How Labour Can Win the Economic Argument

When the public believes the government can’t be trusted to make their family better off  the opposition is given a golden chance to win the next election. Our current economic crisis, coming after a decade of stagnation, means that Labour now has an opportunity to win. But victory is not guaranteed. Winning means telling a compelling story that shows why the Conservatives have made us poorer, and why Labour will make us more prosperous.

If you look at the past 50 years, you’d find that economic crises predict changes in government pretty well. The Winter of Discontent leading to Thatcher’s 1979 victory, the ERM crisis and Labour’s victory 1997 landslide, the financial crisis and the Conservative victory in 2010. After an economic crisis, voters naturally blame the lot in charge.

Voters, roughly, ask themselves three questions at elections – 1) Do I think the Leader will be a competent PM, 2) Do I trust them to make the country better off, and 3) Do their values align with mine? Leadership, economy, and values are the key to winning.

Crucially, voters ask these questions of the governing party first. If they look at the government, think the PM is competent, trust them to make them more prosperous, and their values align, they won’t even look at the opposition. Put another way, there is nothing William Hague could have done to win the 2001 election.

It is only when the government starts to lose on those three questions that voters look at the opposition. At this moment, with the fourth Conservative PM in six years, families facing a once-in-a-lifetime fall in incomes, and the government insistent on pursuing a divisive culture war that the public is indifferent toward, voters are looking at Labour again.

Our current economic crisis gives us the opportunity to show why we need a Labour government. Opportunities, however, are not the same as victories. Thatcher won after her early 1980s recession led to unemployment reaching three million. In the aftermath of the Falklands victory, any voters that did seriously consider us looked at a divided Labour party with an historically unpopular leader and said, “No thank you, I’ll stick with the devil I know.”

Don’t underestimate Truss. She knows she can win the next election if families trust her to make them richer. Stealing (part of) our energy price freeze policy was great politics.

But borrowing over £150 billion to pay for it when fossil fuel producers are making record profits was irresponsible. And not having a plan to keep our energy bills down once the price freeze ends is unforgivable. We need to massively expand renewables and insulate our homes, not a faith-based fracking bonanza, to get our energy bills down.

Winning the economic argument, however, means more than beating the Tories on this or any other single issue. Winning means weaving this cost-of-living crisis into a compelling story of why the Conservatives cannot be trusted to make families better off and why we’re the better choice. Statistics, facts, and policies alone will not cut it (as an Economist, it pains me to write that).

Stories have a common narrative structure – an initial setting with a problem that sets up the plot, an antagonist that causes it, and a protagonist that saves the day. Labour needs a compelling story on the economy which follows that narrative structure.

Here’s an economic story that Labour can tell to win the next election:

Today, British families are becoming poorer, businesses can’t afford to invest, and only the wealthiest are able to prosper (initial state of affairs).

We are in this mess because the Conservatives are irresponsible. They didn’t invest in this country’s people or places, their constant Brexit dramas mean businesses can’t plan, and their only priority is to make their super-wealthy friends even richer through massive tax cuts (Antagonist).

Labour is the responsible party that will make sure you can pay the bills, give businesses the certainty they need to fund expansion, and invest in people & places to get the economy growing. Families and businesses will thrive under a responsible Labour government that invests in our common prosperity (the Protagonist saves the day).

We have more than an opportunity to win the economic argument, we have a responsibility to do so. But victory will not be given to us, it will have to be earnt. And to do so, we need to tell the story of how a responsible Labour government will make families, business, and this nation more prosperous. And how the irresponsible Conservatives make us all poorer by giving our country’s riches to their super-wealthy mates.

For a deep dive on the importance of narratives to Labour’s electoral success see Thinking in Straight Lines by Chris Clarke.