Friday, August 07, 2015

Thinking outside the "Overton Window" box

I referred in a recent post to the so-called "Overton Window" concept, after the late Joseph Overton, which suggests that there is a certain "window" of ideas which the public find politically acceptable.

I'm going to argue that the concept usually works, but there is a particular set of circumstances when espousing a policy outside the window can be a vote winner, even a game changer.

Overton suggested that there is a range of views, usually within striking distance of the current policy in force, which people will support or find acceptable but going outside that will hurt your credibility at election time.

He did not suggest that this window is fixed, and much of the political debate about the legacy of politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair who have "isms" named after them is whether they moved the window. (Most people think they did.) The less preposterous arguments by those who support Jeremy Corbyn (really support him, not those who are voting for him in an attempt to wreck the Labour party) are based on trying to shift it.

Here is a graphic which shows how it would work for the axis about how much freedom you support:

This seems superficially very reasonable, but do people actually think that way, or are their views more complex?

Here is some recent polling from YouGov, hat-tip to Political Betting, which suggests that a number of "radical" ideas on the left or right, which you might expect to be outside the "Overton Window" if the concept has any value at all, are in fact popular:

Many people might look at these numbers and say, "Here you are, this is evidence that centrist ideas are not necessarily popular after all."

But hold on a moment.  If there is such a lot of support for non-centrist ideas, how come in every General Election of my lifetime, whichever of the Conservative or Labour parties was seen as closer to the centre has ALWAYS won unless they have been badly discredited by scandals or a recession, and sometimes even then?

Margaret Thatcher is not an exception to this: her image at the time she was first elected, and even when she was re-elected, wasn't nearly as extreme as it is now, and in both 1983 and 1987 the then leaders of the Labour party, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, were seen as further to the left than she was to the right.

It is not difficult to point to cases where a leader or party has espoused a popular policy which has not helped them if one of more of the following applies

1) The voters doesn't believe that leader or party can or will deliver the policy

2) Voters cannot believe that the policy can be afforded without dire consequences such as cuts elsewhere or unacceptable tax rises

3) The policy reinforces negative stereotypes about that party

- e.g. when Michael Howard as Tory leader promised tighter immigration control it was seen as reinforcing the Conservative's "nasty party" image even though when pollsters asked voters whether they supported immigration control without saying this was Conservative policy they said yes.

But as soon as the pollsters did tell them it was Conservative policy, support dropped.

Several of Ed Miliband's policies such as his proposed rent cap and price freeze appear to have had similar problems - many voters liked the idea of rent caps and an energy price freeze in theory, when Labour put the idea forward their support went down.

And generally speaking, a policy is more likely to have one or more of these problems if it far enough away from the consensus that you can argue that it's outside the "Overton Window."

But there is a set of circumstances where I believe that a party can increase support by implementing or espousing a radical right or left policy which might normally be outside the window, and they can be encapsulated by one six word phrase:

"Only Nixon could go to China."

If a party espouses a popular policy which confounds rather than reinforcing the usual stereotypes of that party - particularly one which disproves one of the usual negative impressions - it can be a vote winner even if this would usually be outside the "Overton Window."

Nixon's trip to China was an example. Tony Blair's appointment of Frank Field with instructions to reform welfare and "Think the Unthinkable" could have been another if Harriet Harman and Gordon Brown had allowed Field to actually do what he was told to do instead of sacking him when he tried to carry out that brief.

And more recently, whether you agree with the policy or not, George Osborne implementing a "Living Wage" proposal more generous than the one Ed Miliband proposed during the 2015 election campaign may well turn out to be another.

Had he been elected and implemented his less generous policy Miliband would have been met with howls of rage. George Osborne has picked up far more praise than criticism.

That's because Labour is assumed to care about the poor and low paid, but have to prove they can pay for things and give enough support to business.

While Tories are assumed to know how to pay for things and look after business but have to prove they care about the low paid. So Miliband would have been reinforcing a negative sterotype while George Osborne was disproving one.

My conclusion: most of the time the "Overton window" model works, but politicians who think outside the box can sometimes not just get away with supporting policies outside it but actually gain support if by so doing they can counter negative stereotypes and not reinforce them.

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