In its first 100 days in office, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has launched a raft of substantial new policy initiatives, from NHS reform and academies to reorganising the police. The “Big Society” has emerged as a major theme, alongside a drastic programme or decentralising political power. Nick Clegg has big plans for political reform. The speed with which the government is moving and the radicalism of its programme are both big themes of the media narrative about the coalition.
The government has produced a lot of lists of speeches, policies and bills. But so far they have told only one story.
They started in the very first paragraph of the coalition’s full programme for government, which declared that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had come together to work in the national interest.
“The national interest”: above party and sectional interests; policies that are good for all of us. One of the most powerful frames in politics but, oddly, ministers hardly ever use it.
Right from that first press conference in the Downing Street rose garden, voters saw two people, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, uniting behind a common purpose. They embody the coalition’s narrative by looking almost like characters in old, familiar movies. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde was on to something when she compared the Cameron and Clegg partnership to a buddy movie -. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Road to Morocco. Tango & Cash, Maverick and Iceman.
And the metaphor of the “civil partnership” has been used frequently to describe the government.
Now for the plot of the story. The Coalition Agreement said that tackling the UK’s record debts would be the new government’s most urgent task. The chancellor, George Osborne, has since set a tough target - to have the deficit fixed by 2014-15. Seismic spending cuts are on the way which, by the normal rules of politics, could well leave the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats sharing the same electoral tomb.
Just as well the coalition’s story comes with a ready made villain. By leaving behind a record budget deficit of 11% of GDP, and not explaining where or how they would make cuts, Labour hardly needed to audition for the part. George Osborne has seized every opportunity to blame the previous Labour administration for the cuts that are now needed. [Click here, here and here] Cleaning up the last lot’s financial mess – a story that seems almost as old as democratic politics itself.
Earlier this month, the energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, pulled the story strands together, in his speech on Labour’s legacy.
It only took one party to create this mess. Now our two parties – the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – have come together in the national interest to clear it up. Labour’s [leadership] candidates cannot go on pretending that the budget deficit doesn’t exist. It does and it is the single greatest challenge facing Britain. They must take responsibility. You cannot keep spending when the money dries up. Write cheques you know will bounce. Put party advantage before the national interest.
But that’s not enough. Any politician who is selling painful change has to tell stories that appeal to a bigger sense of morality.
In his Bloomberg speech this week, Osborne set out his account – his story – of how the budgetary crisis came about. He described the forthcoming spending review as "a crucial stepping stone on the way to recovery". The chancellor added that "the choices within that review will lay the foundations for future growth and for a fairer society”.
There was a new, clever twist to the narrative. Osborne denied that it was “progressive” to oppose the cuts, arguing that left-of-centre politicians in other countries agreed that fairness for future generations and job seekers could only be delivered once the nation’s finances were in order.
Osborne alluded to a few springboard stories but, like many British politicians, did not develop them fully.
In the US it was Bill Clinton and the New Democrats who made the case for balanced budgets and deficit control in the early 1990s. And during an economic recovery they eliminated the budget deficit and pushed ahead with deeply controversial welfare reform.
In Canada, [Liberals] Jean Chretien and Paul Martin took the necessary steps to bring their exploding deficit under control.
Or there is Goran Persson, the Swedish Social Democrat Prime Minister, who turned a 9% budget deficit into a 4% budget surplus.
And he touched on a more hypothetical type of morality story by simply asking:
. . . what is fair about forcing the next generation to pay for the debts of our generation?
The government’s narrative has at least two potential weaknesses. First, the “happy ending” is not too clear and phrases like “future growth” and “a fairer society” have little emotional impact.
Second, there are powerful counter-stories. As The Economist pithily summed it up last week:
Debate rages—not only in Britain—over whether it makes economic sense to tighten fiscal policy so much, so fast. And austerity plans may not be achievable without ripping vital public services to shreds.
But most people buy the coalition’s story, so far at least. This week, a YouGov poll found that a majority of the public have confidence in the government’s ability to run the economy (55%) and there is widespread confidence in their ability to cut the deficit (62%). Last month, YouGov found that 48% of people blamed the previous Labour government for the spending cuts while only 17% blamed the coalition government. 19% blamed both.
Now, here’s a tricky postscript. What have stories about massive spending cuts and the morality of good housekeeping and fiscal redemption got to do with the Liberal Democrats’ narrative of “stopping the rot at the top” and our established brand as the most understanding and empathetic party, “for ordinary people, not the best off”?
More on that soon.