To change the world, change the story

Robin McAlpine

The end of 2023 approaches, the start of 2024 trailing just behind it. What are we to do? I don’t know a single person in or out of politics who is not sensing a growing omnicrisis, social, economic, political and psychological. Something has to change; it is absolutely clear that something has to change. But how?

For many people the answer is ‘take power’. Indeed one regular commenter on our newsletter makes the point repeatedly that without organised power, the rest is all talk. So if we want economic and social reform, does that mean we need to spend next year setting up a political party?

I’m not going to argue against the importance of effective political vehicles for change, but I’m also going to challenge the idea that that is all we need for change, or that doing anything else is wasting our time. Because ‘only talk’ can be quite effective too.

I want to look at this in two strands; what happens in the pursuit of power when you don’t have an effective story, and what happens out of power when you do. Together these will show a wider problem that we have for social reform.

Before I begin, I can’t urge you enough to take this idea of story seriously. I will repeat it endlessly – humans organise knowledge by structuring them into stories we tell ourselves. Facts, promises or statements which are outside or dislocated from story are ineffective. Every basic memory technique involves taking information that isn’t in story form and putting it in story form.

Stories aren’t optional, they’re essential. They are how we connect our hope or anger or whatever we’re feeling to action, and its how we see that action as leading to an outcome. Each part of the story makes the other parts of the story possible. Frankly, you’d be surprised how often it is simply the best story which wins in a battle of ideas, not the best idea. 

So what happens if you seek power and you don’t have an effective story to tell? We’ve seen this time and again with the left; you only reach a minority audience and you creep around the corners of politics with little influence.

For years now left parties have made little or no impact across most of Europe. And yet, objectively speaking, 80 per cent of people would have been better off over the last 20 years if the kinds of economic and social reforms the left proposes had been enacted. It is this inability to connect cause and effect, problem and action, action and outcome, which leaves the left marginal.

And let me be really clear about this; the left is genuinely dreadful at telling stories. For one, we police language like it’s made of high explosive. Have any of you ever sat in a room with lefties and tried to negotiate the wording of a leaflet? Nothing has improved since Monty Python nailed the problem. We are capable of torturing every word in a sentence to within an inch of its life.

But not for the right reason; finding the precise wording you think is going to be most effective can indeed be a lot of work. Stories told in few words rely on each of those words to do a lot of heavy lifting. Sadly that’s not why we torture them. It’s not ‘what does our audience most want to hear from us?’, it’s ‘what did I learn in my political semiotics class about decolonising language again?’.

We chose words to please ourselves, to reflect our own very specific ideological outlooks. In one meeting I was told that you couldn’t reach working class women with the medium of standup comedy because it was patriarchal and that feminist performance poetry was a much better idea. It wasn’t a much better idea, it was a fetish.

And we are awful for mistaking a slogan and a story. A slogan can help you to recall a story, but you need to know what the story is first. A statement is not a story, it’s a statement. And a demand is neither. It is genuinely the case that left academics once marched behind a banner which said ‘rectify the anomaly’. How anyone is supposed to make head nor tails of that is a mystery.

The closest we’ve got so far is either ‘for the many, not the few’ or ‘enough is enough’. Both had impact, but they both ran out of steam. For the many – but what does that mean about me? Am I just one in a crowd? Enough is enough, I agree – so what now?

Let me compare and contrast that with what is happening on the other side. Across Europe the hard and far right has been out of power for decades. Mostly it got stuck in the same kind of cycle the left is in, but more recently it has been getting its act together. 

It has a story, and it’s an effective story. Everything that has gone wrong has gone wrong for a reason – it was all a result of an experiment by a liberal elite who think you’re a lab subject and it is time that we were again ruled by normal people like us who worry about the price of petrol, not gender ideology or open borders.

The way this story has been developed is partly chance, but mostly not. The gateway drug into the right is the conspiracy theory. Every bad experience you’ve had is the result of a plan devised by a faceless elite, there to make their lives easier at the expense of yours. And, like all the best conspiracies, there is a lot more than a dash of truth about this.

But it’s which elites and which crises that is what makes for an effective story. None of us liked lockdown, so lockdown is ripe for exploitation. It wasn’t done to protect lives but to control us. Immigration is about replacing us with cheaper citizens (and not the fact that we’ve bombed the hell out of the homes of the people feeling for safety).

