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Posts tagged with: George Lakoff

Repeat after me: EU myth rebuttal does not work

New year. Same old UK-EU comms. Two tweets from today:

Why, oh why, do British pro-EU folks keep on doing this? If you fight a battle using the frames and the words of your opponents, you lose. George Lakoff called his practical guide to political framing “Don’t Think of an Elephant” for a reason – because you think of an elephant when you read that.

When I read Richard Corbett being defensive about the EU budget, or Damian Green being defensive about the number of pro-EU Tories, it is not helpful. Make your case, on its own terms. Do not make your case while emphasising the argument of your opponents.

If you need practical tips how do it, then either try Lakoff’s book, or the Skeptical Science Debunking Handbook (PDF). “The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do,” the handbook says. Very true.

“We’re standing up for Britain” or “We’re all in this together” – ways to explain the EU budget

A tweet by Emma Burnell pointed me towards this blog post by Tracy Hill about UKIP, and the threat they pose to Labour. You can read the whole blog post to look at the stuff about UKIP, but there is one paragraph I will highlight, for it shows the problems the EU poses Labour, let alone UKIP posing a problem to Labour. This is the paragraph – emphasis in bold is mine:

Labour MEPs work hard in Europe, engaging with the system and negotiating for a better deal for Britain. By promoting British interests actively in Europe, Labour can secure better terms for British businesses and push for reform where it’s needed. Labour MEP Derek Vaughan recently secured a real-terms cut for the 2013 budget of the European Parliament and other EU institutions, by restricting administrative expenses. The public will respond to evidence that their representatives can change things positively in Europe, and we need to find ways of communicating this evidence.

This is rather standard fare when it comes to explaining the EU in the UK. It’s about going off to Brussels and getting our way! Standing up for the country!

Only actually it doesn’t work this way.

First of all, what are Labour’s values? They are the values of compassion and social democracy, that we’re all better if we work together. That means that we should be emphasising a centre-left vision for the budget, not the notion that there is a British interest in the budget and that Labour is working for this. Less CAP money for rich landowners, and more for investment in the EU’s poor regions is more of a Labour line than “restricting administrative expenses”.

Second, Labour has been playing a tricky game on the budget for years anyway, where MEPs vote along S&D Group lines in the EP on all amendments, and then vote down the budget as a whole to make a symbolic point to the UK media that they were ‘tough’. Take a look at the 2013 budget vote that Tracy mentions – here is the vote on Votematch. Filter this for S&D Group and UK, and you will see that only Derek Vaughan, the Labour MEP, voted in favour (because he was rapporteur), while all his UK Labour colleagues voted against. But there was still led this press release from the EPLP about Derek’s work, welcoming the decision. If you can work out what Labour is actually trying to do in the EP on this then you’re more clever than I am.

Third, the idea that you can in any way communicate this sort of weigh-up-the-pros-and-cons approach to the EU is rather fanciful anyway. This is the way pro-Europeans have been trying to do it for decades in the UK already, and look at where it has left us. People vote according to their values, not according to a raw analysis of the facts or policies, and Labour has no values-based approach to the EU. Even if Labour thinks it needs a tough approach, no-one is going to believe that Labour can out-tough UKIP or the Tories anyway. And then there’s the deep distrust of UK and EU politics that Labour has to contend with.

So it’s time for Labour to ditch the “standing up for Britain” line, because it can’t work for the party. “We’re all in this together” might be a better way forward.

If you’re British and care about UK-EU relations, then you’re either in a state of permanent delusion or permanent depression

Two grandees of UK politics were at it again today. Peter Mandelson, while at least acknowledging an in-out referendum for the UK, was nevertheless pompous and deluded in the FT: “pro-Europeans […] should acknowledge that their case has largely been won by default and that it needs to be re-articulated with fresh vigour”. Vince Cable, speaking at Chatham House, was even worse, quoted in Chatham House’s newsletter thus: “The debate about the Single Market, like the wider debate about the EU, must be based on thorough analysis not emotion” (there’s more about the event he spoke at here, and the edition of International Affairs is here).

Sorry Vince and Peter, but what planet are you living on? You’re both deluded.

Thorough analysis might be important for good policy making, but that is not going to be what will influence a debate about EU matters in the UK. Indeed I do not think you really appeal to anyone in UK politics that way. You appeal to people on the basis of the values that you hold, and how you express them. You need to apply the lessons of George Lakoff.

