Many others have called for a progressive alliance; this article explains why we support that call.
Anyone in the UK with generally progressive views (i.e. anyone from the moderate left to one-nation conservatives who wants to build a fairer world in which everyone gets better-off over time) finds themself in an unprecedented situation. We have a government whose former colleagues describe it as ‘extreme right-wing’ and say that its agenda is ‘manifestly not the will of the British people,’ which has handled the Covid-19 pandemic to produce the third worst death toll in the world, and which has also produced one of the worst economic performances. That performance is now further weakened by a hard Brexit of the government’s own design which is dramatically reducing the UK’s ability to export to the EU.
In addition to this, the government has repeatedly been forced to U-turn over its policy on feeding children in ‘food poverty’ during the school holidays, over its handling of GCSEs and A-levels and over children returning to schools.
You might expect that progressive voices would be the natural beneficiaries of this series of disasters and progressive parties would be riding high in the polls. For the UK, a country with some of the best scientists and medics in the world, to have over 100,000 deaths is something no one expected. What more could an opposition wish for than a government whose delivered outcomes are so dire that a cursory search will show up its poor performance when compared with other countries?
How can those with progressive views hope to avoid witnessing yet another far-right government returned to office? To answer this question, we need to introduce the concept of the Overton Window.
In politics, some things are acceptable and some are not. But which things are acceptable and which are not is not fixed over time: some ideas which would have been too outlandish even to discuss 100 years ago are now generally accepted and have passed into law – gay marriage, for example – and other things which were commonplace just a few decades are now illegal, such as smoking on aeroplanes or in pubs.
The ‘Overton window’ describes the range of policies which can be discussed and possibly acted upon by politicians. It illustrates how some ideas may be perceived as too extreme left and others as too far right while others are perceived as mainstream.
Politicians can ‘safely’ campaign inside the window; if they stray outside, they risk being perceived as dangerous extremists and becoming unelectable. It is others who can safely move the window.
So the answer to our question is that to to move the Overton window and enable progressive policymaking in the UK, we need an alliance between and a change in strategy on the part of the opposition parties and a range of other progressive organisations:
- the far right has almost complete control over the narrative in the UK and has shifted the Overton window far to the right;
- without some significant change in the landscape, a Conservative victory at the next election is likely – and even progressive electoral cooperation may not be enough on its own to change this;
- we need a comprehensive, coordinated and sustained progressive alliance to shift the Overton window far enough to allow fact-based policy-making on behalf of the population as a whole.
Fortunately, the evidence of the US shows that even in the face of determined and highly skilled campaigners on the far right – and a significant part of the population which has lost touch with reality – it is still possible for progressive voices to win through.
The Far Right has Control of the Narrative in the UK
The ownership structure of the media in the UK gives a hint as to the problem: over 80% of our mainstream media (as measured by total brand reach: print and online) are owned by a handful of billionaires whose wealth is kept offshore so as to avoid taxes and whose interests are unconnected with those of British people.
These media largely determine what the British population knows and does not know about its government. When they do report the facts, they can do so in such a way as to create a very misleading impression.
For example, compare the US and the UK coverage of the same issue: their country passing the dismal milestone of having 100,000 deaths from COVID.
When the US passed 100,000 deaths, this was the reaction from the New York Times: it highlights both the scale of the death toll and the fact that these are individual lives, not just a statistic.
Our newspapers, in contrast, marked the passing of 100,000 deaths, not by emphasising the scale of the catastrophe or with searching investigations of how we could have reached such a position, but with pictures of the Prime Minister and coverage of how sorry he felt for the victims.
The image they presented was of a caring and hard-working statesman weighed down with almost unbearable responsibility in the face of an intractable problem. It was almost as though Johnson were the victim rather than the person with ultimate responsibility for management of the catastrophe. This is from The Daily Telegraph – most other papers had similar images and headlines.
Last week, the British Medical Journal, the official journal of the British Medical Association, published a damning editorial condemning the way the UK government (and others) have handled the pandemic. They describe the badly performing countries as having committed ‘social murder:’
“The over 400,000 deaths from covid-19 in the US, 250,000 in Brazil, 150,000 each in India and Mexico, and 100,000 in the UK comprise half of the world’s COVID death toll—on the hands of only five nations. Donald Trump was a political determinant of health who damaged scientific institutions. He suffered electoral defeat, but does Trump remain accountable now that he is out of office? Bolsonaro, Modi, and Johnson have had their competence questioned in differing ways, and McKee and colleagues argue that populist leaders have undermined pandemic responses.
