Is a  primordial force making us forgive and forget when it comes to the Conservative Party?

When polled on individual economic issues, British voters are distinctly ‘on the left’. Despite this, the Labour Party has ruled for just 13 of the last 50 years. The interests of capital, structural obstacles, and media tendencies certainly play a role, but is there a deeper pathology at work?


A bleak outlook?

The 2019 annihilation of Labour under Corbyn has precipitated a bout of soul searching on the British Left. Among Corbyn supporters, a thick mist of apathy has set in. Within the movement, the discourse has turned towards the inevitability of electoral defeat — citing the right-wing tendency in the mainstream press and the power of capital to destroy the reputation of transformative individuals. The Conservatives are the most successful party in the western world. At this point, the horizon appears unremittingly bleak.

Does this outlook make you miserable? Then you might want to consult the opinion polls. When asked about any number of economic issues, the British electorate is decidedly to the left of both the Conservative Party and the current Labour leadership. Sixty-five per cent of Britons support a £15 minimum wage, and — when polled apart — believe in the renationalisation of rail, energy, and water. Strikingly, but unsurprisingly, less than 20 per cent of voters support the recent cut to universal credit. Regardless of the systemic obstacles, this all begs the question: why does the Right always seem to win?

Tell Us a Story: The cognitive revolution

For many self-styled ‘creatives’ on the left, the following idea may be an uncomfortable one. What if the Tories are simply better at telling stories than we are? About 70,000 years ago, homo sapiens underwent something known as the ‘cognitive revolution’. Our brains changed in a way that enabled us to establish human civilisation across the globe. One theory — popularised by Yuval Noah Harari — is that humans developed a faculty for narrative and fiction. This allowed us to discuss the past and future and believe in things like currency.

Suffice it to say, narrative is sacrosanct to human beings. As the psychological mechanism by which we came to dominate, we are hardwired to imbibe and respond to it. This may go some way to explaining why political movements that lie compellingly often do better than those that tell the truth earnestly. The Right is adroit at creating narratives that resonate with people on a semi-subconscious level. The story feels true regardless of whether it is factual or not. In response, the Left often makes counterarguments rather than counter-narratives. Ultimately, an argument just doesn’t hit the spot the way a story does.

The Winning Formula: Punching down

In most cases, the Right takes a template narrative like ‘Us Vs. Them’ or ‘David and Goliath’, and repurposes it to direct blame away from our economic system and the parties that prop it up. We can call these stories ‘diversionary narratives’. These are simple tales that cast voters as the lead protagonists and pitch them against an outsider who can be blamed for their plight. Diversionary narratives generally punch down, but they can also appear to punch up too. One time-honoured tale is that the outsider (an immigrant) is coming to get you (by taking your job), and this will make your life worse.

This evocative story is as old as time for a reason. It resonates on a tribal level, whilst concealing those that are really responsible for the lack of jobs, housing and hospital appointments; the government. In response, the Left will talk about things like the ‘net benefit’ of immigration, often backed up by statistics. When the Left does offer a counter-narrative, it often casts the immigrant, not the voter, as the protagonist. ‘How would you feel if you had to flee your home?’ is an example of this. Sadly, empathy is rarely as compelling as self-interest.

The Winning Formula: Punching up

Another narrative, common on the populist right, appears to punch up as a diversion. This was exemplified in the debate over EU membership. Punching up, the Brexit campaign portrayed the EU as a big bad and unaccountable money sucker, seeking to create a European state and erase Britishness in the process. This was, in essence, a repurposing of David and Goliath and it was easy to internalise. The fact that the EU invested far more money in impoverished British communities than it took out of them was immaterial. Remain failed to narrativize it.

In both cases, the failure of Conservative governance and the system it supports was redirected towards an outsider entity. Those culpable can choose what role they play in the story; be it gallant champion of the voter or innocent bystander. Without a narrative that exposes this, these stories will continue to end happily for the Conservative Party.

Starmer’s Story: Release date unknown

Kier Starmer’s brand of technocratic leadership is doomed because of this. The idea that he’s going to ride a reincarnated New Labour to Number 10 is absurd. For all of Blair’s centrism, he absolutely understood the need for a narrative; for vision. Blair and New Labour embodied modernisation and progress in 1997. They situated themselves within the hopeful, outward-looking, zeitgeist of the late nineties and presented themselves as the party to lead Britain into the new millennium. This narrative helped them to win in a landslide.

The current leadership are content to sit and hope that the Tory story ends like Reservoir Dogs. They are terrified to tell their own story in case someone doesn’t like it. All the facts, statistics, and critical interrogation at PMQs are worthless without a unifying tale for the voters. Why is life so hard for so many people? Who is responsible? How will Labour change it? As it stands, Keir Starmer appears stricken with a nasty case of writer’s block.