Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Below is an extract from Chapter Fifteen of Warring Fictions. This comes from the section of the book about alternative narratives to the Golden Era. It describes the party political shifts in the Overton Window.
iii. Attlee, Thatcher, Blair, Brexit
A surprising argument made by Corbyn backers is that he isn’t actually that left-wing: it’s the mainstream that’s moved. One letter to the Guardian, for instance, claimed Corbyn was a mild social democrat, who only looks radical because “the Overton Window … has shifted very considerably to the right in the past 30 years.”[i]
Framing Corbyn as a moderate centre leftist, bypassed by the rush to ‘neoliberalism’, is far-fetched. He was among Labour’s most outspoken critics even in the 1970s, and his ‘anti-imperialist’, Marxist leanings put him in a different tradition to the historic Labour mainstream.[ii] Nevertheless, the Guardian letter writer’s argument is common on the populist left. So, let’s explore changes in the political consensus since 1945. We’ll call this narrative Attlee, Thatcher, Blair, Brexit. And we will, like the letter writer, use the ‘Overton Window’ to look at how the mainstream has moved.
The Overton Window is a creation of the US libertarian right, but has been borrowed by the populist left in recent years. It described policies that are considered politically mainstream and publicly sayable. Policies outside the window are viewed as extreme, fringe ideas.
The Overton Window “is not static,” and the case made by left populists is that it’s been hauled to the right in recent decades.[iii] Those who believe this ignore the technical constraints on policy-makers, and instead say ideologues have manipulated the window for reasons of greed. This leads the concept to come with Puppet Master baggage.[iv] However, rather than dismissing it, let’s engage seriously with public opinion, political discourse, and whether the mainstream has moved. Has it really been steadily shifting rightwards?
Below are a series of diagrams, suggesting where the Overton Window sat at various stages. We could argue all day about the degrees of change or the chronological brackets chosen. But the diagrams are an effort to assess broad directions of travel.
The answers to these questions are partly circumstantial. How much credit can the Attlee governments take for higher taxes on the rich, which they inherited from the war era? Likewise, how much credit can Blair take for increases in social liberalism, which were happening anyway? But in a way this is the point. However much (or little) you accept that there are phenomena beyond the power of politicians, you need to do so equally – for governments of the past as well as those of the present.
The horizontal axis in each of the following diagrams is the economic spectrum, and the vertical axis is the social/internationalist one. The traditional political scale, meanwhile, runs diagonally from liberal-left to reactionary-right (marked with a dotted line). The dark blue rectangle in each diagram shows the Overton Window for that period, and the light blue rectangle shows the previous Overton Window (except for in the first diagram, which doesn’t have one).[v]
The diagram below represents Consensus 1, the period before and during WWII. The war is an anomaly, so we dwell less on this than the period running up to it.
This was an era with low living standards, slum dwelling, poorly regulated heavy industry, and vast inequality – which was inadvertently reduced by the toll of war. It was also an era before civil rights and many social changes we now take for granted. Ingrained snobbery and jingoism were the order of the day, and beliefs about the ethnic and social supremacy of certain groups were widespread.
Winston Churchill was able to promote colonialism, stating, in 1937, that “I do not admit ... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia ... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race ... has come in and taken its place.”[vi] We lived in a right-wing country economically, and, to an even greater degree, socially.
The subsequent, 1945-1964, period saw the rise of what’s now known as the post-war consensus, built by Clement Attlee’s great reforming government (see Consensus 2). The diagram illustrates the leftward direction the Overton Window moved in economically, with the British people rejecting the prevailing consensus.
The shift towards economic collectivism was the most pronounced we have seen – with massive new investment in health, welfare and housing, as well as nationalisations of industries. Hierarchical aspects remained – grammar schools and very low access to higher education, for example – as many of the new interventions were based on providing a safety net for the first time. But, at the level of economic collectivism, this remains a period where the Overton Window moved unprecedentedly to the left, initiated by Labour but supported by subsequent Tory governments.