…. Ministers in the UK, for example, interact with the media through sanitised interviews, stage managed press conferences, off-the-record briefings to favoured correspondents, and, when the going gets tough, by simply refusing to appear. It is this environment that has allowed COVID denial to flourish, for unaccountability to prevail, and for the great lies of “world beating” pandemic responses to be spun. …
In the UK, which was responsible for about 1% of global deaths in the 1918-19 flu pandemic and now accounts for 5% with a smaller proportion of the world’s population, elections are a few years off. As the current government holds a parliamentary majority, avenues for redress seem blocked. What’s left in these circumstances is for citizens to lobby their political representatives for a rapid public inquiry; for professionals in law, science, medicine, and the media, as well as holders of public office, to put their duty to the public above their loyalty to politicians and to speak out, to dissent lawfully, to be active in their calls for justice, especially for disadvantaged groups.”
That the voice of British medical professionals should come out with such a strongly worded statement would, you might think, be front-page news in every newspaper and at the top of every news bulletin. As far as we have been able to see, this is how it has been reported by our mainstream media (if we are wrong, let us know, we are happy to correct):
- The BBC – not at all;
- The Times – not at all;
- The Telegraph – not at all;
- The Daily Mail – not at all;
- The Express – not at all;
- The Financial Times – not at all;
- The Mirror – not at all;
- The Guardian – this mention.
With a functioning media landscape, almost everyone in the UK would be aware that the medical profession had – to put it mildly – serious criticisms of the government’s handling of COVID-19. As it is, almost everyone is unaware of that vital fact.
To a remarkable degree, our media have enabled the government to disown responsibility for the outcomes of its policies.
This also affects the opposition parties. We described how the Overton window means that while politicians can ‘safely’ campaign inside the window, if they stray outside, they risk becoming unelectable.
In the UK, our traditional media have shifted the Overton window so far to the right that many vital progressive policies fall outside it. The level of government spending is an important example. Our media constantly reinforce the – economically unsound – ideas that the government should run like a corner shop, that it has ‘maxed out its credit card,’ and that government debt needs to be paid back.
Both ethically and economically, the truth is that a further round of austerity would be extremely damaging to the country. But a progressive politician saying this too loudly today could be branded idealistic, naive, and irresponsible. And they would probably be unelectable as a result.
Progressive voices whether from the Left, the Centre or even traditional one-nation Conservatives can be painted as childish and even irresponsible for suggesting such common-sense ideas as pay-rises that keep pace with inflation for public servants (in other words for objecting to real-terms pay cuts), properly funding the NHS or even reforming universal credit and tackling child poverty.
Without some change in this landscape, even a coalition of every progressive party could not be sure of winning the next election: if they campaign only on issues in the top right of the diagram, their campaign will lack teeth and will be unable to tackle the major problems society faces; but if they do attempt to tackle some of the big issues, they risk being metaphorically crucified by our media.
It has to be somebody else who tackles the myths at the top left of the diagram above and brings into the mainstream the facts on the bottom right.
This means that we need a non-party-political coalition to tackle the task of moving the Overton window over the next 3 to 4 years. Elements of this coalition could include:
- new media outlets, of which there are a number of impressive examples including Byline Times, Double Down News and Novara media (and many others);
- groups of experts – medics, climate scientists, lawyers and academic economists all have vital expertise which is not being properly communicated to the population at large – but the stakes are now too high for them to allow themselves to be ignored;
- creative artists – television producers, scriptwriters, song writers, performers all have ways of communicating which can be far more powerful than articles like this one; and
- campaigning organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Compass, Positive Money, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, and many others too numerous to mention.
No Party Other Than the Conservatives Can Expect to Win a Majority
Even without worrying about the media, the opposition parties face an uphill struggle as a result of our electoral system. Although the Conservative party won only 44% of the votes in the 2019 election, this translated into 56% of the seats in the House of Commons, giving the party an 81-seat majority.
But might this system not work just as well for Labour in the next election as it did for the Conservatives in the last?
Anything is possible, but for Labour to win an outright majority at the next election would require a swing of over 120 seats. And when we look at the swings that Labour has achieved in every election since 1918, this is what we see:
A swing of the required size has happened before – but only around 10% of the time, and only once since 1945. To bet on this outcome without some very compelling further information would be dangerous in the extreme.
What about the chance of a progressive coalition? For the Conservative party to lose its majority would require a swing away from the Conservatives of at least 41 seats.
That sort of swing has happened about 30% of the time – around three times more likely than an outright Labour victory, but still not very appealing odds.
