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Narrative battle: Justice vs Money


Battle of the narratives: Justice vs Money

Key takeaway: Engaging with your opponents' narrative only makes it stronger. Don't try to prove your opponents wrong, just keep hitting them where it hurts.

Labour have announced their new policy on private schools - nationalisation, by absorbing them into the state education sector.

Their argument is about justice. Supporters of the policy - let's call them For - are presenting a range of arguments in favour: making education fair, opening up opportunity for everyone, social mobility, and so on.


They are aiming straight for the Conservative party's glass jaw: the common perception that they are uncaring about the marginalised, hoarding privilege for themselves and their families.

This is a good example of a simple narrative that activates widespread underlying frames.

In this case, the frame is "right-wing politicians don't care about the marginalised".

Their opponents, Against, - Conservatives, right-wing think tanks, and so on - are not engaging with this narrative directly. They know that they would just make it stronger.

They are aware that narratives are 'antifragile' - that the more they are attacked, the stronger they get.

If Against were to engage with For's arguments - giving evidence about research, statistics, anecdotes, etc - it would be counterproductive for them.

Their responses would only give Labour supporters more opportunities to rebut, to explain their position, and to even more strongly frame the Conservatives as uncaring about underprivileged children.

So the Against side is deftly avoiding this trap. They know that they would only strengthen For's argument, and by putting themselves in the position of being 'against fairness', tip more people into For than into Against.

When your opponent knows your weak spot, don't expose it to them even more widely.

So Against need to move the conversation somewhere else entirely. Their chosen territory for argument is far from the realm of fairness - it's about cost and practicality.

Against have decided, in turn, to punch Labour's perennial bruise.

Their chosen frame: "left-wing politicians are irresponsible with money".

So their online talking points are financial, and couched in the language that riles people up on both sides - expropriation, Marxist, communist.


The narrative battle, laid out:

  Narrative Frame Expected rebuttal Narrative trap
"For" narrative Private schools entrench justice Labour for the many, Cons for the few "Actually, educational and sociological research shows..." "Look at those Tories, trying to defend their privilege at all costs"
"Against" narrative Abolition is prohibitively expensive and extremist Cons are sensible with money, Labour waste it "No it is affordable, look at these sums..." "Classic Labour, spending billions and taxing you to pay for it"

So which side will win the narrative tug-of-war, either in the social media bubble, or in the public mind?

The side that maintains its own narrative will put itself at a significant advantage.

The side that gives up messaging discipline, wasting its troops and resources in the opponent's comfort zone, is most likely to lose this tug-of-war.

The lesson for students' unions?

Know what criticisms to expect - and don't engage with them.

Move the debate to where you want it to be.

Andrew Keenan