The story is more mixed when it comes to social and internationalist advances. The era was defined in part by decolonisation, which was a priority for the Labour government. India was granted independence and the number of countries under British rule fell.
With that said, the UK still tried to keep parts of its empire, as developments in Suez in the 1950s showed.[vii] By 1960, when Harold Macmillan gave his “winds of change” speech, committing in full to self-determination, Britain still had an empire, and occupied swathes of Africa – a situation with which many Brits were perfectly satisfied. So, it would be hard to argue that the 1945-1964 consensus departed from colonial assumptions – certainly compared to modern expectations. Foreign policy based on nationalist expansion remained respectable, and imperialism was within the Overton Window, even if it was moving out of it.
Back home, this was an era of ‘No blacks, No dogs, No Irish’. Migrant communities were subject to persecution which – however appalled we are by Ukip’s anti-immigrant rhetoric – are hard to imagine today.
Former Labour MP Alan Johnson recalls in his memoir, This Boy, the murder of an Antiguan carpenter in 1959, incited by Oswald Mosely’s Black-shirts.[viii] Johnson portrays the atmosphere in the impoverished district of London in which he grew up, where racist street beatings were common. Attacks like the one described were seen as a fact of life – the Notting Hill Race Riots had taken place just a year before – and Johnson describes how the lack of legal provision, combined with the attitudes of the police, stopped the attackers being brought to justice.
So, the 1945 shift in the economic consensus had not come with a great shift in social policies or attitudes. Britain remained socially conservative and nationalist, reflected in the legal frameworks and policies in place. Ideas of genuine equality on these fronts – or, for that matter, the removal of capital punishment or the legalisation of abortion – were outside the mainstream.
Consensus 3, below, shows the next period, 1964-1978. This saw changes on social liberalism and internationalism. Whereas Anthony Crosland’s proposals to strip back the “socially imposed restrictions on the individual’s private life and liberty” were at the peripheries of the Overton Window in 1956, by 1978 they’d moved within it. Censorship, divorce laws, “penalties for sexual abnormality,” abortion laws and hanging[ix] were removed during Harold Wilson’s two periods as Prime Minister. This was also the period of the sexual revolution and civil rights movements. Protections for minorities were enshrined in law, even if the country remained far more racist and sexist than today.
But the 1965-1978 consensus also marked a shift away from economic collectivism, which was deemed to not be functioning well. Opposition to trade unions became ‘sayable’ thanks to the three-day week, concern about pay restraint, the Winter of Discontent, and stereotypes about the unions having ‘beer and sandwiches’ at Downing Street. Likewise, there were anxieties about the creation of a ‘brain drain’ thanks to early globalisation. And British Rail services were rationalised for the first time, on the basis of economic need.
This was set against shifts to the left, like the opening of new universities and the end of grammar schools in most of the UK. And there’s no doubt that many more aspects of economic collectivism were within the Overton Window than are today. But there was still a shift, within the political mainstream, away from nationalisation and unionisation as defaults.
Consensus 4, below, describes the Thatcher-Major years. There’s a marked shift towards economic individualism, with elements of the post-war consensus pulled apart and underfunded. The country saw privatisations, tax cuts, a decline in public investment, the selling off of council houses, the ‘smashing’ of the unions, the deregulation of The City, etc. This was especially pronounced before 1990.
Many of these things were happening elsewhere in the developed world, thanks to globalisation. But the right-wing emphasis of the Thatcher governments meant that (compared to European equivalents), changes had painful long-term consequences.
It also meant that Labour abandoned the positions which were most at odds with the new consensus. Anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist stances – e.g. the automatic re-nationalisation of industries – became politically unsayable.
Meanwhile, there was a southward shift in the window too, during the 1980s, with a resurgence in divisive policies on immigration and cohesion, and the introduction of Section 28. The story is more complex in other places[x] (such as with Europe, in the case of Major). But 1979-1996 consensus didn’t, it would be fair to say, focus on promoting equalities or extending rights.
