Monday, November 30, 2009

Established Narratives, or why they hate us so much

I’ve recently been considering the idea of how Conservatives are seen in the general population and how other political parties are seen. Why? Well I’ve effectively recently started coming out as a conservative, to friends, acquaintances and colleagues, many of which are shocked and surprised that I am a conservative. “Never thought of you as a conservative, don’t know why” was a comment from an old friend on Twitter when he visited this blog the other day.

Or there was the comment from a friend at a recent party when it came up in conversation that I was working with the local party and even looking at becoming a conservative councillor, “but you’re nice” was the good friend’s reply, “I’ve never met a nice conservative”.

Here lies the issue for the party at the next election, we have to create one of the biggest swings in history, win seats that haven’t been held by a conservative since the early 1900’s, win over people who haven’t voted conservative for decades. We have to engage with people who we’re not currently engaged with, who haven’t even considered engaging with us before, and why haven’t they? It’s because we’re all nasty, we are the evil party, the party that caused hardship, that is just for the rich, that robs from the poor to give to our rich friends.

This idea that we are the nasty people of British politics pervades the public consciousness, despite evidence to the contrary. Individual aspects or outcomes of historical policy are held to be representative of the now, it doesn’t matter how much we talk about modern compassionate conservatism or the place of society over the state, we are the party that wants to cut the state back and leave the less well off with nothing. The austerity that was necessary to build the strong economy of the past decade (which Labour inherited) and the breaking of the miners' strikes is the prevailing view and memory of the non Conservative public. The Labour party are (as their recent Party Political Broadcast tried to paint them) the party of the people, the party cares, that created the NHS, and helped people out of poverty.

There is ample evidence to the contrary though, from as far back in history as Pitt the younger who fought vested interests to open up Britain to free trade The Duke of Wellington removed the worst political discrimination of the day against Catholics,  and Peel, Conservative PM, in 1834 outlawed the employment of women and children in mines, and regulated factory hours and public health. Disralei introduced one nation conservatism, still talked about by David Cameron today, to introduce social reform to “elevate the condition of the people”, he also carried out large scale slum clearances, and gave the vote to working men in towns and cities. It was Lord Salisbury in 1881 that created local councils to empower local communities, who championed local democracy and introduced free primary schooling for all, he also created the primrose league that brought large numbers of women into politics for the first time. These may seem like ancient history but they were policies of the same party driven by the same basic ideology.

But the policies and positive achievement for the masses don’t end in ancient history, in 1923 Stanley Baldwin introduced a comprehensive old age pensions system as well as introducing unemployment benefits and creating major housing schemes. He also allowed men and women to vote on equal terms. It was Chamberlain who introduced the factory act to place restrictions on child labour and regulations to improve working conditions overall and introduced paid holiday for employees. Everyone knows that Churchill helped defend Britain and defeated the Nazi’s but how many know he also introduced free schooling for all. Anthony Eden introduced the clean air act which pioneered environmental protection as far back as 1955 and it was Macmillan that built over 300,000 new homes a year to deal with housing shortages and increased living standards by 50% during his time in office.

In more recent times people remember Thatcher for breaking the miners and the tough times of the 80s but her decision to cut spending and increase taxes led to economic recovery for Britain. It’s also a rare individual who will remember that she gave a ground breaking speech to the UN on climate change. Equally Major is remembered for sleaze in the party, but he instigated the Northern Ireland peace process, created the national lottery, and laid the foundations for the next decade of economic growth and prosperity.
Now yes there are equally some great mistakes, opposing the aboloition of slavery, the poll tax etc but every party has their mistakes. None of the above though are the work of a nasty group of individuals who are only out for the vested interests of themselves and their friends and yet this is how we are seen either in terms of policy or in terms of individuals.

It has been my experience that in reality the nasty party is Labour, looking at it both on a national political level and just in terms of personal experience. It was the aide to a Laboru member of the Welsh Assembly who verbally attacked my wife, reducing her to tears at a dinner party over the fact she was middle class and happy to be so. It was Damian McBride a Labour Spin doctor who attempted to make up viscous rumors and smears about conservative MPs and along with Alastair Campbell bullied the press into submission. It is Gordon Brown that is said to have thrown office equipment around when he doesn’t get his way, not a Conservative Prime Minister but yet there is still this tag attached to someone who “admits” to being a conservative.

For yet more evidence look at a recent exchange on Facebook between some friends:

Person 1: “ Another word for the Tories springs to mind. Can't quite think what it is but I think it begins with a C”
Person 2: “compassionate?”
Person 1: “I think it rhymes with runts...”

Or look at how Labour’s new media twitter darling @BevaniteEllie simply retold a “joke” about hoping Lady Thatcher fell down the stairs whilst unveiling her new portrait at Number 10 last week.

“RT @CllrTime Thatcher at No.10 4 portrait unveiling. Hope they’re hanging it at top of stairs, nxt 2 where some1 carelessly left tht skateboard“

Is this the words of what is commonly portrayed as the party of niceness? The party of the people?

I titled this piece, “Established narratives or why they hate us so much”, so what did I mean by that. The issue here is about established narratives, the established narrative is that Conservatives are all nasty people and that if we came to power we would be nasty to the population. This is perpetuated by the media, and by society as a whole and of course by our opponents and opposition.

The problem with an established narrative (rather like a stereotype) is that it is difficult to break, generally experiences we have that reinforce it are remembered and those that go against it are forgotten, think about trains, whenever they’re late they reinforce the established narrative that they are late, when they’re early or on time we just forget about it. So all the evidence to the contrary that Conservatives are nasty gets left by the wayside in the face of this established narrative.

One of the issues with the personalisation of politics today is that new narratives are establishing themselves around the individuals not the party, so economic issues are the cause of Brown not Labour ideology, or the nastiness in Labour Politics is the result of Alastair Campbell not the party itself. The same is true I think of David Cameron, narratives exist around him but they haven’t overridden the existing ones of the party in the public consciousness.

So what’s the solution? How do you break down established narratives? Well I’ll be discussing that a lot in future posts.

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1 comment:

  1. Lauren Laverne of BBC2's The Culture Show described the Spice Girls as "Tory Scum", which was seen as all right, but a Conservative referring to "Labour Scum" would be regarded (quite rightly)as an extremist, and would certainly be sacked from the BBC. How you change this narrative is another matter. I look forward to reading more.