The Pragmatic Idealism of Team Corbyn

Angel Window by Aidan McRae Thomson

How irritating.  I had drafted a short, blistering blog about how the NHS, the sacred cow of British politics, is a massive socialist project.  “If the NHS did not exist”, I would have said, “none of the Labour leadership candidates but Jeremy Corbyn would dare suggest we invent it”… And when he did, everyone (other candidates, the Tories, the media and yes, much of the British public) would have accused him of being a bonkers socialist, happy to squander billions of pounds of taxpayers money.

But Andy Burnham just stole my thunder:

Andy Burnham: Timid Labour would not be up to creating the NHS today.

(My former colleague Jonathan Heawood asks what the 21st Century equivalent would be.  I think probably something on climate change, home building or social care.)

The existence of the NHS is an odd peculiarity in British politics.  Few other countries have universal healthcare and even fewer choose the ‘single payer’ model that we enjoy in the UK.  The service is also the fifth biggest employer in the world.  It accounts a vast chunk of our national expenditure: £11.4 billion would be a large bill in 2015, but that is just what it cost in 1948, the year it was established.  It is undeniably socialist and Old Labour and Left Wing and the Tories want to dismantle it.

But the public love the idea of healthcare that is free at the point of use and have a distaste for those who seek to profit from it.  They will electorally punish anyone who says they seek to abolish the NHS. No mainstream politician would ever propose such a thing.

Meanwhile, in other countries that are otherwise culturally similar to the UK, single-payer universal healthcare is considered equivalent to communism.  No mainstream politican would ever propose such a thing.

How does an extreme Left Wing institution still operate in 2015, when apparently the British public has overwhelmingly rejected such ideologies?  The answer may be found in the Overton Window, which in my opinion is one of the most important concepts in politics.

It is also a concept that politicians and political commentators like to pretend doesn’t exist.

The Overton Window is the spread of acceptable positions on any given political topic.

… an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within [the window], rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton’s description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.

The window shifts all the time as campaigners for or against a policy make their case.  In recent years we have seen how the Overton Window has moved on issues such as gay marriage, which during the period of the last Labour Government went from being an absolutely ridiculous proposition, to something so obvious that a Conservative led Government legislated for it.  In the future I suspect the Overton Window will move on issues as diverse as self-driving cars, trades union legislation.  It is the explicit task of pressure groups and lobbyists to move the window around the policy discussion in favour of their desired outcome.  The Overton Window on the NHS is unlikely to move because everyone can imagine themselves using it in the near future.

There is another aspect to the Overton Window which concerns extreme political positions.  Tacticians will deploy extremist views into the public discourse, in the hope that less extreme views on the spectrum are considered moderate and thinkable by comparison.  A shift towards their favour position becomes more likely as a result.

How does this relate to the Labour Leadership campaign?  Well, there has been much mockery and vilification of Team Corbyn’s supporters for persisting with their candidate even though they consider him unelectable.  ‘The Corbyn Tribe cares about identity, not power‘ said Jonathan Freedland on Friday.

I disagree and think that something far more sophisticated is going on.  By putting forward policies that are on the fringes of, or outside, what savvy pundits and pragmatic centrists consider electable, Team Corbyn are seeking to shift the Overton Window.  Theirs is a long term project, in which they hope to persuade the British public over the longer term.  It is predicated on the idea that the public is persuadable and their views are malleable.

Meanwhile, the other three leadership candidates allow their policy pronouncements to be constrained by the window of what is acceptable and electable.   This is not only far less ambitious approach—it is actually quite dangerous to left wing politics.  By behaving as if the Overton Window is a fixed fact about the electorate, they stop pushing it in a left leaning direction.  Meanwhile, the current Government, with its cheerleaders in the press, are gleefully pushing it ever rightwards.

1 thought on “The Pragmatic Idealism of Team Corbyn”

  1. As always I learn something from your blog Rob. I had never heard of the Overton Window but I have now. Where is your illustration from? Its not the window in St Helens, Overton or the Church of St John the Baptist, Cold Overton ( But I do know that Overton is the surname of an American and nothing to do with stained glass windows!)

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