Putting it another way: making the case for Britain remaining in the EU is not a glorified bean counting exercise – we gain X% of GDP, while your isolationism will lose you Y% of GDP. Neither side can ‘win’ this debate – we do not have a counterfactual, something that can mysteriously help us work out what the UK being outside the EU these last 40 years would look like. While I admire the persistence of people like Nucleus and Brian Duggan, I cannot see how their approach can possibly work.

The ‘debate’ about the EU in the UK is gone. It’s lost. It’s broken. To think there is a way back, just with the old measures, just with the same old, stale ‘pro-European’ appeals from Jackie Ashley or Polly Toynbee in The Guardian is the height of delusion. This is the country where populist journalists based in Westminster think it’s OK to tell Members of the European Parliament that they know more about the European Parliament than the MEP does. Where newspapers feel it’s fine to publish stuff about the EU, while either already knowing it’s not true, or not doing basic research (case here, rebuttal here). This is the country where – fuelled by the expenses scandal in Westminster and the enduring whiff of corruption in the Brussels corridors too – it is assumed that you must be corrupt just to want to be a Member of the European Parliament. It’s guilty until for sure shown to be guilty, not innocent until proven guilty as it should be. Take the temperature of the comments below this story I wrote about a sensible MEP, Sharon Bowles, on The Guardian’s website, and try and counter that stuff. Yes, that’s The Guardian.

So what to do?

Personally I have just crossed the threshold from deluded to depressed. I really do not have answers, ideas of how to move forward, at least not in the short term. I do not see any realistic way forward without an in-out referendum, but the prospect that such a vote actually really solves things is not likely either. Further, if the In side were to be run as Yes was run in the AV referendum then Out would have a good chance to win. In would need to learn the lessons of the Irish No to Lisbon campaign – letting a thousand flowers bloom, and within the panoply of views everyone could find their cause. The danger would be with people like Mandy or Cable at the helm that the In campaign would end up being the very same stodgy pro-Europeanism that has served us so badly for so long – bean counting style, poorly framed, institutional, and bland. Of course the popular but not realistically achievable ‘renegotiate’ option on the ballot would negate the danger of an Out victory, but would just prolong the agony of UK-EU wrangles.

The bare bones of some sort of rebound for keeping the UK inside the EU, and indeed some sort of effort to restore some trust in mainstream party politics, will need deep and profound changes at all levels. A measly 11% of the British trust political parties – among large EU Member States only Italy is lower (more here). The academics behind the UK’s Democratic Audit use the words that UK democracy is in ‘terminal decline‘. Meanwhile replacing politicians with business people on platforms, Britain in Europe early-2000s-style, is no good either – with enough large corporates being hauled over the coals since the 2008 financial crisis business people are not trustworthy surrogates for politicians.

It as if we have switched to a new default – no trust of the political establishment – and we need new ways to come to terms with this. Complete transparency of the conduct of our politicians, and net-connected participatory decision making, have to be part of the answer (issues that I referred to in my counterfactual). What is called “prefigurative action” – the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that we as citizens imagine, the way Occupy movements work – needs to be part of it too. You should not need to be a sycophantic devotee to a party line and banner to feel you can play some role within politics. But even then I don’t know where all of that will lead us.

At national, just as at EU level, we do not really know how to properly do representative democracy in the post deference, always connected age. Until we work it out I fear I’m going to stay stuck in my depression.

There’s not a hope the next election in the UK will be about policy – it’s deluded to even argue that it could be

Labour grandee Paul Richards has penned a tremendously misjudged piece on LabourList, so much so I think it deserves to analysed a bit. This is especially vital because the main premise – that Labour can win an election in the UK based on policy – is one still held by many activists. But, perhaps sadly for Paul and for Labour such an election is never going to come to pass.

Let’s start with the title “We need to make the next election about policy, not leadership”. The problems here are numerous.

Firstly, could Labour make an election be about policy, even if it tried? I doubt it, with British parties hollowed out in terms of membership and policy making, facing a fierce media.

If Labour did only push policies, can the electorate really, honestly, truly distinguish between the policies that all the main parties are espousing? Bear in mind that the electorate assumes that politicians will promise one thing and then do the opposite, and there is no way Labour is going to convince them otherwise. To do would require trust that does not exist in British politics just now – for none of the main parties, Labour included.

Then there is the assertion that, in contrast to policy, the alternative to an election about policy is one about leadership. While the quality of leadership is important, it is equally wrong to assume that elections are only about that.

The problem that Labour has at the moment is that it lacks an overarching vision, some thread through all of what it does. The party is defined in juxtaposition to the Tories and the cuts, but has no clear vision of its own that it can articulate.

