George Lakoff

Why are we still letting the right win?

Thinking about this election campaign and what might happen afterwards, I dug out this interview given by the American professor George Lakoff to the Guardian’s Zoe Williams back in February. It’s well worth a read if you want to know why the left has been generally losing the argument for the last 35 years.

Lakoff’s field is cognitive linguistics and his thing is “framing”. From what I can see this basically means the set of values we use to make sense of the world around us. They determine how we respond to events in our personal lives and well as things happening in the news. Frames “structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason… For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic,” says Lakoff. When we come across an idea that fits our frames, it strikes us as “common sense”. And in the long term political arguments are won by those who get most people to see their views as common sense.

Although he calls himself a “liberal” (US version), Lakoff is hyper-critical of both the American and European left. He reckons that by continually compromising with conservatives in spurious pursuit of the “middle ground” (which he says in value terms doesn’t exist — left and right are just two different ways of looking at the world), we are allowing politics to be shifted ever further to the right. Lefties are literally conniving with right-wingers in widening inequality, eroding human rights, trashing the planet and inflaming racial and national hatreds.

The left relies too heavily on reasoned argument and empirical evidence, when most people make political judgements on gut instincts about the world. Lakoff calls this emphasis on evidence, research and statistics (all produced within the framework set by global free market capitalism, of course) “Oxford philosophy”. Too often, the left ignores the emotional impact of political argument. Conservatives know this; they ruthlessly exploit emotion and present arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff. “Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

We’ve seen this during the British election campaign. Early on, the Tories’ blizzard of statistics purporting to show an “economic miracle” left voters cold and a bit mystified. The Tories panicked and spent a week trying to be more Labour than Labour with promises to splurge cash on the NHS and freeze rail fares. That didn’t work either – because it wasn’t credible coming from them. Finally, they reverted to what they do best: a highly emotional appeal to English nationalism coupled with lurid scare stories about the red and tartan menace about take over Britain. Everyone agrees that achieved “cut through” with voters, even if the Tories’ credibility is so shot that it doesn’t seem to have shifted many actual votes. But it did at least stabilise a campaign which seemed to be in meltdown three weeks ago.

One of the features of this later phase of the Tory campaign is the way they have stopped responding to arguments based on statistics at all: they just ignore them and press on with their emotional case. Household incomes down since 2010? “Alex Salmond is going to pick your pocket”. Record use of food banks? “The Labour recession.” Unbelievable cuts on the way? “Benefit scroungers.” Debt higher than in 2010? “Labour chaos! Greece! Jockalypse!” It ain’t pretty, it ain’t fair, but there’s a coherent message for people to respond to (think about how a novel can be completely coherent even though it’s all made up): Labour caused the recession. Labour spent too much of your money. Labour will do it again, aided and abetted by the SNP, who also want to steal your money. They want to break up the country. They’ll sell us out to Europe, and so on. Yes, it’s bollocks, but it’s coherent bollocks.

Labour has mostly tried to unpick the Tory case bit by bit – the recession was global, the deficit wasn’t that high by international standards, our plans are fully costed and set out in our manifesto and carved on a slab of stone we’re going to stick in the Downing Street garden – rather than make a coherent emotional appeal itself.

François Mitterrand speaking at Caen during the 1981 presidential campaign.

François Mitterrand wasn’t particularly left-wing but succeeded in making an emotional connection with voters.

Labour could say boldly that a decent welfare state is the cornerstone of a civilised society, especially in an uncertain globalised economy; it could argue that the recession was the product of decades of craven accommodation to the financial markets, pointing out how those markets can, in François Mitterrand’s memorable words, “ruin the work of millions of men and women in a few hours”; it could argue that public spending and collective endeavour built the world’s best universities, developed the internet, and established the world’s most successful universal healthcare system and the world’s most respected broadcaster (not to mention defeated the Nazis). When Labour has made some headway in this campaign, it’s been by making these emotional appeals rather than fighting on the Conservatives’ home ground.

For Lakoff, Tony Blair’s “third way” was just a symptom of the left’s confusion. We’re supposed to be against inequality but we’ve pursued free market policies which widened inequalities. We’re supposed to be against racism and xenophobia, but we’ve competed with Tories over who can be nastier to immigrants. We’re supposed to be against rampant corporate greed, but we’ve encouraged financial and property speculation and and let some very wealthy businesses pass their tax obligations onto working people. This isn’t compromise or moderation, it’s just weakness and incoherence.

And too often the left opposes the right in purely instrumental terms. We oppose benefit cuts by arguing the toss over the extent of the abuses. Instead we should be defending the principle of a welfare state and the values behind it — equality, human dignity, maintaining stable families and communities (remember when it was, rightly, called “social security”?) When the right attacks unions, we point out how far unions have been reformed, how little threat they pose to the oligarchs who control the global economy, how the “red menace” has been exaggerated. Instead, we should be asking how else working people are to supposed to get a fair day’s pay for a long day’s work.

This doesn’t mean a lurch to the left in policy terms. It’s more about emphasising what you stand for rather than the compromises you will inevitably have to make. There is a moral and emotional case for moderate social democracy as well as for more exotic forms of leftism. Labour’s policies in this election are actually more distinct from the Tories than at any time since 1992, but you’d never know it because the argument has been mostly about responding to what the Tories say is important. Which leads Labour wide open to allegations from nationalists and Greens that it’s betrayed working class voters.

If you think back over the last five years, it’s still much easier to grasp what the Tories stand for than what Labour is all about. From their campaign, you’d never guess the Tories have been in coalition and have achieved almost none of the objectives they set out in 2010. They’ve stuck to talking about what they stand for and what they’re against. Labour, on the other hand, has spent most the campaign talking about what they won’t do. That silly stone apart, Miliband’s done it quite well, but Labour had ceded too much ground before the campaign begun. It can take years for political ideas to resonate with the public: people didn’t really “get” Thatcherism until about 1985.

Lakoff’s argument doesn’t so much explain why Labour doesn’t win elections as why it fails to lay the foundations for future victories and build up the kind of loyalty that can see you through rough times. And it may explain why the left has to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.

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