Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Spirits of Rational Fear

The art of politics as we all know, is not confined solely to the domain of excellent policy. As vulgar, as utterly despised by the public as it usually is, the capacity to effectively translate policy into platform is completely contingent on message, on narrative. We might call it the art of persuasion but this sounds far too eulogistic.

Most people are not economists or researchers, they are busy, hard pressed and hard at work trying to survive and succeed in their own lives and those of their children. They rely on the information they receive from the media, and as is by now well known, the media, not altogether the faithful servants of their political masters, have a tendency to highlight, amplify and transmit rather selectively according to their bias.

And this bias is not merely political, it is also one of commercial expedience. The desire is to deliver the 'essence' of what is said, and what it means to the public in a way that sells papers or attracts advertising revenue. In a sense, it is ineradicable. The voting public have high information costs when they engage in politics; it takes a lot of time and effort to learn party positions, absorb arguments and decide on the merits. Even if papers published meticulously and faithfully every word of every speech, this would not solve the problem.

As such, we run into a lot of recurring difficulties. Complex or paradoxical arguments, while often valid and important, are easily dismissed by someone with confidence and a more simplistic and readily understood argument. Simple, short and punchy ‘messages’ are far more easily absorbed, understood and transmitted than lengthy and detailed ones. And it is easier to pander to emotional response, than to engage intellectual enquiry.

We are not so much the slaves of long dead economists, as the thralls of warring tribal chieftains of economics, with private citizens picking favoured economists to read and follow, who in turn side politically with one party or another. Economics, almost invariably is too important to remain strictly scientific, and in any case the voices we hear are those with an agenda, doubtless with the most sincere of motives.

Right now I think it is emotions chiefly which render the economic argument in the UK difficult. It is not merely the packaging of austerity as somehow brimming with moral rectitude, but the fear and uncertainty which surround us. Even at the best of times voters tend to prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t. Standout catastrophes such as Black Wednesday and the Winter of Discontent may dislodge a government, but poor economic governance alone is not necessarily sufficient.

With disaster potentially looming over the Eurozone, it should come as no surprise that citizens of the United Kingdom are fearful about the prospects for the future. I suspect that even those economists who are confident about the right path forward domestically shudder from the base of their spines to calculate the repercussions if the Euro were not to be stabilised. This is no errant fear, but a wise one. The complexity and dangers which such an event would herald are staggering.

This may be one of the reasons Labour has felt very nervous about distancing itself too much from the Government’s austerity plans. Even if you could make the case normally that Keynesian solutions are the right way forward-- a challenge in itself, as it is not nearly as easy to neatly package into sound bites as austerity-- it is doubly difficult to encourage the public to change course while the European crisis hangs over the near future.

After all, as bad as things may be, the country hasn’t collapsed. That may sound absurd, but when things are this fearful, that is the phantom which haunts our discourse, and one Cameron has conjured willfully by evoking Greece like a cudgel at every opportunity (with remarkably little said of Ireland, a country his Chancellor wanted to emulate not so long ago).

The main narrative we hear from the Tories is that they have credible plans, that they are firm, that they have made the UK a safe harbour in the storm. This has made it very difficult for Labour to be bold and distinctive. It has evoked at every turn a potential disaster from bond market vigilantes and higher interest rates. Many in this country are only barely surviving because of low mortgage rates, and default might be a twitch of the market away for them.

The British people will not want to risk an alternative until the storm clouds pass, I think. And when they do, if they do, it will also be harder for the Prime Minister to blame our domestic failures on the Eurozone. That will be a critical moment. If Labour does not differentiate itself then, it will be ignored, it will be mocked, and it will gather no praise from anyone. Neither its supporters nor its critics.

At that point a powerful alternative narrative will be needed to present an opposition with a vision. Another way of seeing the future which lifts the shadow from our current path and provides a believable and distinctive way forward. It is hard enough in opposition normally, doubly so when you only recently lost power. Add to this the internal opposition of the coalition and it is not enough to simply tinker at the edges. The public must not see Labour as dithering or indecisive, as unwilling to commit. There must be absolute clarity.

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