What Labour needs (and work in the USA by George Lakoff backs this up) is a story to tell about the sort of society that we want to see in the future, a discourse that is about the bonds that hold us together rather than the forces that drive us apart. How the economy needs to be rebalanced in favour of the many and not the few. How Labour values the public over the private, and how every person will get the best possible chance in life under a Labour government. How we’re all better off – as people, as a society – when we work together.

A five year election term is a long time – voters need to know the moral direction Labour would take in office, whatever would come into the party’s path. The individual policies – on the economy, schools, hospitals and welfare – will logically flow from that.

If Labour can develop a values-based narrative for the future it can win in 2015. If it doesn’t then the election will be close, and we will be braced for five more years of directionless tedium, whoever wins.

The hard working family (that framing nugget on budget day)

It’s budget day in the UK today. Others are far more qualified than I am to discuss the ins and outs of what George Osborne announced.

I will instead – with prompting earlier on Twitter from Liz Disley – look at that old nugget of the budget: how it impacts families. If you’re really lucky you might get how it hits hard working families mentioned. This tweet from Labour Councillor Sundip Meghani is a case in point.

Why, Liz mused, do politicians always insist on using the word families and not just people? As an unmarried person with no kids living a long way away from my nearest blood relatives, I’m about as non-family-connected as you can get, and the repeated use of the term has always rankled with me. But – in political framing terms – these politicians who keep on referring to families might just have a point.

Say it to yourself, if you’re British or follow British politics. Family. Hard working family. What does it conjure up? For me it implies small house in the suburbs, Mondeo in the drive, dog in the garden, two parents and two kids. What politician even dare pass a budget that would penalise these very symbols of British respectability? Perish the thought that these very same people might also be swing voters in swing seats, and readers of the Daily Mail. Even if you’re not a member of one of these mythical families, it might be something that you aspire to be one day.

Am I being fair? Or am I giving too much weight to a term that British politicians just throw around without much thought as to why?

The European Union and truth

Apologies if this is stating the obvious to too many of my readers, but there is no truth about the European Union.

The words sound simple enough. But what do I actually mean?

People that are in favour of the European Union and their country’s continued membership of it have traditionally argued as if there is an outright truth about the EU. It is as if enough arguments are presented, enough reports written, enough number crunching done, a perfect answer will emerge: that the European Union should exist and whatever country should be a member of it.

The problem is that arguing in this way gets us nowhere, for at least three reasons.

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‘Now is not the time to put the environment in the back seat’ – some framing lessons for Janez Potočnik

Yet more EU politics reflections via Twitter today – I saw this from Janez Potočnik, Environment Commissioner:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/JanezPotocnikEU/status/55991013877096448″]

The link leads through to a speech he gave in Athens today – full text here.

The key message – that the worst of the financial crisis is over for Greece and now is the time to focus once more on environmental matters – is fair enough, but my problem is with the framing of the title of the speech. I had to read it a couple of times before I understood the point. Not for the first time in an EU comms matter, the framing is all wrong – it’s the words ‘put the environment in the back seat’ that stick in mind, while Potočnik actually wants us to do the opposite.

Anyway, to give Potočnik his due he (or one of his staff) replied to my tweet to him, and as a result I’m going to send him a copy of George Lakoff’s excellent Don’t Think of an Elephant.

The marketing sense of an elephant – Commission Representation to Belgium

Advert at Gare du Luxembourg, Brussels

Advert at Gare du Luxembourg, Brussels

One of my favourite political books – mentioned on this blog before – is Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. The idea behind the title is to show what happens when the wrong words are used. You read that title and of course you think of an elephant.

So yesterday I was disturbed to see the advert shown above at Gare du Luxembourg, the railway station next to the European Parliament in Brussels. It’s a large ad, perhaps 5 metres long, illuminated, and paid for by the Commission’s representation in Belgium.

I dread to think of how much the ad cost to make and to display and it gets the messages all wrong.

“Everything is Europe’s fault” starts by making the viewer think everything is Europe’s fault – a catastrophic framing error. Then the four images are just weird. Do people think that social exclusion or the financial crisis are actually the fault of the EU? Perhaps the EU did not do enough in response, but do people think the EU is to blame? Then if you follow the web link – eu4be.eu – you get to a bland institutional website of the Commission Representation that bears no resemblance to the advert.

Hopeless. Which firm gets the contracts for rubbish like this?

[UPDATE – 28.6.2010]
Gare du Midi is covered with EU posters just now – pink faces also linking to eu4be.eu, and horribly bland posters about the Belgian Presidency of the EU. OK, there is no Belgian government just now, so maybe something interesting was not possible?