I think it's plausible that both the Coalition parties will have a similar top-level narrative:
The economy is on the right path again, but the task is not finished.
The country was in a terrible state five years ago. Britain was being dragged down by a dreadful deficit. The banks had got away with massive profligacy because of an unhealthy bonus culture. There was no money left to secure the future of our vital public services.
So when we took charge, we stopped the rot of Labour overspending, we clamped down on the banks, and we reduced taxes for hard-working people. Tackling the deficit needed tough, unpopular decisions. The country would be far worse off if we hadn't taken those decisions.
Now, we need to finish the job. Get Britain working again. Use the solid foundations we have put in place to build a strong and lasting prosperity. Labour would put the recovery at risk. But we can make Britain the envy of the world once again.
Labour, of course, will be saying the opposite:
This incompetent government has unnecessarily damaged Britain's public services and created mass unemployment; if you let them get back in, they will slash-and-burn all that we hold dear.
Five years ago, the world was faced with an unprecedented international economic crisis, caused by bankers who only cared about their bonuses. But the Labour Government led the way in preventing a global meltdown, and put Britain on the path to recovery.
But this Tory-led government dealt with the world economic crisis in the worst possible way. It cut spending too far, too fast. It created an entirely unnecessary double-dip recession. Britain would have recovered years ago, if it hadn't been for this mismanagement. The Tories cut taxes for their rich cronies, while the rest of the country suffered unemployment and cuts to schools, hospitals and other public services. Trebling tuition fees. The Granny Tax. The Pasty Tax. Picking on the disabled. Privatising the NHS. The Liberals were complicit in all this.
Now, what about the next five years? The Tories don't believe in public services. They want to cut and cut until there's nothing left. Don't let them finish the job.
But come down a level of abstraction, and the narratives are murkier at this stage in the parliament.
ConservativesThe Conservative Party is torn between, on the one hand, traditional fiscal prudence (reducing government over-spending, and slightly increasing taxes to pay off debt); and, on the other hand, free-market libertarianism that says that a radical pruning of the state can set wealth creators free and thus benefit everyone. Critics say that belt tightening can slide into stagnation and diminished public services. Meanwhile, radical pruning is a gamble that might result in mass unemployment and inadequate safety nets for the most vulnerable.
It could change, but currently the prudence chaps dominate the pruning brigade.
The likely Conservative narratives, one level down, would therefore be along the lines of:
After the turmoil of the Labour years, the firm grip of the Conservative-led Government was absolutely the right thing for the country. Now we need stability and steady growth. We need to nurture the recovery; we mustn't imperil it again with Labour's wild spending.
We've put the economy on a firm footing, so now it's time for us to sort out other socialist legacies: Fight back against the EU's invasion into our affairs. End profligate subsidies for inefficient energy generation. Reduce taxes on enterprise and hard work. Cut bureaucracy in social services. Allow museums and hospitals to charge foreign visitors. Renew Trident. Fund our armed forces properly. Give schools back the right to select pupils... etc. etc.
LabourMeanwhile Labour is torn between, on the one hand, the New Labour vision that public services deliver targets best when they are given as much freedom as possible from state regulation and are funded by partnerships with the private sector; and, on the other hand, the socialist ideal of the state looking after everyone in society, and spending money to keep the economy going. But critics say that New Labourism helped to create a situation in which irresponsible banks plunged the country into economic crisis; and in which hospitals and schools ended up lacking democratic accountability for their decisions. And the socialist ideal can easily slip, they say, into spending beyond our means and into weakening enterprise by sucking more and more of the nation's wealth into central government.
It's not clear to me how this tussle between New Labourism and neo-socialism will play out. Ed Balls was thoroughly implicated in New Labourism but Ed Miliband is (probably rightly) keeping his policy options open for now. My guess is that nearer the election there will be some kind of public catharsis: "It was Gordon Brown who wanted PFI. And the CBI was pushing for less regulation. We've learned from those mistakes."
