I enjoyed Waleed Aly’s latest National Times column. But the more I read it, the more I wonder what he means.
"Labor has lost the plot, and the narrative" says the headline in the Age. According to Aly, Governments thrive on narrative and Labor doesn’t have one. It’s a familiar criticism. Asked about the Rudd government in 2008 Paul Keating said that if there was any problem with the government it was the lack of an overarching narrative.
Aly agrees. Labor "doesn’t really mean anything any more," he says, "and probably hasn’t since Keating lost power in 1996."
It might seem like that now, but there was a time when Kevin Rudd was hailed as a master of narrative. In April 2008 Per Capita’s Michael Cooney wrote that the Rudd government "had found its narrative." It was a story about investing in children, about the way this embodied the leader’s values of equity and community and "and the country’s economic problem of falling productivity.
It’s middle Australia that needs to hear a story, said Cooney. Educated urban liberals will make sense of the policy specifics but middle Australia doesn’t pay that much attention. The leader needs to weave this policy detail into a story that showing how it flows from his or her own beliefs and values. A story that outlines the challenges the nation faces and how the government’s policy helps us tackle them.
A narrative implies a narrator and the two aren’t independent. Cooney quotes Aristotle to make the point: "It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses."
This is what scholars of rhetoric call ‘ethos’. People are more likely to trust a leader when they believe that the government’s policies flow from their deeply held beliefs and values. They may even forgive a government for unpopular policies if they trust that the leader’s motivations are good.
The government ‘s problem is that its policies tell an inconsistent story about its motives. While the it makes a compelling argument for leaving the budget in deficit, Aly says this "follows years of saying the opposite".
If Aly was making an argument about how the government’s lack of narrative was hurting it in the polls, it would make sense to focus on the character of the narrators, people like Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. But Aly isn’t so worried about what individual leaders or ministers stand for as what the Labor Party stands for.
Rudd had a compelling story to tell about his childhood and how it shaped the decisions he made as a politician (it was oddly similar to Bill Clinton’s narrative). But Rudd’s story is personal. What Aly wants is a story narrated by the party about its own role in history:
Once Labor embraced a deregulated, liberal economy, the political landscape was forever changed, leaving a diabolical question for subsequent Labor leaders: what exactly is the point of Labor politics? The compromise has been to talk about Labor’s ”reforming tradition”, but reform is an act, not an ideology. WorkChoices was a reform, too.
Labor has been chasing its base ever since. Often it watched helplessly as workers became small business owners and turned into Howard’s socially conservative battlers. Labor cannot offer them industrial protection, and desperately doesn’t want to offend their cultural sensibilities, which is why it says things like ”tough but humane”.
The result is that Labor cannot compete even on social and cultural politics. Hence the flight to the Greens, the party Gillard so venomously dismissed this week as a ”party of protest”. To which the most devastating reply is surely: ”Fine. But what are you?”
While Cooney sees narrative as a way to reach out to less engaged voters in marginal seats, Aly is worried about more engaged voters moving to the Greens. What Aly wants from Labor is ideology rather than personal stories about childhood hardship and triumph over adversity.
Ideology isn’t the same thing as narrative. An ideology is something abstract. It combines an account of how the world works with a view about how things ought to change. An ideologies account of cause and effect can be a frame for constructing narratives, but it isn’t itself a story.
According to Aly left of centre parties surrendered their ideology in the 80s and 90s. As he wrote in his 2010 Quarterly Essay ‘What’s Right?’ "parties with more collectivist political traditions reinvented themselves in line with the new neo-liberal consensus" after the Cold War. "Politics became a contest between shades of a broadly similar ideology" (p 42).
In the essay Aly gives Rudd credit for attacking the neo-liberal consensus in a 2009 essay for the Monthly, saying that "it was a shock to our political discourse" to have "a prime minister analysing at length what neo-liberal ideas meant in practice, and how they had triggered the near-collapse of the global economy."
So here’s why I’m confused about Aly means. In his recent opinion piece he says Labor is in crisis. If the crisis is about its ability to win the next federal election then it’s not about ideologically starved voters defecting to the Greens, it’s about less engaged voters shifting their support to the Coalition. And in an electorate where fewer and fewer voters see themselves as working class, it’s not obvious that more an ideological attack on free market liberalism is the way to win back the swingers.
But Aly’s crisis could also be about something more significant. In his Quarterly Essay he argued that ideas "are the engine of political history". So Aly could be saying that if there is no ideological rival to neo-liberalism, then regardless of who wins the next several elections, our future looks bleak.
The trouble is, if the problem is about a lack of a distinctive ideology then his complaint applies to Hawke and Keating as much as it does to Gillard. But in his opinion piece he credits both the Hawke and Keating governments with having coherent and compelling stories and contrasts them with the current government which doesn’t.
So which crisis does Aly mean?
Some related stuff on the web …
Political narrative: Michael Duffy interviews Michael Cooney about narrative in politics. Counterpoint, ABC RN.
To please or to do: "A government’s narrative, or the big-picture story senior ministers and prime ministers tell about the state of the nation and the strategy of the government, is important", says Don Russell. The Australian.
Finding a place in the narrative: "And in all this they lost the one thing that all political strategists believe to be essential for success – a narrative. Too bad, one presumes they said; we’ll start one of our own. Nothing happened on that front for ten years or more, unless we count losing to Howard as a narrative." Don Watson, Griffith Review.
Labor adrift without intellectual firepower: "It is telling that many Labor politicians seem to believe that vision merely means having a plan for economic growth. There are constant appeals to the legacy of ”Hawke-Keating reforms”, as though saying the phrase is enough to count as a program. Reform has become an end in itself, and separated from ideological identity. Only rarely does someone pause to ask: reform for what purpose? And for whom?" Tim Soutphommasane, The Age.
The narrative of perfidy – and how it went missing: "In politics you need a narrative about what you stand for, but you also need one – an ugly one – about the perfidy of your political opponents." Nicholas Gruen, Club Troppo.
Forget political narratives, here’s a media narrative: "Kevin Rudd’s address to the National Press Club yesterday (you can read it here) was notable as much for what he didn’t say as for what he did. I’d be very surprised indeed if the expectation that he would spell out a ‘narrative’ wasn’t created by Labor types themselves." Kim, Larvatus Prodeo.
McKew’s book has lessons for Labor: "As she tells it, despite the huge success of Labor’s response to the global financial crisis, Rudd’s narrative ability collapsed. He failed to turn a stunning moral and policy success into ‘a big story about pride in Australian achievement’. At the decisive moment, Rudd failed to connect, bombarding the electorate instead with inane and pessimistic slogans and endless tutorials ‘complete with sideshow presentations of complicated trend graphs’." Dennis Glover, The Australian.