Climate change isn’t real and they just want to punish you for being working class or middle class or whatever you are – can’t you even enjoy your expensive heating bills in peace? What’s the world coming to?

Inside that there is a world of carefully constructed rhetoric designed to circumnavigate any objection raised. If we warn that this is flirting with fascism, they fire back ‘what is it with you on the left’ (they think Biden is the left) ‘you’re always shouting fascist at anything you disagree with’. And yet again, there is just too much truth in that.

They have managed to take corporate centrism with a dash of slow social progress and rebrand it as ‘the left’. That way its social scientists who ruined the world and not rapacious corporations. It is working, because centrism really did fail people – just not for the reasons the far right is giving.

Out of power but with a good story? Have you seen the rate of progress of far right politics? Even as, objectively, it’s the left that was right about what was going to happen (and now has) from our neoliberal economic experience, we can’t put the words together to persuade people of this.

What would that story look like? It would be about unifying three main strands of fear, worry, anxiety and anger. It is about climate change and the fear of the future on the part of those who are younger. It is about economic insecurity for about 60 per cent of the population (actually, probably more than that). It is about the sense of being powerless.

Those are the issues which need to be addressed, but in doing so we need to make lives better. We need to stop talking about ‘the many’ and think about talking about people individually, as they live. What is important to them, not just as a class, as a person? What would make their life better? How do we solve their problems?

And then its about voter coalition building. The story that wins for the left unites the small struggling business person, the young professional nowhere near a property ladder, the zero-hours contract, two-jobs mum, the over-leveraged, over-mortgaged struggling middle classes, low income pensioners, public sector workers and many more.

The effective story that we need takes on those big fears of insecurity, powerlessness and an uncertain future and fixes them in a way that is highly conscious of the day-to-day problems and hopes of ordinary people, which solves their problems, and which makes them feel solidarity with others in the groups we’re trying to unite narratively.

We have plenty of policy work that covers this, and Common Weal has done a lot of story-building, but it isn’t enough. Until we can crack a message that really resonates and sticks with the public, the rest is just policy wonkery. Please don’t kid yourself that we’re nearly there; we might think that, few in our target audience do.

That’s what I’ve been laser focused on and it will be a major focus for me next year. I’m trying really hard to talk to lots of people in lots of contexts to find out where they are. So far I’ve found no-one sitting around hoping the left gets its act together. They’re not willing us on, we’re just invisible.

So yes, at some point forces of change in Scotland are going to have to come to terms with the options which currently exist and the ones which don’t which we may need to will into existence. But I do not believe we’ve done our homework yet. I don’t think we’ve got that killer story which sticks in people’s minds and makes them believe in us again.

I’m not interested in creating a politics of concepts and theory. I want change. And for that reason, my next priority is to get the foundations for change in place. So we’re gonna need a better story…

2 thoughts on “To change the world, change the story”

  1. florian albert

    ‘Stories aren’t optional, they are essential.’
    It is only in the last decade that I have come across the importance of political stories. It comes across as a bit post-modern but, for now, let’s go with it.
    Traditionally, the story of the Scottish Left involved protecting and advancing the cause of the working class and the disadvantaged – two groups which were close to identical.
    As the traditional, overwhelmingly industrial, working class declined in size, this story lost its resonance. The Scottish Left has, subsequently, splintered. Questions of ‘identity’ have become central to the Left’s own sense of identity. The problem here is that identity politics emphasize difference rather than commonality. There is no segment of society around which the Scottish Left has been able to rally. Even more troubling is that the most powerful trade unions
    represent middle class groups. They have sought to pursue their own sectional interests. (In recent strikes, those demanding the biggest pay increases have been doctors, teachers and train drivers; the last, an example of labour aristocracy.) There is no sign of a ‘story’ which will unite teachers and those working in care homes.

    The idea that the recent drift to the right across Europe has been drought about by a conspiracy theory is unconvincing.
    Large scale immigration has been hugely disruptive for ordinary people. (Of course, it also has benefits.) That the Left has failed to accept the downside of immigration – except in Denmark – is a self-inflicted wound.
    There is an uncomfortable lesson for the Left here. They have a ‘story’; that voters are being hood-winked by clever
    politicians and media owners. The trouble is that the voters do not agree. In democracies, such as exist across Europe,
    the voters’ voice is what counts. If the Left does not listen, it will perish – and no story will save it.

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