Report by NEON, NEF, Frameworks Institute and PIRC

What is the story of the economy in Britain? Who gets to shape public opinion about what it’s for, how it’s broken and how it can be fixed?

These are the questions the Framing the Economy project set out to answer. We wanted to help civil society communicate and organise more effectively, to help bring about the changes needed to move to a sustainable, equitable and democratic economy.

The dominant story of the UK economy, and the politics that goes with it, has evolved significantly since we set out on this ambitious endeavour. The project was first conceived in 2015, at a time when the austerity story set the agenda. The airwaves were full of politicians repeating that we had maxed out the nation’s credit card and needed to stop borrowing; that the Labour government had spent too much and crashed the economy; that without drastic cuts to public spending, the UK could end up like Greece.

This story was remarkably resilient—against sluggish economic performance and failure on its own deficit reduction measures; against the reasoned arguments of Keynesian commentators; against the anger of anti-cuts campaigners. It not only reinforced austerity politics but crowded out space to talk about real threats to our economy, like climate change. It spread the feeling that sustainability and social justice were luxuries the UK could no longer afford. It was in this context that we first became convinced of the need for progressives to tell a much more compelling and cohesive story to counter this dominant narrative.

In the years since then, British politics has been turned upside down. In 2016, a new story took hold of the public debate: the Brexit story. The Leave campaign insisted that the UK needed to “take back control” from distant elites in Brussels, that our economy would thrive if only we could make our own decisions. This proved an immensely powerful story for millions of people who felt ignored and disenfranchised. But of course, it is not only a story about elites, but about outsiders of all kinds: it has gone hand in hand with the demonisation of migrants and a terrifying rise in racism and xenophobia.

How can progressive forces tell a new story to help accelerate the shift to a new economic system?

The 2016 EU referendum and 2017 General Election demonstrated the power of both grassroots organising and social media to mobilise people and reshape the political debate. To respond to this moment, we must think about not just the story we need to tell, but how and where we need to tell it.

These are times of great danger but also of great possibility. For the first time in decades, there is a sense that the economic consensus is fracturing, that a change must and will come. A space has opened up to talk and think differently about the economy. The question is what this space will be filled by: a narrow, nationalistic story which scapegoats outsiders, or a positive vision for a just and sustainable future? It is imperative that civil society rises to the challenge.