The evolving Miliband-Mail saga is by turns fascinating, troubling and encouraging.

The saga is fascinating because it suggests that Miliband is properly getting under the skin of the political right. His Conference speech presented a very diluted form of social democracy. It represented a tentative departure from the neoliberal consensus that has prevailed for thirty years. Yet this has provoked a hysterical reaction. The speech was immediately denounced as socialism, or worse. Yet, that interpretation could only be sustained by distracting from what Miliband was actually saying. After all, earlier this year the IMF – that bastion of leftism – suggested that it might be a good idea for the UK to consider state interventions to bring land forward more quickly for residential development. So we needn’t assume Miliband was drawing his inspiration from the confiscatory tendencies of revolutionary Marxism. In that context, you can see the Mail going after Ed Miliband’s father – playing the man not the ball – makes some sort of sense.

Which is more than can be said for the content of the attack itself. [Read more…]

Stabilising the Overton window

What determines the size and location of the Overton window? What types of proposals for government action are viewed as acceptable or sensible? Which proposals are viewed as popular enough to make their way into policy? And which proposals are outside the window – viewed as too radical to consider seriously? Even more fundamentally, which proposals are “unthinkable” in the current context?

One answer is “public opinion”. A more sophisticated answer is public opinion as mediated to politicians through a range of focus groups, political advisors or media representations. Clearly there is plenty of scope for a gap to open up between these two versions of public opinion.

Looked at from the other direction, public opinion is itself a product of similar forces, in particular media representations and debate. [Read more…]

Nick Clegg, liberalism and leadership

The speech on the open society Nick Clegg gave at Demos yesterday started with a brilliant encapsulation of the problems facing our society:

But our politics and economy are distorted by unaccountable hoards of power, wealth and influence: media moguls; dodgy lobbyists corrupting our politics; irresponsible bankers taking us for a ride and then helping themselves to massive bonuses; boardrooms closed against the interests of shareholders and workers. The values of the hoarders are increasingly out of touch with the spirit of openness alive in the UK.

He then went on to argue that these are some of the characteristics of a closed society and that, in contrast, liberalism is about an open society. He is explicitly drawing the idea of the open society from Karl Popper, which clearly signals the intellectual heritage, even if won’t necessarily resonate with many voters.

Clegg’s version of the open society has five “vital features”: (i) social mobility; (ii) dispersed power in politics, the media and the economy; (iii) transparency, and the sharing of knowledge and information; (iv) a fair distribution of wealth and property; and (v) an internationalist outlook.

This is contrasted with the “closed society” in which a child’s opportunities are decided by the circumstances of their birth, power is hoarded by the elite, information is jealously guarded, wealth accumulates in the hands of the few, and narrow nationalism trumps enlightened internationalism.

At this level of generality this description of a liberal society would no doubt gain the approval of many, not just those in the Liberal Democrats who crave clearer differentiation between the party and the Conservatives. But, while the speech was positive overall, it left me wanting more. [Read more…]