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Gary Younge
The coalition doesn't want to heal Britain's broken leg, but amputate it

Back in 2004, during the US presidential election, a little-known linguistics professor, George Lakoff, watched John Kerry's performance with increasing frustration at the manner in which the Republicans managed to shape the debate and define their opponent. "I went to bed angry every night," Lakoff told the New York Times.

Kerry was successfully cast as a "flip-flopper" – a man not of principle or instinct, but calculation and opportunism, who could not be trusted as a man of principle. George Bush, on the other hand, was branded as many things – a warmonger, an idiot and the scion of a wealthy family who favoured the rich – but was never reduced to a single, damning story. "They never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck," wrote the Times's Matt Bai. "Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed."

Lakoff decided to write a book, titled Don't think of an Elephant!, explaining how ideological arguments and strategic interventions are best framed through metaphors that appeal to people on an unconscious level. At first his agent couldn't find a publisher. In the end it went viral. Within less than a year it had sold 200,000 copies, and was in its eighth reprint.

As a how-to guide for Democrats seeking to regain control and reorient a trajectory of a national conversation that always had them on the back foot, it proved indispensable. Whereas Bush referred to the reform of social security in terms of "personal accounts" that offered "choice", the Democrats spoke of "private" accounts that amounted to "gambling". Bush retired the plan. It was the first of a series of semiotic victories that arguably helped leverage political victory. Many who went to bed angry started waking up with a smile on their face.

As we in Britain edge towards an autumn of swingeing public sector cuts, it is crucial that the left reframes popular understanding of the origins of, and options emerging from, this economic crisis. So far the right has made all the running. According to Ipsos Mori, in March the number of those who opposed the Tory strategy was double that of those who backed it. By the end of last month the tables had turned, with 44% backing swift deficit reduction and 35% against it.

In no small part, the right has been able to achieve this by framing the impending pain as an unavoidable consequence of Labour's reckless spending. The only way to emerge from this period intact, they claim, is to inflict savage spending cuts on a bloated public sector and let the private sector create the jobs. Those who refuse to accept this inevitability offer only a kneejerk response to inescapable economic reality.

This is nonsense on many levels, not least factually. The main reason it has worked has been the absence of a coherent counter-narrative from the left about how we got into this situation and therefore how we might get out of it. The good news is the left has a far more believable story to tell that has the added benefit of being true. The trouble is, with the scions of New Labour battling it out for the leadership, there are too few to tell it. Each new coalition proposal prompts isolated rebuttals from the contenders – but rarely set in a broader context. Rather than sounding prime-ministerial, they appear petulant.

The first point is that this situation was not brought about by excessive public sector spending in Britain, but by an almighty binge in the private sector that sparked an international banking crisis. Far from government getting in the way of business, at the point of collapse it was governments – across the world – that rescued business from itself through massive bank bailouts. Indeed, the crisis was made possible not by too much state intervention in capitalism but too little.

Given its global nature, it defies logic to blame any one government or even country for this crisis, let alone a single party. And while it can be argued that Labour made the country vulnerable to the fallout through its deficits, it is not an argument David Cameron can honestly make. For most of the time he was opposition leader he was committed to matching Labour's spending plans. Only when the crisis was in full swing did he abandon them.

In their place he has introduced an agenda that is, by any standards, extreme. Osborne has floated cuts averaging 25% across almost all departments. In Germany, the eurozone's primary deficit hawk, the government department taking the steepest hit will suffer an 8% cut. Indeed, according to the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, cuts in the UK "exceed those identified by the Greek government, which faces a much greater fiscal crisis. (The Greek government aims to cut marginally deeper, but some of its cuts are still not qualified or identified.)"

Far from being economically necessary, these particular cuts represent an ideological choice. The Conservatives want to shrink the state to a lower proportion of the economy than Margaret Thatcher did. Not even the markets are demanding austerity on this scale, or at this pace. One can have an honest debate about whether they are a good idea or not; one cannot, with any integrity, claim they are inevitable.

The country has a broken leg, and the coalition don't want to heal it but amputate it. This is elective surgery. The trouble is that the country didn't choose this. True, Labour lost. But no party won. There is simply no mandate for such an extreme agenda. Opposition to this agenda represents not the reflexive response of malcontents but the considered appraisal of a broad swath of the economic community. The US, France, the Financial Times and the Economist have all argued against such a scale of fiscal tightening at this stage. Even the IMF earlier this year said: "For most advanced countries, some fiscal and monetary stimulus may need to be maintained well into 2010."

It is also widely acknowledged and easily proven that, for all the talk of fairness, these measures will have a disproportionate effect on the poor. "The looming cuts to public services are likely to hit poorer households significantly harder than richer households," said Robert Chote, the director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies the day after the budget.

Not only are these measures not necessary, there is every chance they will make matters far worse. "The historical precedent," argues John Philpott, chief adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, "would suggest that the application of stronger fiscal discipline to an economy in too weak a state to bear it will both slow the rate of economic growth and stem the pace of job creation."

There is plenty of material here with which the left can reframe the debate, and plenty of scope to find support for it. The furore over the cancellation of school building projects – a scintilla of the carnage to come – shows that approval for the cuts will fall once they start to take effect. But the nature of government opposition will be shaped by whom people hold responsible for the situation and what options they understand.

It was not those with low-paid final salary pensions who got us here, but those raking in multimillion dollar bonuses. The wealthy created this crisis, and now the coalition is making ordinary working people pay for it by playing politics with the livelihoods of millions. These are cuts of choice from a government we didn't choose. A softer landing is possible; a crash landing is imminent.

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