Posted by: davidjmarlow | 23/01/2012

‘Don’t think of an elephant….’

Elephant from an Essex Zoo…

After my Xmas piece in Regeneration and Renewal (‘Do they know its Xmas…’), with its reference to Mr Blobby as the generally acknowledged worst Xmas Number One of all time, you may begin to detect a recurring obsession with the title of this blog. However ‘Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate’ by George Lakoff (2004) provides a particularly appropriate and effective reference in a week when Eric Pickles is reported as asserting “Councillors have a moral duty (my emphasis) to sign up to [freezing council tax to] keep down the cost of living. Anything less is a kick in the teeth to hard-working, decent taxpayers”.

Lakoff argues that when one says ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, the listener automatically thinks of one. The conservative’s use of language frames the terms of policy debates in the directions they seek. The underpinning to their worldview is an ‘evil’ world in which laziness and lack of self-discipline needs to be shaped by an authoritarian ‘strict father’ dishing out rewards to the deserving and punishment to the undeserving.

Lakoff fears progressives’ failure to produce as compelling a narrative (of a mutually respecting, open, social worldview) to counter this conservative paradigm. With Balls and Miliband seemingly obsessed with recognising enduring ‘deficit reduction’ in the next parliament as key to their electoral credibility, Lakoff’s proposition has self-evident traction nationally, but what is the progressive response to Mr Blobby’s elephantine (in a clumsy, monstrous, ‘Lakoff-ian’ sense) pronouncements?

Response firstly needs to be shaped by a much more explicit recognition and exposure than hitherto of the fundamentally manipulative character of Pickles’ discourse. To take this weekend’s example, the use of the terms ‘moral duty’, ‘keep down cost’, ‘hard working decent taxpayer’, and (not agreeing with me is a) ‘kick in the teeth’ is an almost hysterical outburst of political warfare rather than a serious attempt to engage in deliberation over genuine choices in policy development. And the Minister has form in this regard.  Whether it is “I believe every household in England has a basic right (again my emphasis) to have their rubbish collected every week,”  or the more overtly negative ‘non-jobs of fat cat Chief Executives’, or the blaming of planners, the last Labour administration, benefit ‘scroungers’, regions etc for a variety of whatever failures he is currently charged with, local government has a Minister who consistently chooses propaganda over policy and insult over inquiry.

Second, there is the opportunity to exploit the weak position in terms of public opinion from which the Minister launches his destructive assaults. With the influential IPSOS-MORI Veracity Index showing public trust of politicians in general and Ministers in particular at levels of 14% and 17% respectively – the two lowest rankings of any profession, this is the time to develop joint narratives with Doctors (88%), Teachers (81%), ‘ordinary people (55%) and even public/civil servants (47%). With the local government sector showing record levels of negative net confidence in ‘Pickles and his Ministers’ (LGC net confidence survey 2011), this is a time to reinforce the imagery of remote Whitehall Ministers playing politics and propaganda whilst hard working professionals are undermined and ordinary people’s services are cut.

Finally there is the construction of the positive progressive narrative of localism – pride in our area, celebration of our communities, and the potential of collective control in shaping our destiny. Of course the narrative will and should vary from place to place. It does require the emergence of a leadership team of all the talents – political, public, private, and community sectors – communicating well and interactively with all our publics, including the media. And it does require channels of dialogue with central government that outflanks the admittedly significant blockage provided by the current Minister – getting the elephant out of the room!

There are those who started 2012 seeking to draw a line under the dysfunctional relationship with Pickles and his department to attempt to build a new more purposeful and constructive dialogue. Sadly, with his contrived ‘moral outrage’ Mr. B. has opted for ‘same old, same old’. So when you next think of the local government minister, don’t think of an elephant….don’t think of shallow political propaganda, of playing petty games in Westminster that deliberately undermines honest active citizens trying to build vibrant communities.  Think of civic pride, and developing local teams collaborating for a better future. And provide the narrative to the media and our publics that makes quite clear the juxtaposition of the two opposing worldviews.

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