Internationally, approaches to Northern Ireland, Europe and South Africa reflected, in different ways, a reluctance to fully repudiate colonialism. And, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Falklands War from a policy perspective, it remains the last episode of flag-waving jingoism in the UK.
Let’s move to Consensus 5, 1997-2010. Because the Golden Era is reliant on 1979 as a sea-change moment – when the country went from progressive values to regressive ones – this consensus is important to unpack.
The spectrum below charts this. To begin with – as the northward direction of the Overton Window suggests – there was a clear post-1997 shift towards social liberalism.[xi] Government policy broke from the past on rights for LGBT groups, women, racial and religious minorities, children and even animals.[xii] This move was enshrined in the Equalities Act and the Human Rights Act, and reflected social attitudes.[xiii]
Internationally the same was true, with commitments to tackle climate change multilaterally, allow the regions more self-determination, cancel third world debt and treble aid.[xiv] These initiatives represent a shift towards international cooperation. The Africa Commission, the Good Friday agreement, and Britain’s determination to be at the heart of Europe wouldn’t have happened under the prior administrations. Until Brexit, it seemed that any government would need to follow this new consensus, and subscribe to openness and tolerance.[xv]
Social and international changes are sometimes painted by the populist left as cosmetic: a few non-white faces in the boardroom, to ease the path of ‘neoliberalism’.[xvi] This underestimates the difference that fairness in these areas brings.
Nevertheless, let’s move to economic collectivism and social justice. This is the area where the Golden Era narrative is most pronounced, and where the accusation of a post-1979 watershed is most acute: “Ever since the late 1970s, the dominant philosophy has been one of rugged, unabashed individualism.”[xvii]
It would be stupid to claim that 1997 saw the Overton Window return to 1945-1964 levels of collectivism. Tony Blair’s re-writing of Clause 4 and agnosticism on public ownership reflected a refusal to go against the inherited consensus. So too does Labour’s failure to regulate The City or tax the top 1% to the necessary levels. These were seen as income streams to be milked. Compromises here were partly made because some collectivist methods were considered ineffective in delivering progressive goals. But they also stemmed from a feeling that the centre ground had shifted rightwards, and that certain policies would be viewed as dampening aspiration if Labour even whispered their name.
Yet there was also a break from Consensus 4. Rather than being a continuity of “rugged, unabashed individualism,” the period saw a new emphasis on social justice and a big state.[xviii] Thatcher’s attitudes to poverty and inequality were firmly rejected in favour of state spending, high employment, equal opportunities and public investment.[xix] A popular appetite for better services and a fairer society both drove this and was driven by it. Setting aside public ownership, on which Labour changed little, there is a long list of policies backing this up – EMA, the minimum wage, the halving of pensioner poverty, the New Deal, etc.[xx] Few of these were sayable during the previous consensus – under which the Prime Minister could declare that there was “no such thing as society,” and her Employment Secretary tell people to get on their bikes to find work.
Moreover, if we remind ourselves of 2005-2010 Tory policies, we see a broad acceptance of Consensus 5.[xxi] Cameron and Osborne were convinced the Overton Window had shifted, leading them to embrace the EU and gay marriage, to aim for a representative parliamentary party,[xxii] and to maintain aid commitments. Osborne promised that the Conservatives would keep Labour spending levels, and Cameron promoted equality and the NHS, and tried to outflank Labour on the environment.[xxiii]
These ‘hug a hoodie’ commitments to social justice are now derided as Cameron paying lip service. Yet in a way that’s precisely the point. If the Overton Window describes that which is mainstream, it’s noteworthy that the opposition publicly subscribed to the new consensus. For instance, Cameron framed his rejection of grammar education as a “key test” of whether the Tories were “an aspiring party of government” or a “right-wing debating society.”[xxiv]
The above will ring hollow in the light of austerity and Brexit. The national debt provided an opening for the Overton Window to be moved back to the right economically.[xxv] The Coalition portrayed as social luxuries policies like SureStart and Building Schools for the Future. They cut tax, welfare spending and public sector jobs. In reflection of this, Consensus 6, shows the shift in the Overton Window after 2010. It depicts a move towards levels of economic individualism akin to the Major years (although not the Thatcher years).
