; people want to know their material conditions will improve, not only that society will be fairer.

The next Labour leadership will have to be far savvier. They'll have show voters that social justice and economic competence aren’t in tension with one another, but mutually constitutive. The case is there and waiting to be made: Economists increasingly agree that as soon as we neglect something like inequality – one of the pillars of social injustice – then growth and wages stagnate. It is clear also that poverty levels do not only affect the lives of the economically disenfranchised, but the economy as a whole too.

Communicating economic competence must be the starting point for building a strategy for a comprehensive win in 2020. Only by focusing on this task and becoming the eloquent articulators of a programme for radical and transformative change – one which binds together social justice and economic competence – will we secure victory in 2020."

Pancho Lewis is a Young Fabian member

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