I am going to tell you a story. It happens to be true. But bear with me, there is a point to it.
The “Swinsty cormorant” was usually there, perched on a float around 100 metres out from the dam wall at Swinsty Reservoir in North Yorkshire, whenever I ran round it with my dogs. I used to be fascinated by the lone bird and would always look out for him to see if he was there. My imagination ran riot with why he was always there on his own with no mates in sight. I was captured by the romance of his loneliness, I suppose.
But one day, about 18 months ago, it all changed. I would often meet a man on the days I ran who I knew slightly, and we would have a chat. One day I came across him by the location of the Swinsty cormorant. I asked him if he, like me, was fascinated by this lone creature. His reply crushed me—albeit in only a small way. He pointed out something very obvious that I had, oddly, never thought of. It was not the same bird there all the time—cormorants visited the reservoir in small numbers, so it was fairly evident that the actual bird changed, especially as there was only room for one bird on the float.
After that day, I did see a cormorant on the float occasionally, but did not particularly look out for it nor spend any time thinking about it really. I suppose that was when I realized that I, in common with many people, was a “sucker” for a good story. But when faced with the facts—the evidence—which blew the story away, I was not particularly interested. The only actual point of interest was the fact that cormorants were regular visitors to the reservoir.
Stories and myths are important. You have an emotional tie to them. This is why the Leave campaign during the EU Referendum was so devastating as their slogan “Take back control” was imbued with emotion and intent, and the implication that control had been taken away. It created an emotional response. The story about giving the NHS £350 million was also a good sell—something that people could relate to. It was specific and personal to so many people in the UK.
In the USA, Trump told a good tale about making America great again, and building a wall to protect the motherland from unwanted immigrants. Stories of “the other” raise emotions, because there is an implied danger and risk. 2016 was a good year for the story-tellers.
So how did progressives react to these stories during both the US Presidential campaign and the EU Referendum? They wore us down with evidence—facts and data. All very interesting, especially if you are a deeply rational person. But difficult to feel passionate about.
A new adjective has emerged which readers will be familiar with: “post-truth”. But looking at this from another angle, some of these post-truth sayings and stories could equally also be called “mythical”. And in being mythical, these sayings and slogans have a hook, an emotional appeal that draws people in. The evidence attempts to dispel the myth, and can therefore be disappointing at an emotional level.
At the beginning, I said there was a point to all this. And this is my point: we, as progressives, need to develop our own myths and stories. We need to connect emotionally to prospective voters. We need to develop a counter-narrative, that is in direct opposition to that peddled by the right wing demagogues and xenophobes, that is engaging, positive and hopeful. But not one that depends solely on facts and evidence. There must be some way of communicating the impact and benefit that our well researched, and evidence-based policies that appeals to people emotionally. A good example is Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Canadian Prime Minister, who often uses stories deftly in his speeches to make connections (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/justin-trudeau-un-syrian-refugees-antigonish-chocolate-tareq-hadhad-1.3175023).
As Liberals, we see hope and positivity—a better way for us all to live in this world-- in the policies we strive to create. Now, let’s find the stories that can communicate them to everyone.
First published on Lib Dem Voice on 12 February 2017