With this said, parts of the social justice agenda remained. It’s hard to imagine the Tories ringfencing education, for example, were it not for the changes since they’d last held office. Likewise, on many of the smaller policies put forward after 2010.[xxvi] Conservative support for the minimum wage – opposed in 1998 – was part of the reason Cameron and Osborne’s record on inequality remains better than it could be.
Meanwhile, there’s also a move south in the diagram, marking the resurgence of Euroscepticism and the ‘tens of thousands’ immigration target set by Cameron. This is offset somewhat by the retention of the socially liberal aspects of Consensus 5, like gay marriage.
Some of the things above were thanks to the Lib Dems’, and many are cosmetic. The living wage was undermined by welfare cuts, for example. But they show that, despite Cameron having won public permission to cut spending, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ Thatcherism had been pushed outside the Overton Window.
Even to be allowed by the electorate to lead a coalition government, the Conservatives needed to adopt the language of social liberalism, equal opportunities and economic justice. And, to a certain extent, they had to mean it.[xxvii]
The final consensus would be the post-Brexit one. It’s unclear what it looks like at the time of writing, so I haven’t charted it. However, it’s likely that the Overton Window will shift significantly southwards once the UK leaves, as we become more culturally insular.[xxviii] A hard Brexit will lead to straitened times, intensifying anti-immigrant tensions. It could mean less Britons travel internationally, and less tourists and migrants want to come here.
The UK’s post-Brexit position on the economic gamut is less clear. It’s possible to imagine a collectivist departure from the EU, in which Britain shares more equally the limited resources left once wealth departs.[xxix] However, there will be a countervailing pressure, once this bites, to keep investors, jobs and better-off taxpayers on UK soil, by deregulating and cutting tax.[xxx] So, we could see an ultra-socialist Brexit (with widespread poverty but much more equality) or an ultra-capitalist one (continued prosperity, at the expense of rocketing inequality).
The impression you’d get, listening to Golden Era believers like our Guardian letter-writer, is that Britain has moved from the top left quartile of our axis to the bottom right quartile over the past seven decades; from fairness and community to greed and bigotry. Yet the reality is a series of muddled and piecemeal changes.
The diagram below, which has all the Overton Windows we’ve looked at overlaid, demonstrates this. It shows the consensus inching in a more progressive direction each time Labour is in power. The shifts have been helped and hindered by external factors. But there was never a pure, historic moment when the Overton Window sat unashamedly in the top left corner. As one academic points out:[xxxi]
Labour’s enduring successes in 1945-51, 1964-1970, 1974-1979 and 1997-2010 were great liberal reforms and extensions of social justice, from the National Health Service to the minimum wage. They did not bring a mythical socialist future any closer. Labour advanced despite, not because of, its original socialism.
To simplify the messy image above, we might say there have been four really major changes since 1945. To begin with, the Overton Window moved to somewhere close to the economically collectivist pole (marked ‘1.Attlee’ below). It remained more or less there until Thatcher’s governments pushed it towards the economically individualist pole (‘2.Thatcher’). From the 1990s on it move towards the internationalist poll of our spectrum, and about halfway back towards economic collectivism (‘3.Blair’). And it’s now likely to move due south (‘4.Brexit’).
This is pretty crude. But it nevertheless has a greater ring of truth – if we want a party-political meta-narrative – than the shift from progressive to reactionary described by our letter-writer.
The myopia of the Golden Era stops any acknowledgement of this. George Monbiot, for instance, claims Labour “always look like their opponents, [but] with a five-year lag.”[xxxii] Rather than noting the progress made – however insufficient – whenever Labour governs, left populists take the least charitable view of contemporary left-of-centre Prime Ministers. The allegation is always that the governing Labour Party accepted the consensus it inherited and changed nothing. This was made of Labour governments from the 1940s to the 1970s, which were only rehabilitated once their memory faded. And it happened with 1997-2010 Labour.
