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Ill communication

The TUC's Touchstone blog is always worth a read, but if you're short of time, just browsing its headlines will unfortunately tell you all you need to know about recent discussion of public sector cuts. Thus we have Nigel Stanley's "The depressing debate on public spending" and Adam Lent's "Public spending: can this debate get any shallower?". Both are rightly critical of mainstream commentators who seem to assume the worst of the recession is over.

It's a theme that's embraced by Duncan Weldon - who has warned repeatedly of the dangers of a double-dip recession - and by Richard Murphy. Richard's recent post, "The only way to cut government debt is to increase government spending", takes a novel approach. Instead of making the usual broad-sweep macroeconomic case for increased spending, he starts by looking at the cost of a single worker becoming unemployed and then builds up to national level to show how headline savings create greater costs. He concludes: "[This] makes clear that the logic of cutting government spending now when we have no jobs for those we make unemployed makes no sense at all... if we want to get out of the mess we’re in we spend. It’s the only way to reduce government debt at this stage in the economic cycle."

He adds: "It’s profoundly annoying to have to reinvent the whole Keynesian argument in this way – because that is exactly what I am doing – but needs must precisely because so many do not seem to understand this obvious fact."

It may be annoying but I think we need more of this type of reinvention. Part of the problem is that right-wing solutions often appear the more intuitive. So David Cameron (invoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher) boasts about "Conservative principles of good housekeeping" and "living within our means" - while Keynesians are left to explain the paradox of thrift. My dictionary defines paradox as "a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true" - not the easiest of starts for any political message.

In a follow-up post, "Putting people before cuts", Richard identifies exactly the kind of work that is needed:

"We have to make [the insanity of cuts] clear now. Not with threats. Not with exaggeration (none will be needed), just with clear, simple examples that show time and again how this will impact on people’s lives.

"And we have to begin now. Next January will be too late.

"I happen to think ‘Put People First’ remains a great slogan. If another is needed, so be it. But can I ask all experts in these areas to begin thinking how this issue can be communicated? Because that is what we need to do. And if enough come forward I am sure we can build the right tool for communicating the message. But the message comes first."

This focus on message and communication is important - and reminds me of MP Jon Cruddas's remarks to the Compass "No Turning Back" conference last month that “we have lost our language”. If developing a new political-economic vision is the main priority for the left today, then finding ways to communicate it must come a close second. We must avoid a fate in which activists and intellectuals are capable of talking only to each other - a task made more pressing by the vacuum that has been left by Labour's decline.

One of the few recent attempts to address this issue has come from the Equality Trust, the organisation set up around Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book, The Spirit Level. The Trust's secretary, Bill Kerry, wrote an interesting article for Compass, "Taking Equality Out of the Left Ghetto", which looked at the implications of our "fluid political environment and the likelihood that equality and sustainability will need to be promoted to people who are not traditionally seen as receptive to such arguments". Progressives, he argued, "should concentrate on achieving a new, simple, optimistic and inclusive narrative which... uses plain, accessible, jargon-free language".

That, at least, is the aim - though it will be interesting to see how the Equality Trust plans to put this into action. Until then, Rachael Jolley's sceptical challenge stands: "I'm not saying we shouldn't make those arguments, just that many people who need to hear those arguments are not going to read the Spirit Level - so you need to work out how to get those arguments into the Daily Mail."

One final point: I agree with Richard that "Put People First" is a good slogan. And until a few months ago I was excited by the coalition of the same name (even if it too was guilty of talking mainly to the converted). But where is Put People First now? I suspect its strength - bringing together such a diverse array of campaigns and organisations - is also its weakness: there is no-one to take the lead. But it will be a great waste if Put People First remains a one-off march, a decent slogan, and nothing else.

Posted by Other TPA at 10:02pm on 21 July 2009
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