An election in search of a national story

Reality got in the way as the main parties struggled to convey their messages, says Ed Woodcock, director of narrative, Aesop Agency.

An election in search of a national story

Last year’s referendum decided one thing and one thing only: that we were leaving the EU.  In doing so, it closed a chapter of our national story. For the last 40 years, the EU has been a cornerstone of our foreign policy that influenced how others saw us and even how we saw ourselves. But what the referendum didn’t tell us was what the next chapter would be. We have no idea what post-Brexit Britain will look like.  

The 2017 General Election is unlike any other in that what is at stake is no less than a new national narrative – the story of "Brand UK". Not since the Act of Union in 1707 have we had to invent one so quickly. Back then neither the Scots or the English felt or identified themselves as British. Two tribes, with their own distinct traditions and values, were forced to become one. A new national story was needed, and fast.

But manage they did. They wrangled a while over the design of a new flag – the brand marque they chose is now enduringly famous. But a new British/Britannic (who knew?) narrative was trickier. The two nations weren’t quite sure what united them, besides Queen Anne and the Crown. In the end, what they agreed on was this: we weren’t French.  The story that emerged was of a Protestant, freedom-loving, free-trading nation that stood in stark contrast to their Catholic, absolutist, and protectionist competitors across the Channel. 

What’s fascinating is that all three parties seem to be losing the plot

Fast-forward over three hundred years and this narrative - Britain vs. the Continent  - suddenly feels relevant again. Indeed, it’s the unvoiced story behind Theresa May’s spluttering election campaign... But let’s park that thought for a moment. 

Before we dissect the proposed stories presented by the campaigns of the three main parties, we need to understand what a narrative is and the function they serve. Narrative is a pattern of information that humans seek out amongst lots of confusing messages and facts to derive meaning.  The instinct is so strong that voters will see a story in the marketing and messaging of a campaign, even when it’s not articulated as such - much like normal-sighted people see numbers in the dots of colour-blindness tests.

Stories have key constituent parts. At their simplest, they require a protagonist, an antagonist to battle it out against, and a resulting resolution (potentially comic or tragic). An antagonist needn’t be a rival person; it can be an issue, challenge, problem, or some other kind of tension.

The Conservative narrative is supposed to run like this:  Brexit is the great patriotic challenge that pits a proud nation against nasty Continentals who are out to do us down. Only Theresa May (and her team) can provide the ‘strong and stable’ leadership required to conduct these tricky negotiations. A successful outcome will be the restoration of our story as a global trading nation. Hello world (again)!

The Labour story isn’t defined by Brexit. It’s an inward-looking story about the kind of society we might want to live in. It goes something like this: the country is run to the benefit of a nasty and privileged few, and only Labour under Jeremy Corbyn cares enough to govern in the name of the many - by investing expansively in public services, reining in the undeservingly wealthy with tax hikes, and nationalising their cartels. The result will be a kinder, fairer country that works for all.

The Liberal Democrat story is also defined by Brexit, but runs counter to the Tory one. In the narrative Tim Farron is voicing, the current government is charging headlong into a ruinously hard Brexit. Labour is in too much disarray to stop the impending disaster. Only the Lib Dems can provide effective opposition; the only party prepared to give voters a say on the outcome of negotiations. Together, we can ‘change Britain’s future’ (i.e. code for reversing Brexit).

Unforeseen events have laid waste to the Lib Dem story. They never imagined how the 48% who voted Remain have now moved on 

Trouble is, none of these stories are playing out as planned.  All the constituent parts of a story need to work together or it starts to fall apart.  Counter-narratives can weaken its integrity.  Rumour can corrode its structure. Events can shake its foundations. When a part is revealed as rotten or deficient, the whole house of cards can tumble to the ground.

What’s fascinating is that all three parties seem to be losing the plot.

The weakness in the Conservative story is the once-mighty hero. All of a sudden, she’s not so ‘strong and stable’ as she claims to be. Theresa May’s rapid U-turn over the so-called dementia tax made her look anything but. As Paxman put it: she’s "a blowhard" who crumbles at the first sign of resistance. Her wooden performances on the stump and her no-show at the debates means she no longer looks like modern-day Boudicca required of the story, no matter how many times she insists she’s "a difficult woman". More like a woman in difficulty, it would seem.

The Labour story seems to be gaining traction fast, but the hero seems to have a fatal flaw - one that rules out a satisfactory ending. Quite simply, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t look up to the job of leading the country. He stumbles through interviews, misplaces his numbers as much as his glasses, and on closer inspection they look like pure fantasy in any case. And, sotto voce, the rumour is he’s not even a patriot.

Unforeseen events have laid waste to the Lib Dem story.  They never imagined how the 48% who voted Remain have now moved on. Many have accepted that the people have spoken, Brexit set in motion, and that backtracking would mean too much loss of face.  Not all Remainers have become Remoaners; only a die-hard minority want the negotiations to fail in a way that means the only option is going back in.

In short, all three stories seem to be in tatters. No party seems to have an overwhelmingly convincing narrative. The Tories seem to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. After weeks of a cast-iron lead for Theresa, the latest polls are even pointing at a hung parliament. Given the messy state of the narratives, this could be a messily fitting result.

Once again, the only thing most Britons seem to agree on is the Queen (yes, even the SNP).  But take comfort: at least we’ve been here before...

Ed Woodcock is the director of Narrative at Aesop Agency