Most of you will be aware of the work of William Labov, the socio-linguist. If not, it’s worth checking out his stuff on narrative structure. Remove the posh words and what he tells you about is stories – what makes a story. He bangs on about ‘complicating actions’ and ‘resolutions’ and whatnot. Interesting, but it won’t start any revolutions.
Anyway, it seems pretty clear that humans are almost hard-wired to respond to and remember stories. Before we could write we passed down stories from generation to generation, to ensure that the right warnings were issued and the rules on how to live together as a society were inculcated across the centuries. We love stories – once they’ve started, and once we’re aware of the ‘complicating action’, we need to know the ‘resolution’. How many times have you walked out of the cinema? A handful, at most. How many shit films have you sat through?
So, in response to this awareness that we need stories, we also tend to construct them out of events. Why did World War One start? Because of the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo? A moment of thought will tell you that that is bollocks. For decades and decades the tectonic plates of capital and imperialism had been shifting, and at some point things were going to errupt. But we need the Franz Ferdinand story, cos it gives us a trigger – a complicating action.
The results of the British Labour Party leadership elections have not yet been announced. But we, the people, are apparently desperate for a narrative structure to be imposed upon it. So, now the ballots have closed, journalists are busy constructing all the events of the last 3 or 4 months into a series of causes and effects, shoehorning the random and the unplanned into a structure with a beginning, a middle and a clear, wrapped-up-with-a-bow-on-top ending. Cos that’s what they do. Cos that’s what we need.
The best example (of many) is in today’s Guardian. Go and read it because it is a fine example of what is, in fact, a great skill – the ability to fashion complicated, unrelated events and actions into a story with all the narrative power of Dickens or Fitzgerald or Balzac. As a class we need to be better at this ourselves, comrades. It’s how you spread the word.
Anyway, all of the above is partly a way of bringing to your attention two very important points from the Guardian piece. One is that the David Miliband camp look as if they are close to conceding, and have opened negotiations over what shadow cabinet job he might get. The other, much more important, part is this. It forms part of this narrative the journalists have constructed, but it gives us a superb signal that things may be on the turn. You don’t need a Weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, brothers and sisters. We pick up the narrative about 6 weeks ago:
The launch of Peter Mandelson’s book in July was a turning point for Ed Miliband. A friend says: “People who said they supported Ed at Mandelson’s book launch were mobbed by the Blairites. They were told Ed would take us back to the 1970s, that he was a Bennite. Soon after that, those views took root in the media, that Ed was pandering to the left. That shocked Ed.
“For a week he was asking: why are they saying this? Some in his campaign said he should come up with something for Middle England that is Blairite.”
He resisted. When had it become a crime for the Labour leader to be leftwing? he asked. “Ed was personally transformed by that moment,” said the friend.
So, fingers crossed for Saturday, comrades. He’s a democratic socialist, who is asking when it became a crime for Labour leaders to be leftwing. This augurs very well for the future. He won’t deliver socialism. But he might be on our side. And, in the current climate, that is what we desperately need.
We like a cynically constructed narrative when it delivers a comrade of the left to the leadership of the Labour party. Let’s hope it does.