The Political Narrative

Some of my writer friends detest the appropriation of the term ‘narrative’ into the political lexicon. I can understand their squeamishness. ‘Narrative’ is the friendly new form of that toxic word, ‘spin’ – telling tall tales to voters.

But I don’t object to politicians wanting narratives. “And I’ll tell you why,” as politicians often say.

There was an item on the Today Programme this morning, looking at a Manchester constituency with one of the lowest turnouts at the last election. An 18 year old mechanic said he wouldn’t be voting because he didn’t know how to vote. He said he didn’t understand politics. When asked who was Prime Minister he offered, in this order, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband.

Was that non-voter a disengaged idiot?  Plainly not. His job takes a high level of knowledge and skill, and the fact that he offered three political names suggests that he is aware of who is in the news. And yet his bewilderment is real and understandable.

In the past, when politicians didn’t talk about narratives, the stories parties told about themselves and their beliefs were clear, and clearly communicated. The mechanic might then have been a member of a trades union, who lived in a council house, and who drank in the local Labour Club. A narrative of class solidarity and the meshing of daily life, at work or play, into a voting choice would have felt wholly natural.  The same for a young articled clerk, going to Young Conservative dances in search of love.

Now that politics has largely disengaged from lived experience in the old, tangible way, there have to be new stories to connect bigger political ideas to those atomised and alienated voters. Narratives are better than ‘retail offers’ – the euphemism for legal bungs, bribes to voters, like discounted bank shares, special interest rates for pensioners, or whatever.

Of course this is where my fastidious writer friends raise their objections again, with angry moral force. For the narratives offered by politicians are not true.

Take the most successful narrative of the last five years – “Labour wrecked the economy, maxed out the credit card, left Britain a basket case like Greece, until, at the Eleventh Hour along came Cameron and Osborne, and Little Danny Alexander, the missing Osmond, to fix it.”  It’s a great story, that everyone can understand, especially when the megaphones in the press and broadcast media repeat it until we know every word.  I’ve heard countless vox pops during the campaign where people on the street repeat this tale as if it were true.  It isn’t true.

But we who pride ourselves on being crafters of narratives have no right to denounce the evil spin-meisters for telling tall tales. After all, it’s our art that they compliment by mimicry.

Three act structures, inciting incidents, points of no return, we know how to manipulate.  To withhold information, to invent unreliable narrators, to play tricks with point of view, we are forever seeking to arouse empathy, or sympathy, or antipathy. We do this every day.

The fact is that stories help us to make sense of the world, to process our experience, to give us hope. But stories can also manipulate, can turn people against others, can breed hatred.

In these times when political affiliations are no longer rooted and organic for many people, narratives are necessary. But as with any story-telling, we need to have a discerning readership, or audience, or electorate, who can tell the difference between the cynical and the sincere.

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