Language as an opening gambit

By Mike Buckley

Language often portrays welfare as abhorrent

Language often portrays welfare as abhorrent

Words matter. Ideas matter, narratives matter – maybe more than policies, personalities, and parties. I’m not going to nail my colours to the mast on this one, but it’s a thought worth exploring. A few things have turned my mind to this over recent weeks. Firstly, a very broad comparison of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Few politically minded people will forget that the 2008 campaign was very clearly focused on a core message of hope and change. They’re not specifics, but everyone likes hope and change, and we all knew what Obama stood for. Admittedly its harder to be the hope and change candidate after four years in office, hence perhaps his difficulty in framing himself quite so clearly this time around, but four years ago he was highly focused, and it brought dividends.

Over on our side of the pond, a couple of ideas have struck me over recent weeks. First, someone, somewhere, decided to stop talking about social security and to start talking about welfare. In some ways this is a minor shift. Social security has, after all, forever been part of the welfare state. But the change I think matters and I suspect has something to do with changed perceptions towards people who receive benefits. We all want to be socially secure, right? And to have a wonderful state provided safety net beneath us for when the times go bad? But the idea of people living on welfare is portrayed as abhorrent. Welfare (without the following ‘state’) also sounds somewhat American to me, and we know from our US politics that they don’t like handouts. To me, there’s something inclusive, communal, based in solidarity, around social security, while welfare sounds like something that happens to other people. If the general perception is that benefits are bad – particularly for people of working age – it will be easier to cut them, leaving large swathes of the population with not enough to live on. This is happening under our very noses. How much a change of name has to do with this is, I’m sure, impossible to know with any certainty, but I’m positive that it’s been part of the story.

Second, recently our Conservative friends have been justifying austerity on the basis that we’re in a race with comparable countries that we have to win. Witness Cameron’s recent conference speech: “Unless we act, unless we take difficult, painful decisions, unless we show determination and imagination, Britain may not be in the future what it has been in the past…Because the truth is this: We are in a global race today and that means an hour of reckoning for countries like ours; sink or swim; do or decline.” To the Economist, this is “splendid stuff” (though they do wonder therefore why he’s crippling the economy with a “barmy” immigration policy). My question is this: is the competition metaphor an accurate reflection of reality or a crude and inaccurate narrative to force
us to swallow a little more austerity medicine, all the while believing that the good times (when, presumably we achieve economic paradise while the French and Germans sink to 19 th century levels of poverty and woe) are just around the corner? Are we really in a global race where some will win (in Cameron’s eyes, those that cut employment rights, benefits and red tape), or is our fate actually connected to that of others, our wellbeing dependent on theirs? In a connected, globalised world I would suggest the latter to be the case. This affects policy, of course. We’ve seen this recently with regard to the EU – are they our competitors to be resisted or our allies to be supported?

Are we really in a race where some win & others lose, or are our futures more intrinsically connected?

Are we really in a race where some win & others lose, or are our futures more inextricably linked?

These narratives and our response to them matter if we don’t want the benefits system to be seen as grasping welfare for a few no-hopers at the bottom who can’t be bothered to open their blinds in the morning, or our economic policy to be seen as attempt to get one up on our European neighbours. This is in opposition to policies which can lead to prosperity and opportunity, both for us and for our European neighbours, with whom our futures are inextricably linked. The economic policy narrative matters because it is rooted in a rather depressing zero-sum game whereby our gain is their loss, and vice versa, as if there were only so much prosperity, opportunity or success to go around. Surely on the left our narrative ought to be different – that we’re better together, that we’re stronger when seeking collective security, prosperity and growth, and that greater austerity here is the only thing likely to do us harm, not the French.

So if our opponents are using language as an opening gambit, setting the terms within which debate can occur by forcing us to talk of welfare rather than security, a race where we or our fellow racers are bound to sink without trace, what do we do about it? I would suggest that Ed Miliband set a useful precedent a few short weeks ago – parking some tanks on their lawn. One Nation Labour is a clear land grab using language, and its attendant set of ideas, as the heavy weaponry. We need to make a similar land grab with social security, with the economy and with the EU, and stop the Tories setting the terms of debate before we’ve even entered the fray.

Ideas, anyone?

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