Corbyn and the Overton Window

August 16, 2015

Far from the riotous spectacle of the Republican presidential candidate nomination fiasco lies the far more dismal spectacle of the Labour Party leadership election. It is unfortunate that we have to go through this but there was a disastrous misjudgement by the allegedly Great British Public at the general election, Ed Miliband resigned, and here we are.

Firstly, a confession – I don’t actually pay too much attention to what goes on in the party, despite being a member of it. I think this is largely out of a sense of hopelessness about the whole situation; sure I’d like us to win power, but it’s very hard to get enthusiastic about a party which lives in perpetual fear of the press and whose marketing strategy is to try to be a less unpleasant version of the Tories. We also have a horrific legacy to deal with from the Blair years – billions of pounds pumped into a criminal endeavour, with repercussions will be long-lasting and painful. And in addition to the PFI contracts we signed, there was the Iraq war.

But despite this, I think I’m going to be voting for Corbyn. The naysayers are aghast at his candidacy and warn that it will simply make Labour unelectable in 2020 (Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair, and most recently Gordon Brown). However, I am not so much interested in winning power in 2020 (though admittedly that would be nice) as I am in shifting the Overton window leftwards.

The Overton Window is a simple enough concept. The idea is that at any particular time there is a range of political ideas which are seen as acceptable, sensible and safe, and there are ideas outside this range which are considered taboo, crazy and dangerous. Over time, this window moves, and the general trend over the past few decades has been that it has moved decidedly to the right.

You don’t need to take my word on this – Dr Madsen Pirie of the right-wing Adam Smith institute famously observed “We propose things which people regard as being on the edge of lunacy. The next thing you know, they’re on the edge of policy.” My father, a retired economics teacher, recalls taking a sixth form group to a day course on “the role of government in the economy” at a northern university, around 1979ish. The day ended with a spoof lecture about things from which the government should withdraw to make way for the private sector. The biggest laugh was for the idea of private prisons.

At the other end of the window, any suggestion that the state might play a bigger role in running certain services, or that we would be better off with a more equitable distribution of wealth is met with a mixture of derision and bitter accusations of class warfare. Thatcher’s great success was instilling selfishness as a core British value. The idea that collectively we might achieve results that individually we cannot is automatically and unthinkingly ridiculed. How dare anyone criticise the invisible hand?

Well, as the man says, I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more. I want to see left-wing, progressive ideas back at the political table. I want to talk about whether public services would work better for everyone if they were owned by, and accountable to, the public (spoiler: they would, provided they were run competently which is eminently possible). I want to discuss whether wealth is trickling down as advertised, or is actually oozing upwards, and whether that is a good thing in the long run (spoiler: oozing upwards, and no it isn’t). I want to question whether austerity is economically justified (spoiler: the whole “the public is tightening their belts, and expects to see the Government tighten its belt too” schtick is economic idiocy). Corbyn seems to be our only chance of having these discussions.

To be sure, Corbyn is not an ideal leader by any means. I suspect he is quite unsound on a number of issues – he thinks reopening coal mines is a good idea (it isn’t), which may be related to the fact that his brother Piers is an avowed climate-change denier. He has expressed a belief in the magic powers of homeopathy. So I don’t trust him on anything scientific, at least. In fact, these would be enough to disqualify him, but for the fact that no-one else is talking the left-wing talk at the moment, and I think it is essential to counter the creeping rightward drift of political discourse. Therefore, despite these serious reservations, I’m currently in the Corbyn camp.


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