A good example of this myopia is Margaret Thatcher’s suggestion that New Labour was her “greatest achievement.” This is routinely used by the populist left as evidence that New Labour was continuity Toryism. However, Cameron’s claim to be the “heir to Blair” – which represented an acknowledgement that the Conservatives would need to focus on public investment and social justice to win again – is often treated as further proof that Labour became ‘Tory lite’.[xxxiii] In reality, the latter quote signifies the opposite. If you’re to take Thatcher’s comment seriously, as proof that Labour had to embrace parts of her legacy, then you must take Cameron’s seriously too, as proof that Labour also re-drew the Overton Window.[xxxiv]
The biggest problem with the myopia is that it’s self-fulfilling. The myth of ‘original socialism’ means that each time power is lost the populist left decides the outgoing administration achieved nothing compared to its red-blooded forefathers.[xxxv] The search begins for someone who can take us back to our roots. This helps Conservative attacks to stick, and means the public hears little positive about Labour in government.
Beyond this, the search for ‘original socialism’ is often a search for something that was never there, and comes at the expense of a genuine appraisal of progress. It is time-consuming, and lets Tory governments set the narrative. Would Britain really be crippled by austerity and on the cusp of Brexit now, for example, if Labour had regrouped in 2010, celebrated the progressive shifts delivered, learned from the mistakes, and climbed back in the saddle as an alternative government?[xxxvi]
Beneath this is a deeper truth, which is that the consensuses are seldom moved from opposition. There’s no ‘Duncan-Smith consensus’ and no ‘Foot consensus’. Parties almost always need to start inside the Overton Window, before they’re trusted to move it. Even Thatcher did this.[xxxvii]
This acknowledgement is a central difference between left pluralism and left populism. The former’s theory-of-change is based on engaging with what’s political possible, meeting people where they are, and shifting the mainstream; the latter’s is based on taking ‘outrider’ stances from beyond the window, which drag the mainstream leftwards.[xxxviii]
The latter approach is flawed, even in the case of Corbyn. Labour’s better-than-expected 2017 performance may be seen as proof that a radical opposition can make the running.
Yet this was enabled in large part by making concessions to the mainstream view of the day – on Trident, welfare, Brexit and immigration. It came against a Tory leader who had inadvertently placed herself outside the mainstream. And it was still unsuccessful. A solid half of the country seem to be so repelled by Corbyn’s fringe positions that they would vote for almost anyone to stop him, including the worst Conservative government in living memory.
It’s highly likely that, by the time of the 2022 election, the British Overton Window will be in a significantly more right-wing place than it was in 2010.
[i] The letter argued that the comparison between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot is “misleading because … political philosophies and policies that would in 1981 have seemed ‘loony right’ are now viewed as mainstream, and formerly social-democrat positions are commonly reviled as somehow Marxist… It is not that [Corbyn] is hard left: it is because the current position of the Overton Window is repellent to millions of ordinary citizens who wish to live in a more decent society than ours has become.” Similarly, others have compared Corbynism to Scandinavian social democracy.
[ii] As Luke Akehurst points out, if the Corbyn movement is just “social democratic ‘Old Labour’, [then] why did Benn and Corbyn and McDonnell attack Wilson and Callaghan so much in the 1970s? … Why do they look for overseas models in authoritarian Venezuela and Cuba not social democratic Sweden and Denmark?”.
[iii] Owen Jones argues that “Advocates of privatisation, deregulation, lower taxes on the rich and anti-trade unionism have dramatically shifted the window in [right-wingers’] direction over the last generation or so.” He suggests that a network of ‘outriders’ have been quietly cooperating, since the 1970s, to move the window to its current position. See The Establishment, p.45 & p.295.
