Wednesday, 29 June 2016
Never Can Say Goodbye
A couple of months ago I wrote a little article for Progress, about applying the one thing I know about, narrative structure, to the predicament of the Labour Party. You can read it here.
As is always the case when I write something, I wrote far too much, so a chunk of my article had to be cut out. Which is cool, but also a pity, as that bit has turned out to be a little prophetic. It's also relevant to the current situation in the Labour Party, and explains why Jeremy Corbyn's miserably pathetic and divisive attempt to cling onto power is actually a very good thing!
Anyway, with no more preamble, here's the bit that was cut:
On the other hand, though, a narrative is still being created. Because if you read Story by Robert McKee, or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, or any other storytelling manual, there is a classical structure being laid down. In the first act, as our inciting incident, our hero is torn out of their secure, ordinary life. Then things go from bad to worse, they are stuck up a tree being pelted with rocks, until suddenly, just when it looks like things can’t get any worse for our hero, just when it looks like the forces of darkness have won, there is a dramatic turnaround and our hero plucks a stunning victory from the jaws of defeat.
Labour, I would contend, is stuck up a tree being pelted with rocks. But it can all change. Indeed, if you wanted to create a narrative about an opposition party returning dramatically to power, then you would plot it as follows: It chooses a disastrously bad leader, it goes from bad to worse, it looks like all hope is lost, it’s about to lose the election and be wiped from existence, when – at the last possible moment – an exciting new leader swoops in to save the day and Labour wins the election. You would want to establish the party as the underdog, you would want it to look like it was facing certain and total defeat, just to set up the dramatic turnaround. It could be the most perfectly-constructed narrative arc for an opposition party – and the more well-structured a story, the more effective it is at drawing people’s attention and altering their views.
A good story is powerful, and the above narrative is not implausible. The pace of politics and the media have changed; it's flash floods rather than plate tectonics. We’ve seen in Europe and North America that charismatic candidates can capture the public’s imagination. People are looking for heroes; figures who offer a fresh approach, who don’t play by the rules, who are outsiders. Figures they can identify with, who speak their minds, who are fallible and flawed but also resilient and principled. If Labour had somebody like that, even only a few months before an election, all bets would be off.
But the thing with narrative is, the change has to be dramatic. You have to make people sit up and notice! A gradual evolution, careful not to rock the boat, is no story at all. You want as much conflict as possible! You want all the hard-left fellow-travellers to be storming out on television in order to re-establish the Labour Party as a mainstream, centre-ground party, like Derek Hatton at the 1985 Labour Party Conference. The louder they shout, the better, as long as they’re heading for the door! The reason why Tony Blair achieved such a huge victory in 1997 was because Labour had an exciting, all-new, easy-to-follow story to tell.
Some would say Jeremy Corbyn could be that ‘hero’ figure. He’s certainly pissed quite a few people off, which is a good start. Could the narrative be about a guy in his late sixties taking on the political establishment? No, I'm sorry, it won’t work. It’s just not a sufficiently dramatic story. The plot has barely moved forward since he became leader, it hasn’t got legs for another four years. What’s he going to do that’s going to defy expectations and cause Conservative voters in their millions to switch to Labour? He’s not going to do anything. He is not, with no due respect, a very exciting person.
No, to be a hero you need to be dynamic and proactive. Great stories are not told about heroes sitting around waiting for the bad guys to cock up, but that seems to be Labour’s current strategy. It won’t work, of course – I’m sure the Conservatives will cock up in all sorts of profoundly calamitous and highly amusing ways, they always do, but Labour can’t rely on their unpopularity making people switch to Labour; they’ll just turn to parties who offer a more engaging story, who offer simple answers, who offer another variety of easy-to-swallow ‘truthiness’ like UKIP and the SNP.