In political theory, there is a term called the ‘Overton Window’. This refers to the acceptable window of political discussion in mainstream politics. In short, it means what the politicians of the main parties can agree on. This concept is useful when we consider changes in the political consensus that have taken place in the UK since the end of the Second World War. Since then, there have been two dominant consensuses. The first was established by Attlee’s Labour government in 1945. The second, which ended the first, was introduced by Thatcher’s Conservatives, beginning in 1979. Today, we still live under the one established by Thatcher. Nonetheless, it has weakened considerably, particularly after the 2017 general election. This is why the next election will be of great significance.
Across the developed world, politics has grown increasingly polarised. The views of the major parties are growing apart and this will inevitably result in a climax. It would be impossible for national policies, such as in the economy, to U-turn every time a new government is elected. Therefore, either Labour or the Conservatives must establish a consensus which will govern the UK for the foreseeable future. If we examine the evidence, it becomes clear that whoever wins the next general election will have the opportunity to shape the policies of mainstream politics for decades to come.
When the Second World War ended, there was a need for a new consensus. This was the social democracy initiated by the Labour Party after their 1945 landslide victory. Policies enacted under that government included the creation of the NHS and the nationalisation of sectors of the economy, such as the Bank of England, to assert collective control of the economy. Due to the Second World War, Britain went from being the largest creditor nation in the world to bankrupt. There was a crisis and there was a call for change, particularly as millions of soldiers returned home. The government elected in 1951 under Churchill did not reverse policies such as the NHS which had been enacted by Labour, instead adopting them into their own ideology. This was the consensus – both parties accepted that these policies were necessary, thus shifting the Overton Window.
Later, Thatcher argued that privatisation of the economy was necessary for the promotion of freedom, instigating the selling-off of assets such as British Gas. Famously, she claimed ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism. The circumstances that allowed her to enact change was the economic crisis of the 1970s, primarily a result of the 1973 oil embargo. Once more, regardless of right or wrong, there was a perception that the establishment had failed and there was a call for change. Thatcher’s impact is exemplified by New Labour when Tony Blair led reforms to ‘moderate’ the party. Just as Churchill conformed to Attlee’s consensus, Blair conformed to Thatcher’s.
Now, just as the post-war consensus weakened, allowing Thatcher to finally break it and shift the Overton Window, her own is now breaking. It is true that Thatcher was always controversial, as can be seen in the abolition of the Poll Tax, in favour of Council Tax, by John Major shortly after her downfall as Prime Minister. More recently, David Cameron’s conception of ‘big society’ sits at odds with Thatcher’s argument that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, and their families. Considering the events of the past two years, namely Brexit and the 2017 general election, the political consensus is clearly at breaking point.
The U-turns in Conservative policy, such as the suggestion of energy price caps, a policy suspiciously like the one that Ed Miliband was vehemently attacked for not long ago, are a sign of this. Similarly, nationalisation is open for discussion again. The promotion of privatisation and the condemnation of national ownership are core features of Thatcherism. Yet, in 2017, a YouGov poll showed 60% support for renationalisation of the railways. Also, the surge in support for the Labour Party under Corbyn, an ideological opponent of both Thatcher and Blair, cannot be overlooked. Labour Party membership has increased to over 500,000 and their vote share increased from 30% to 40% between 2015 and 2017, the largest single increase since 1945, when Attlee established the post-war consensus.
Regardless of whether Brexit will ultimately be successful for the UK, it has created a political crisis that has arguably been brewing since the 2008 crash. It took the crisis of war for Attlee’s government to build their consensus, just as it took an economic crisis for Thatcher’s to build their consensus. Brexit is the result of dissatisfaction with the system, but it has also created the circumstances which could result in real political change. The desire for change is easily observable in the polarisation of politics, with the Labour Party moving further left while the Conservatives drift further right. Since Corbyn’s election as leader, Labour has reaffirmed its dedication to values such as collective ownership and democratic control, rather than the neoliberal economics and strict party control exercised under New Labour. Similarly, since May’s appointment as Prime Minister, pulled by social conservatives such as the DUP and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservatives have become more nationalistic and rejected the social liberalism advocated under Cameron.
It is obvious that the stakes could not be higher. Since the 2017 general election, the ideological differences of Labour and the Conservatives have grown further and, unlike in 2017, Labour has a considerable chance of winning the next election. The erosion of trust in politics and the crisis that the UK is in today make it possible for a new post-Brexit consensus to be established. The worst possible result would be an indecisive one, such as in Greece or Italy where the far-left and far-right both hold huge influence without either being dominant. Whoever wins the next election will, almost certainly, determine the location of the Overton Window for decades to come.