It has been suggested that we need to ‘re-frame the debate’ around child poverty and I came across an interesting article a couple of weeks ago in Evidence & Policy by Frank Mols called ‘What makes a frame persuasive? Lessons from social identity theory’. In the article, Mols argues that ‘politicians and other influential leaders appeal to our social identity by emphasising common in-group membership (‘us’)’ and that they ‘harness social identity by exagerrating intra-group homogeneity and intergroup differences’. Mols goes on to suggest that:
such exaggerations have the potential to shape public perceptions, especially if there are prejudices about the group being targeted, and it is in this way that leaders can create a public opinion wave, and subsequently surf the wave they themselves created. (my emphasis)
I thought about this article when I read a couple of commentsmade by David Cameron on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and when I heard George Osborne’s speech today at the Conservative conference. The comments are below.
Cameron – “We have to find these spending reductions and if we want to avoid cuts in things like hospitals and schools, services that we all rely on, we have to look at things like the welfare budget,”
Osborne – “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”
“We modern Conservatives represent all those who aspire, all who work, save and hope, all who feel a responsibility to put in, not just take out.”
“How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?”
Cameron thus manages to cleverly frame the welfare budget as very separate from health and education and something that not all of us rely on. People who rely on the welfare state are thus ‘othered’ and portrayed as being different from the rest of ‘us’, the ‘non-poor’. This frame is achieved by talking about universal benefits for pensioners as though they are something completely separate from the rest of the welfare state.
Osborne manages to frame benefits as generous and a lifestyle choice of those who ‘just take out’, carefully closing off the truth that many working families rely on benefits and tax credits to make ends meet. The next door neighbour ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’ and the carefree, promiscuous out of work families who have children ‘knowing’ the state is there to write a blank cheque for them (prejudices perhaps?) are contrasted with ‘us’, ‘those who aspire, work, save and hope.’ The potential to move between the two categories of ’employed’ and ‘unemployed’ doesn’t appear to be an option, with both categories being ‘framed’ as static and absolute.
Returning to Mols, he suggests that a ‘frame is expected to be strong when it (a) successfully evokes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorisation’, (b) explicitly portrays the issue as a choice for or against ‘our values’, and (c) implicitly portrays those who disagree as hostile to their own group.
Still, it’s reassuring to know that the government do use ‘evidence’ of some sort when designing their policies, especially, as Professor Alex Stevens has suggested, if it fits with the story already being told