The Overton Window and why we need a liberal narrative

Why have the Lib Dems been far and away the least successful major party at vote getting in national elections in recent decades?   A big part of this has to be the party’s continuing lack of a compelling narrative and to explore this I want to expand on a comment I made on a recent LDV post by Helen Flynn.

For as long as I can remember (somewhat over 20 years) the Party has actually been pursuing the Overton Window which is really just a newish and convenient label for a very old idea.  As Wikipedia explains,

“At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered to be politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public office.”

Arguably this oversimplifies but it does so in a useful way in that it highlights the different levels at which politics can happen.  Inside the window is the world of the Westminster Village, a realm of insiders and arcane rules.  It is the world where playing the game is more important than being right (as Vince Cable’s run in with the Telegraph illustrated) and of politicians consumed with manoeuvering but too often adding remarkably little value.  Outside the window is a very different world where the struggle is to drag the window as a whole, by fair means or foul, to a new place on the political spectrum.  It is the arena of a less visible fight but one whose winner gets to choose the terrain on which to fight – an advantage that is likely to be decisive in the long run.

The right understands only too well the whole business of dragging the window to a new part of the spectrum plus the related skills of framing and storytelling – skills they use like lipstick to make their policy pigs presentable.  Nor is it all about rationality; liberals might dismiss the likes of Glenn Beck (who has written, or at least put his name to, a book called The Overton Window) as buffoons but this is to miss the point; he and his kind are useful tools for the real power brokers on the right.  The bottom line is that their media presence, magnified by attempts at rebuttal, results in the window of acceptable discourse being dragged to the right – which is a win for the right.  (And in the case of Murdoch, the shock jocks also provide entertainment which he has always understood to be central to a successful media operation.)

In contrast, liberals (and socialists) have been just dreadful at moving the window towards their corner of the arena.  Indeed, the ‘official’ liberals – the Lib Dems – really haven’t engaged at all as an organised force although individuals have.  Like the anti-Ghaddafi forces in Libya, they remain passionate and committed volunteers – and almost totally ineffective.   The result is that since Reagan/Thatcher we have lived in a neoliberal window – and we’ve seen how that’s turned out!   Unfortunately, it remains the only game in town in the absence of an alternative.

Just how dedicated the official Party is to staying firmly in the window was made clear to me four or five years ago when I went to a meeting in Warrington to hear Chris Rennard, then Chief Executive, address north-west activists.    On the subject of policy he was very clear about the approach adopted.  There were, he explained, just five or six issues which routinely topped any opinion poll of public concerns – jobs/economy, education, NHS, housing etc.  The shortlist was remarkably stable over time so the object was to find liberal things to say about each which resonated as strongly as possible with focus groups then go big on those in writing the manifesto.  Issues not in the shortlist – I remember he specifically mentioned the EU – were accordingly downgraded and given as little mention as possible.

In effect, the proposition was that success lay in staying firmly, ruthlessly even, centred in the Overton Window as it then existed, as constrained by the understanding of a focus group, as ‘educated’ by the existing political establishment.

Can you have leadership by opinion poll?  Would any general choose to fight on ground chosen by the enemy?  I don’t think so!  For a party that likes to see itself as radical this is a contradiction in terms and a recipe for groupthink and incoherent policy (for instance regarding the EU as self-evidently a ‘Good Thing’ and supporting its initiatives on autopilot never mind how undemocratic they might be).  In opposition it’s bound to remain a ‘none-of-the-above’ protest party and in government a car crash.

So, what can we do?

The answer, I suggest, is that we need to work out a better approach to running the country which is easy to say but hard to do.  Labour’s big idea – roughly achieving ‘fairness’ by taxing and spending – has failed.  So has the Tory’s big idea – roughly that markets will solve everything.  Unfortunately, it continues zombie-like in the absence of an alternative.  This leaves the stage open for someone to come forward with a new big idea, a new political narrative.  For what it’s worth I am convinced that such a narrative is beginning to emerge but that will have to wait for further posts.

If this view is right, then our proximate objective is obvious; we should forget opinion polls and detailed policy and concentrate on discovering and elaborating a new narrative.  What we already have is an immense number of leaves but a distinct shortage of trees and no view of the forest at all.   (Mark Valladares has just made much the same point in different words at LDV.)   I believe that, given a coherent narrative, it would be relatively easy to drag the Overton Window to the liberal corner of the political arena.   After all there is no viable alternative and, unlike Glenn Beck’s efforts, people would soon start to understand that it would work for them.

When we articulate a sensible narrative we will win national elections; until that day we won’t – and we won’t deserve to.

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