[iv] It’s worth noting that the term wasn’t that widely-known or used beyond the niche, state-level US libertarian think tank where Joseph Overton worked – until 2010, when a novel of the same name was released.
[v] You could argue that at times the window has been bigger than at others. However, I’ve kept it the same size in the visualisations because, generally speaking, if a certain set of ideas become more acceptable then others usually become less so. It’s rare, for instance, that the mainstream incorporates both an enthusiasm for scrapping the minimum wage and an appetite for trebling it.
[vi] Winston Churchill, speech to the Peel Commission, 1937.
[vii] Britain’s support for the 1948 creation of Israel is a complex part of this story, which could move the Overton Window north of south depending on your perspective, so we won’t include it in the full narrative. Likewise, turning to another hobby horse of the populist left, it is worth noting that Britain’s nuclear deterrent was introduced during this period.
[viii] This Boy, p.89-94.
[ix] The Future of Socialism, p.402-408.
[xii] Reflecting on his legacy, Blair said that “One of the things that I think is good about the country today is that there are not – between the main political parties, at any rate – any real rows about race or sexuality; things that … in the 1970s and 1980s were very prominent political issues.” Meanwhile findings show a steady shift towards liberal values in the wider population over this period. Even Ukip had to swallow these changes, at least at a cosmetic level, with Farage praising Nelson Mandela as a “human hero.”
[xiii] The list of achievements trumpeted by New Labour is familiar and we’ll try to avoid going into it in too much length. There are more detailed appraisals in the form of The Verdict by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, or reviews by think tanks like The JRF and IPPR. Shorter checklists include the Progress ‘Bedtime’ edition (and their ‘100 list’), an inventory of successes put together by LGBT Labour, a Labour First compilation and an international development list. These sorts of rollcalls frequently provoke angry exchanges between the two wings of Labour.
[xiv] Blair’s Britain, 1997–2007, Anthony Seldon, Cambridge University Press, p.552.
[xv] Indeed, on the two single topics where Labour is most criticised – Iraq by the left, and immigration by the right – it was arguably an excessive belief in the possibilities of internationalism and social liberalism that caused the problem. The Iraq invasion stemmed from reckless faith in humanitarian intervention, following successful excursions in in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. And migration was poorly planned for, due to a sense that diversity had won the day.
[xvi] As journalist Helen Lewis points out, there’s a risk we treat issues like racial and gender equality or gay rights as “the art history of the political world.” Positive changes in these departments are often airbrushed from history by left populists, in favour of sweeping economic decline narratives.
[xvii] ‘A war of the generations is not a solution – hope is’, The Guardian, Owen Jones, March 2016.
[xx] See, for example, the minimum wage; family and working tax credits; the Educational Maintenance Allowance; Child Trust Funds; SureStart centres; the Employee Relations Act (which prevented employees from derecognising unions); the New Deal (paid for by a windfall on utilities companies); the trebling of school spending; the four-fold reduction of hospital waiting lists, permitted by the 2004 increase in National Insurance; the reduction of child and pensioner poverty thanks to big increases in welfare spending; the flattening of the Gini-coefficient (especially compared to if Labour hadn’t come to power); the big redistributions from the richest 10% to the poorest (undermined somewhat by failure to deal with the super-rich); the two-thirds reduction in rough sleeping; the kerbing of Right to Buy; and, towards the end of Labour’s tenure, increases in the top rate of tax, legal duties to redistribute wealth, the temporary renationalisation of the banks, and the nationalisation of East Coast mainline.
[xxi] As early as 2005, one pollster wrote: “The left have given up on the idea of total state control, even as a distant aspiration. The right have given up thinking about shrinking the state… No-one seriously proposes a shift away from public services.”
[xxii] Let’s take, as a narrow example, the proportion of women and BME MPs. This quadrupled in the nineties and noughties, with the 2015 intake containing more women than ever before. There were ten times as many non-white MPs in the 2015 intake as in 1987. This was accelerated by David Cameron’s determination to create a more diverse party. The Tories had two non-white MPs in 2005 and seventeen by 2015. Anything other than a total acceptance of the need for a demographically representative parliament would now be politically unsayable. It seems highly unlikely that the Tories would have made these steps of their own volition.