It looks as though a coalition is necessary but not, on its own, sufficient to ensure a progressive victory.
We Need a Comprehensive Progressive Campaign
The charts above are enough to make a persuasive case that ‘business as usual’ is will not be enough to ensure a progressive victory. Indeed, even business as usual with an agreement for electoral cooperation may well not be.
A radical change of mindset, strategy and organisation can shift the odds dramatically. To move the Overton Window, it must:
- be inclusive – and widely appealing; and
- innovate new forms of communication, influence and protest.
Because of our first-past-the-post system, simply gaining a majority of votes would not be nearly enough. As the chart below shows, if we assume that all ‘other’ parties and their voters are progressive, the progressive alliance would already have substantially more than 50% votes, and even without the ‘other’ votes it would be almost 50%. But that would not be enough.
The last election showed that even with only 44% of the vote, the Conservative party has been able to secure a large majority. To be sure of winning a majority, a progressive alliance would need the Conservative party to lose 41 seats. Past elections indicate that this will require a further 3 to 4% of the vote, reducing the Conservatives’ share to 40% or less. If we assume that the far-right voters are inaccessible to the progressive parties, that means many of these voters must come from the one-nation tendency within the Tory party.
Creating a campaign which can appeal both to the hard left (e.g. those who believe that Sir Keir Starmer is unacceptably right wing) and to moderate conservative voters (who may well believe the traditional story that conservatism may be tough, but it is good for the economy) is far from straightforward.
Indeed, it may not even be possible without moving the Overton window. This means that serious planning – and action – is needed immediately. And it also needs a significant change of mindset: any kind of purism will not be sufficiently inclusive and will not deliver the necessary votes.
Things which used to work do not work any more; and things which were not possible are possible now.
A demonstration which put as few as 100,000 people onto the streets, like the poll tax riots of 1989 could change policy – and even be instrumental in the unseating of a political leader. But when almost 2 million people took to the streets to protest about Brexit, the effect was so close to zero as to be indistinguishable.
Conversely, mass communication used to be standardised: a party-political broadcast on TV would be seen by the whole nation. Now, using social media, it is possible to identify tiny segments of the population each with its own concerns, fears and aspirations – and deliver to each a specifically tailored message.
In their dealings with each other, countries have innovated. Sanctions used to be directed against a country in its entirety – and the suffering was typically felt by the poorest members of the population. In recent years, sanctions have become far more targeted: the assets of the ruling clique may be frozen and their ability to travel abroad may be curtailed. The pain is felt by those responsible for the problems.
Many of our conventional ways of communicating, protesting and influencing, such as using the mainstream media, large demonstrations, strikes and writing to MPs may no longer be effective. We need new ways of getting our message across – ways which make sure that those responsible for the problems are the ones who feel the pain.
A general strike nationwide or in a large city would cause hardship to those least able to bear it. A targeted denial of service by shops, restaurants, tradespeople and professionals aimed at the two dozen policymakers most responsible for the city’s problems would be far less costly overall, and probably far more effective.
In the same way, we need to be more innovative in the way we communicate to the population as a whole, and far more inclusive. The divisions over Brexit, for example, highlight the need for new ways of communication. For the UK to thrive, many Brexit voters will need to be persuaded that a closer relationship with the EU is desirable – but this will not happen while progressive voices hold them personally responsible for the consequences of their vote and of the way the government chose to interpret its mandate given that vote.
The US Shows it is Possible
Not so long ago, Donald Trump had an aura of invincibility. He had defeated Hillary Clinton despite not winning the popular vote; and he proceeded to govern with a disdain for all norms and precedents. He set about placing Trump loyalists into all important functions: he replaced the head of the Environmental Protection Agency with a climate sceptic; he packed the Supreme Court; he appointed a long-standing opponent of public schooling to run the Education Department, et cetera. His core voter base grew ever more fanatical, and previously reluctant members of the Republican Party swung into line behind his presidency.
The Democratic party, by contrast, seemed increasingly divided with a split between the more traditional Democrats and supporters of Bernie Sanders. There seemed a real possibility of a united right going into battle against a divided left.
But this did not happen. Recognising that the stakes were too high for internecine squabbles, the two factions came together – and Joe Biden is now the president while Bernie Sanders has the responsibility of chairing the US Senate Committee on the Budget.
The UK needs to do the same.
The 99% Organisation is a non-party-political organisation whose prime objective is to end mass impoverishment peacefully. We believe that this form of progressive alliance offers the greatest chance of achieving that objective.
If this matters to you, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.