It will be tempting, I think, to just stay on the attack:
Inhumane cuts. Ideological economics. Out of touch. Incompetent. etc. etc.But journalists will press for firm plans, and the public don't like politicians who are resolutely negative without getting into detail about how they would do things differently. So a possible positive Labour narrative, one level down, would be:
We need government to offer alternative models to uncaring capitalism: Address our housing crisis using cooperative and mutual models. Give tax breaks to businesses that fund apprenticeships. Give energy consumers, hospital patients and parents the power to call managers to account. etc. etc.
Liberal DemocratsThe LibDems have a number of narratives that don't offer alternative futures to each other, but compete for attention. For example, one narrative is about being in coalition in the first place:
The national interest demanded we help repair the economy while doing our damnedest to protect public services. We sacrificed our popularity to help the country overcome Labour's economic crisis.A parallel narrative is a defence of the things the Conservatives were able to do because the LibDems weren't sitting on the Opposition benches:
Would you have wanted an unfettered Conservative Government? Or right-wing Conservatives in league with the New Labour zealots who got us into this mess? We helped tame the worst excesses of the Right, although you have to box clever when your Coalition partner is five times the size of you.There's an obvious risk of a LibDem general election campaign consisting entirely of re-runs of the arguments about tuition fees, the Welfare Reform Act, the Health and Social Care Act, the so-called Granny Tax, etc.: the arguments that failed to convince the first time round.
Another narrative is:
Look at all the liberal stuff we managed to deliver, despite our under-representation in Parliament: shifting taxes from low and middle earners to the richest; getting extra money to schools to help poorer children; creating more new apprenticeships than Britain has ever had before; creating the world's first Green Investment Bank; restoring the link between pensions and earnings; setting up proper regulation of the banks; restoring many of the civil liberties thrown away by Labour; increasing social housing for the first time in 30 years; halting Labour's post office closures; and so on.Unfortunately lists don't make for great narratives. It's also not easy to explain concisely what makes this good stuff "liberal" in the same way that Conservatives and Labour stances are easily grasped.
All of these LibDem narratives are also too rooted in the past: they don't impel you through to an obvious LibDem future. I'm sure the manifesto will be packed full of good ideas, costed and crafted as usual. But, again as usual, it will somehow lack a coherent narrative to string it together. Some random slogan combining "free", "fair" and "opportunity" won't cut it.
Another problem with these LibDem narratives is that they don't offer congruencies with both possible future coalition partners.
An alternative plan might be to piggy-back on a less antagonistic version of the first half of the Conservatives' message...
After the turmoil of the economic crisis, it was absolutely right for the Conservatives and LibDems to come together for the good of the country. Now we need stability and steady growth. We need to nurture the recovery.... and then build a distinctively LibDem narrative:
We've got the economy under control, but what's to stop the crisis happening again? If big business is unaccountable to its employees, customers and shareholders, it will simply repeat the same risky behaviour. Meanwhile, if public services and quangos are unaccountable to the people they are supposed to serve, their spending of your taxes will again rocket out of control. We need to encourage democratic principles and innovative models of mutualism and cooperatives, and not just unconvincing "consultations". We need to navigate a narrow path between cold hard capitalism on one side, and overweight statism on the other.
And we also need to make central government more accountable by devolving more powers to our cities and counties to kickstart local economies, to sort out endemic housing issues, to take advantage of green opportunities, to support your hospitals and schools...
And most importantly, if we don't take greater action on climate change fast, the global economy will be threatened by a crisis that will make the last few years pale into insignificance. We need a massive programme to build more renewable energy capacity; to increase home insulation; to encourage businesses that tackle their carbon pollution responsibly; and to enhance the Green Investment Bank. These measures will help prevent climate change wrecking our economy, but they will also help stimulate our industry and create jobs right now.
Concluding remarksCrystal ball gazing is a notoriously unreliable practice in politics. And I have a lousy reputation for accuracy. But although the details may change rapidly, I suspect that many of the overriding concerns of Conservatives, Labour folk and LibDems are quite slow to change.
Narratives need to capture those concerns, to fix in voters' minds afresh what these parties stand for.
And narrative building takes years.
- The three battle pictures [1, 2, 3] are by Flickr user Dave Pearson, and are CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
- The cats were adapted by me from Microsoft Clip Art [license terms]