The power of storytelling

What’s the story of the 2015 general election? Over the past few days, many competing explanations have been flying around the internet and the media, as we all try to make sense of an unexpected result.

One thing we’ve seen in the course of this election is that stories are often more powerful than facts. Stories don’t have to be true to be powerful, but they do need to be attractive; they need to make the listener feel better, or feel that she is not alone.

Here are a few attractive but untrue stories about what happened on Thursday.

There’s no money left, so we all have to tighten our belts

This story has been told to us by all the main political parties and all the mainstream media for the last five years. No wonder people believed it.

It is a lie, of course – one of those big lies that 20th century dictators were so fond of. As Caroline Lucas says, there is plenty of money – the question is, who has it?

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The story works because it makes sense in the world most of us live in – the real world where most of the money we earn goes to pay our bills and rent, and more debt means we have less to put food on the table each week.

But when it comes to managing a national economy, that story doesn’t make any sense at all.

A lot of the money the government has coming in is from taxation. That goes up and down according to how much income and profit is being made in the economy. If people are earning more and spending more, and businesses are making more profit, then there will be more taxation coming into the government’s coffers. And vice versa.

If we all individually tighten our belts – spend less, put more away in the bank if we can, get made redundant when businesses tighten their belts – then there is less money circulating in the economy and less tax being paid to the government. That makes the gap between what’s coming in and going out (the deficit) bigger, not smaller.

The reason the deficit has increased is because the government had to borrow a lot of money to stop the banking sector going bust in 2008. The crash happened because the global financial sector gambled with unsustainable lending. It was nothing to do with the Labour government having spent money on public services in the UK.

Borrowing money to save the economy from crisis is one of the special things governments can do, which households can’t do. It’s one of the reasons why that story doesn’t apply to the national economy.

I understand why people believe the story that we all need to tighten our belts. In many ways it’s more believable than the true story – the banking industry gambled with money they didn’t have. When they lost, we all paid the price because the Tories preferred to punish poor, sick and disabled people, rather than their schoolfriends in the City.

The Tories are extremely popular in England

Looking at the new political map of the UK, it’s easy to understand why anyone might think the election result represents a big leap in Tory popularity in England. However, this is also not true.

Despite the Tories gaining 21 English seats in Parliament, their vote share hardly increased between the 2010 and 2015 elections (it went up by 1.4 percentage points to 41%). Labour’s vote share in England increased by 3.6 percentage points to 31.6%, and they too gained seats in England – there are 15 more Labour MPs representing English constituencies than there were before the election.

The real story of this election in England is, of course, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote and the rise of UKIP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.

In seat after seat, the same pattern is repeated. Labour and Tory votes both increase by a small margin, the Lib Dem vote is slashed to around a fifth of its previous level and the UKIP vote increases massively to put them in third or second place. In many constituencies, Greens are attracting between 1000 and 2000 votes, even where they have never stood a candidate before.

There is no evidence of voters switching en masse from Labour to Tory, nor, I would guess, are many people swapping their vote directly from Lib Dem to UKIP.

I think the former Lib Dem voters are either staying at home or voting Labour or Tory, or Green. Meanwhile, both Labour and Tories are losing votes in substantial numbers to UKIP. Because UKIP haven’t won many seats, this trend is not easy to see, but the map of second placed candidates shows it much more clearly.

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The election doesn’t demonstrate the overwhelming popularity of the Tories, it shows how badly our electoral system is broken, and it shows that there is a sizeable minority of voters, even in England, who are not persuaded by the mainstream consensus represented by Labour and the Tories.

The success of the SNP represents an upsurge in nationalism

I don’t think even Ed Miliband believes this one, though it keeps popping up in the media and in the mouths of flabbergasted Scottish and English Labour politicians.

I know very little about Scottish politics, but as far as I can tell, what happened in Scotland was that people were looking for an alternative to that Westminster consensus. They saw very clearly that they could not hope to find it in Scottish Labour, after the naked display of establishment solidarity between Labour and the Tories at the referendum.

And the SNP was able to tell a better story – one that didn’t rely on the twisted logic of austerity but which offered hope, and a way to make a real difference.

The SNP managed to do in Scotland, what the Labour Party has long failed to do in England – truly listen to, and stand up for, the people who are being done over by capitalism. Mhairi Black MP puts it well:

“The thing that got me fired up [during the referendum campaign] was standing listening to people pouring their heart out to you, telling you how much they were genuinely struggling. You’re used to hearing statistics about poverty, but then you realise these aren’t numbers, these are people’s lives, filled with anxiety and struggle.”

The presence of 56 MPs who have been elected to the House of Commons on a clear anti-austerity mandate is a massive change in the make-up of Parliament. Before the election, there were a small handful of MPs who were prepared to challenge the lie about austerity and speak up for the millions suffering through benefit cuts, sanctions, the housing crisis and the privatisation of the NHS. Now, their numbers have been multiplied tenfold.

Just as the presence of Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett changed the terms of the debate before the election, the fact that the SNP is now the third largest Parliamentary group will make a difference to the stories that can be told in Westminster.

UKIP voters are racist fools

There’s no doubt that racism is a large part of UKIP’s appeal. But that’s not really surprising, as all the right wing parties in this election based their campaigns on racism, one way or another.

Far from immigration being a subject which it is somehow taboo to discuss, the last two general elections have been about little else. Other – arguably more pressing – issues (climate change, anyone?) have not made it onto the agenda of the so-called national debate.

Racism, on the other hand, is rarely discussed in a serious way. It is furiously denied by everyone, as if it were an unsavoury drug habit, but never acknowledged as a structural power imbalance with deep roots in the cultural and economic history of our country.

I’m sure UKIP voters are racist. White people generally are. If we don’t want racism to be an attractive story in politics, we need to start by recognising that racism permeates society at every level. It’s not an unfortunate character trait of people who are ignorant or have been misled, and it can’t be magicked away by the training courses and monitoring forms which seem to be all that survives of the 1980s anti-racism efforts of the Labour left.

The rise of UKIP doesn’t reveal a big upsurge in racism. It does seem to have brought racist sentiment out into the open and given it legitimacy. But it also represents the filling of the vacuum left by Labour in the face of five years of austerity, and the failure of the anti-austerity movement to tell a convincing story about the reasons for low wages and poverty.

There’s nothing we can do now

What’s happened in Scotland shows that it is possible to change the story. But we won’t do it by continuing to do what we’ve done for the last five years.

We need to reach beyond the left, and beyond those who are already voting Green or Labour, to the people who are disengaged and disenfranchised by the political process.

I don’t know how to do it, but I am inspired by the courageous campaigns around housing in London, such as the Focus E15 campaign, the New Era Estate campaign and the Sweets Way occupation.

Locally, in Brighton, the People’s Assembly against Austerity has an open meeting coming up. I’ll be there, hoping to hear new ideas for getting our stories told better and louder.