It’s funny, but no one in Labor is laughing: the very week the Gillard government produces its most coherent economic and political statement of the entire time Labor has been in office, it gets accused yet again of lacking a “narrative”. Waleed Aly, joining Fairfax’s new “all leadership speculation, all the time” format, says governments “thrive on narrative” and Labor ain’t got one.

Ah, the irony — Labor’s actual narrative can’t be heard over the clamour of leadership speculation and insistence it hasn’t got a narrative.

This is only the most recent of almost countless articles about Labor’s lack of an overarching narrative — many of which, I readily confess, I’ve authored myself. It’s taken as an article of faith that governments need a central story around which to structure their communication with voters and to guide their governing priorities. Labor’s peristent problem, we’ve all maintained, has been it lacks such a theme and that that is reflective of its lack of core values.

Well perhaps it’s time to reassess how much we rely on the “narrative” narrative.

You see, this government isn’t the only one about which, it’s lamented, there’s no narrative. The Obama presidency has been dogged by complaints he lacked a narrative, or (premature, as it turned out) declarations that he’d finally found one. One Washington Post writer in 2010 was already toting up the number of times Obama’s loss or lack of narrative had featured in mainstream commentary. In the lead-up to the 2012 election, there were complaints Obama had lost his “narrative mojo” or allowed Republicans to impose their own narrative. A re-elected Obama had finally found “a strong narrative arc”, another writer opined in December. His State of the Union address was seen as an attempt to replace an “austerity narrative” with a more progressive economic narrative.

David Cameron hasn’t fared any better. The Tories lack a clear message because Cameron doesn’t have one, the New Statesman’s political editor complained earlier this week. Cameron lacks a convincing narrative, a Guardian commentator noted at the end of last year. And it’s not just the Left in the UK. “There is no leadership and no narrative. Kids are running Downing Street,” an unnamed Tory MP was quoted as saying a fortnight ago. Cameron had allowed Labour’s Ed Miliband to create a narrative of government incompetence, a senior Telegraph commentator explained in October.

Sound familiar?

Still, Gordon Brown had the same problem. There was no distinctive Labour narrative, the Independent’s Peter Hain lamented in 2009. Or if it existed it was confusing, a Spectator columnist suggested. Brown allowed Cameron to paint him as incompetent, too.

So what’s going on — do we have an entire generation of Anglophone politicians who have entirely lost the capacity to communicate narratives effectively, who can only stand idly by while their opponents portray them as incompetent? It seems unlikely — does anyone seriously suggest Barack Obama is a poor communicator? Or is our concept of a “narrative” now flawed? Before we read the next article on Labor’s failure of narrative, think about these points:

  • A constantly reinforced government message requires rigorous top-down control of ministers and MPs that the media complains about. Remember the media’s incessant complaints about the Rudd office’s control of messaging? The media says it prizes authenticity and politicians who resist spin in preference for talking about things realistically. But you don’t convey a consistent message by offering nuance, detail and “calling it as you see it”.
  • Narratives are made, not born. The Hawke government didn’t come to office in March 1983 with an economic reform agenda; it was compelled to embrace one by economic circumstances and the wretched budget situation John Howard bequeathed it. And the agenda changed over time as economic circumstances changed. Governments have to operate in the real world, and the real world throws up problems to be dealt with. Labor has had to govern with a global financial crisis, a European depression, a mining boom and a bulletproof currency, and has maintained economic growth, low inflation and low unemployment, despite the apparent lack of a narrative. During the GFC the “narrative” was about protecting jobs. The strong Australian dollar has now prompted Labor to put together a coherent economic policy based around jobs, productivity and innovation, within a strongly fiscally constrained environment. It is actually a narrative. It isn’t the sort of narrative that gets the media excited, but it’s the one we need.
  • It’s easier to communicate a negative narrative than a positive one. Just ask Gordon Brown while David Cameron was painting him as incompetent, or David Cameron as Ed Miliband paints him as incompetent. Negative narratives are simple; positive narratives are complex and nuanced. It’s easier for oppositions to communicate narratives than governments, because governments have to govern in the real world, with all its imperfections, while oppositions govern purely in rhetoric, where things are always easier and everything runs smoothly.
  • It’s easy to communicate us-and-them narratives — whether it’s the Right targeting asylum seekers and Muslims or the Left targeting foreign workers. Inclusive narratives that seek to unite rather than divide are harder to sell because they’re more complex.
  • Leaders with a long history in public life find it easier to communicate with voters because voters instinctively know what they stand for; politicians who are relatively recent arrivals have no values recognition to draw on in the electorate. No one ever asked what John Howard’s “narrative” was, even as he shifted from a neo-liberal economic hardliner to a tax-and-spend big-government advocate of centralisation.
  • And, maybe most of all, in a fragmented media, and with people able to select their own media or select none at all, communicating to the whole electorate is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s no longer the 1980s when there was a limited number of media outlets across TV, radio and newspapers and even tabloid current affairs programs ran prime ministerial interviews. Governments can have the most compelling narrative possible, but if a substantial chunk of the electorate simply refuses to pay attention to political coverage, it’s irrelevant.

All of which suggests that if Labor wants to meet our benchmark of successfully communicating a narrative, it should keep it simple, negative, divisive, artificial and relentlessly controlled. As if that would keep us happy.