Framing the Economy report

Today PIRC, the New Economics Foundation, NEON and the FrameWorks Institute are launching two story strategies that progressives can use to shift thinking on the economy. They’re built on values and metaphors that encourage the hope that change is possible and increase people’s support for progressive policies.

Download the report

Why we need new stories

Dominant economic narratives have gripped the public imagination and paved the way for regressive economic, social and environmental policies. Without the framing resources and co-ordination to challenge these narratives, campaigners often score own-goals when they talk about the economy.

The austerity story, based on the belief that Labour’s overspending ‘maxed out’ the nation’s credit card and left Britain in a mess, has been used to justify a regime of cuts to public spending that persisted in spite of the horrific social consequences and sluggish economic performance. More recently, the Brexit story has harnessed an unholy alliance between anti-immigrant sentiment and an aspiration for national self-reliance in order to ‘take back control’ from distant Brussels elites.

In the face of these stories, campaigners have often been on the back foot, using language that they haven’t shaped (like ‘Labour’s mess’), relying on oppositional politics (e.g. anti-cuts) and experimenting with frames (e.g. the ‘game is rigged’) without knowing how to use them most strategically –  rather than asserting their own vision of the economy.

How research can help us frame more effectively

Framing research projects can help campaigners be on the front foot, figuring out exactly what they want to say and how. In Framing the Economy, movement-building was an explicit aim alongside the empirical research: seeking to build up much needed coordination, resilience and support between movement spokespeople.

Working with the FrameWorks Institute, NEF, NEON and a large network of campaigners, journalists and press officers, we went through the key stages of framing research (more detail here).

First, we figured out our ‘untranslated story’: what we wanted to say, positively, about the values, principles and policies that a new economy should be based on. Next, we carried out extensive research into how people across the UK were thinking about the economy. We found that people thought of the economy a bit like a bucket—some people fill it up and others drain it out—a metaphor that lends itself to an simplistic understanding that the ‘economically unproductive’ (i.e. anyone not working right now) are the problem. However, people also had a strong belief that the economy is rigged to serve the interests of a nefarious and coordinated elite, and that this is dangerous and wrong. Coming away from this research, the biggest barrier to change didn’t seem to us to be people’s analysis of the problem. Fatalism— the attitude of ‘yes, we know that there are problems, but there’s nothing we can do’—seemed to pose a bigger barrier.

We looked for areas of alignment and divergence between these themes and our ‘untranslated story’ in order to identify the key framing challenge: to communicate that the economy is a product of design, and can therefore be redesigned.  We used this to develop a series of values, metaphors and policies, testing them with interviews and national surveys to see whether or not they worked.

The two stories we recommend

The following two approaches differ in tone and emphasis, but both work towards the same goals, complementing each other in a wider framing strategy.

  1.  Resisting Corporate Power

“Over the last forty years, our government has become a tool of corporations and banks, prioritising the interests of the wealthy rather than giving equal weight to the needs of everyone. We need to reprogramme our economy so that it works in the interests of society rather than just in the interest of corporate elites.”

This story centres on how the economy is both unfair and broken and lays blame squarely on corporate power and wealthy elites. It argues that the economic system has been unfairly influenced by a powerful few for their own benefit, and that this manipulation is the source of the economy’s problems. This story draws either on the value of Economic Strength or the value of Equality as the rationale for supporting progressive policies and uses a reprogramming metaphor to show how the economy has been intentionally designed—and can be redesigned— through policy decisions.

  1.  Meeting our Needs

A good society makes it possible for everyone to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. Yet, our society is currently focused solely on profit, and people are forced to chase money rather than happiness. The laws and policies that we make lay down tracks that determine where the economy takes people. Right now, our economy is built around profit rather than being built to get people to their true needs.”

This story brings into focus the priorities of individuals and society. By drawing on the value of Fulfillment, this story identifies deeper needs—beyond the need to make money—and makes the case for an economy that prioritises happiness and fulfillment over profit. It utilises a metaphor of Economic Tracks to illustrate the significant role the economy plays in structuring opportunities, making it clear that society’s current priorities result from the way the economy has been designed.

Next steps

We hope, in using these stories, that campaigners and progressive spokespeople can build greater support for an economy based on equality, community, and stewardship of the environment.

Download our report to read our findings and recommendations in full!

Contact Bec to talk about PIRC’s ongoing research on framing strategies for a new economy.

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