Greens are rarely able to seek Common Cause

Don’t think of an elephant! Ever since I read the work of George Lakoff I’ve been fascinated by framing. But a new report by the think tank Green House contains some useful and stimulating critiques of the Common Cause approach.

I think the Common Cause work is tremendously helpful, and that careful attention to framing and linguistics is essential. But I have seen, in the Green Party, what they each decry – a tendency for a highly theoretical approach to framing to override other more pressing considerations.

Victor Anderson’s essay is particularly good at reminding us that power, ideology and alliances are usually much more important.

For Greens, they are central. We have so little power, set ourselves against a dominant ideology shared by most political and civic institutions, and are perilously reliant on alliances to achieve anything. Set in this context, our ability to achieve our ends through framing alone is extremely limited.

Two examples of mine come to mind.

Pay inequality was a major focus of my work with Darren Johnson for many years. We had some notable successes – winning the support of Labour and the Lib Dems for the Green policy of capping pay differentials at 1:10, persuading the Mayor to publish pay differentials on the City Hall, TfL, police and fire brigade web sites, and helping to drive down excessive pay in those institutions. None of those was the result, incidentally, of any clever framing. They had much more to do with practical politics.

We were much less successful at – in the language of common cause – priming intrinsic values. Or, in plain English, getting across the message that a more equal society makes for a healthier, happier society for all of us.

In the main we won support from other parties – building alliances, as Anderson says – by appealing to different arguments or frames. Very unequal pay is a waste of money, it’s unnecessary, it’s unjust, it’s unpopular. We appealed to them all, and had we not, we wouldn’t have won any real policy changes.

It was easy to draft reports and pamphlets with the purer intrinsic message. But they were never widely read. The Spirit Level authors took this message to a much bigger audience, but try as we might we struggled to follow on their coat tails.

For politicians, the main means of mass communication is the mainstream media. But press releases decrying inequality and promoting the spirit level message are met with indifference. They were little more interested in our policy successes. Just because you say something you deem to be interesting and important, it doesn’t follow that the media will print it.

So we used a favourite hook – find some new statistics that bring the subject to life. We obtained stats on pay levels in City Hall, TfL, the police and fire brigade to expose high and inconsistent levels of pay inequality in our public services. Later, these became available for all councils too; comparisons strengthened our case, as some councils paid twice as much for top staff as others. We called for more transparency in the private sector, and for all institutions to aim for greater equality, including paying the London Living Wage as a basic minimum.

The problem with this was that the media didn’t passively pick up our frame. The Evening Standard took our releases and wrote about public sector fat cats and gold plated pensions. Local papers compared boroughs and attacked those with high pay for wasting taxpayers’ money. Even when a journalist was persuaded, editors and sub-editors changed headlines and emphases. Only twice in three years did we have any success getting our key message – the Spirit Level argument – into the papers. Ideology trumped values, and we had far too little power to systematically change the dominant values of the national and local media.

Climate change is a favourite area of debate for Common Cause and framing advocates. Thanks to the work of people like George Marshall we have a rich understanding of how people think (or don’t) about this global, systemic catastrophe in the making.

I noticed over the years that many politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, accepted the need to address climate change, but that they were too complacent. It was a box to be ticked after the more important matters like jobs and growth had been attended to. Airports must expand, roads must be widened, houses must be built, and we can square the circle later on.

I felt that they failed to understand the gravity of the situation. They didn’t recognise that this complacence had – over the past 20 years – resulted in far too little change. Many of them were focused on intrinsic values – on benefiting society, helping the vulnerable, looking after our environment, etc. But their ideology hadn’t fully integrated ecology, and saw economic growth as the central mechanism for achieving those ends.

What is the use in trying to prime frames about well-being and nature when you have a group of politicians firmly wedded to a political ideology that is – in effect – making the problem worse?

A common conclusion of work by people like Marshall is that we shouldn’t catastrophise. But I wanted to do a little of just that – to frame an Economy Committee investigation into the economic impacts of climate change in terms of the impact of 4-5 degrees of warming. To show the implications of complacency in their own terms. Reports from the World Bank and PwC had recently come out warning that we were on that trajectory, despite all the pledges of action. Why not explore what that would look like to try and shake politicians out of their complacency?

In the end this framing proved a difficult sell. Officers in the London Assembly are deeply wedded to seeking consensus (largely for good reasons), and tend to resist unconventional frames. Those they consulted cited Marshall & co to say it would be a mistake to catastrophise. Witnesses at meetings held back from dire warnings for similar reasons. So while the investigation broke new ground in our understanding of the terrible economic damage likely to come from climate change, it never really arrived at the stark message that this is the future their ideology is taking us towards.

In both cases my approach was informed by a practical experience of politics, ideology and the media. Our ability to frame issues in our chosen way was, in turn, severely limited by those same factors. So too was our ability to shift policy in a direction compatible with our values.

As Sam Earle wrote in her brief post-script, most people operate not on deeply help values but on a variety of often-contradictory norms, with a liberal helping of double standards. Set in the context of deeply un-Green dominant ideologies and massive power imbalances, and considering the need to develop often-unconventional alliances, I believe that the scope for framing of the kind Common Cause advocates is quite limited for the Green Party. Our work on political and messaging strategy should give it due consideration, behind a wider analysis of our political economy.

One Comment

  1. Well articulated,Tom. I’ve often thought this is a problem for the values and frames approach.

    V&F seems an excellent core vote strategy – reanimate one’s core supporters. Perhaps gain a bit wider public support from those sympathetic to the general language of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ values. It’s certainly done a service in warning the left of the perils of unconsciously reinforcing our opponents’ narrative (think of the failure of the EU referendum).

    But it doesn’t cut the mustard when trying to convince those who are not direct allies to support your policies – whether they be news editors, decision makers or political opponents. Nor does it generate headlines the way a good scare story tends to.

    5th September 2016

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