[xxiii] Osborne’s claim came in 2007, a year after Cameron’s warm words on poverty: “We need to think of poverty in relative terms – the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear – the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.” Likewise, the then Tory leader repeatedly emphasised that the NHS was safe in his hands. Indeed, the conservatives ringfencing of education meant that spending remained 50% up on levels at the end of the Major premiership, right through the Cameron era.
[xxv] ‘A poverty of information: assessing the government’s new child poverty focus and future trends’, Resolution Foundation, David Finch, October 2015.
[xxvii] Hugh Alderwick outlines overlap and divergence between Blairism and Cameronism. ‘Continuity with New Labour? Deconstructing the Triangulation of David Cameron’s Conservatives’, Hugh Alderwick, University of Leeds, POLIS Journal Vol.7, Summer 2012.
[xxix] This obviously applies to Corbyn’s siege economy politics, but also to the Tories. In the wake of Brexit, Theresa May’s shift in rhetoric away from globalisation and internationalism demonstrates this. May has implied she will both shift to the right of the longstanding Tory position from a social and internationalist perspective – on international development, for example – and to the left of the Conservative position in recent years when it comes to the economy.
[xxx] The post-Brexit talk by Philip Hammond of halving corporation tax, as well as the pressure from many Brexiteers for the ‘Singapore’ model, reflects this. David Marquand predicted, before Brexit seemed like a realistic possibility, that once outside Europe Britain’s prosperity would “depend, even more than it does now, on the competitiveness of her financial sector.” Rebalancing the economy in favour of manufacturing would play second fiddle. Meanwhile, just days before the referendum the French economic minister echoed this, arguing that Britain was headed for ‘Guernseyfication’ – i.e. a future as a financial outpost – if we left.
[xxxi] ‘Jeremy Corbyn is no interloper – he is part of Labour’s DNA’, Geoffrey M. Hodgson, New Politics blog, May 2016.
[xxxiii] Cameron’s claim, which he made shortly before becoming the Conservative leader, is used by Owen Jones, for example, as evidence that Blair did not represent a “real alternative” to Thatcherism.
[xxxiv] Blair himself makes this point: “As a result [of Labour being in office for 13 years] the Tories, to win, had to start borrowing from us, not [us] from them. That is a sign of our success not our failure.”
[xxxv] See, for instance, the booing of Tony Blair’s name at the 2011 Labour conference. Indeed, polling finds that Labour Prime Ministers overall tend to age badly in the public memory, whereas Tory ones age well. And polling suggests that Labour’s failure to defend its record had a significant impact on perceptions running into the 2015 general election. This surely relates to Labour’s willingness to disown its outgoing governments. Each of the last three Labour leaders – Brown, Miliband and Corbyn – have got mileage out of doing this. Meanwhile, we’re now seeing the same phenomenon in the US, albeit to a lesser extent. Obama is attacked by left-wingers for “passing up” the chance to help the working-classes, failing on civil liberties, and turning a blind eye to black lives.
[xxxvi] It’s no coincidence that Sweden, which has had social democratic governments for 45 of the years since WWII, has an Overton Window closer to the north-west of our axis than the UK (which has been governed by Labour for just 28 years over the same period).
[xxxvii] Margaret Thatcher, for example, promised from opposition to expand nursery education, build more polytechnics and raise the school leaving age – only becoming a fully-fledged ideologue whilst in power. This comes from both the preference voters often have for incumbents, and from the tendency to vote based on gut instincts and then rationalise the decision afterwards.
[xxxviii] The idea here is that Labour should treat the Overton Window as part of a tug of war, adopting ‘outrider’ positions which are more radical than what’s publicly acceptable or even desirable, so as to drag the debate in our direction.