Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Why Don't Politicians Do What I Think They Should?

There have been a number of times, in a number of roles, when I’ve spoken to a politician in a private meeting about an issue or idea where they’ve made very supportive statements but then gone on to publically make very different decisions. On occasion they might reveal the reason for this which is generally along the lines of “Well I think it’s the right thing to do but I’m not sure we’ll be able to get it past the electorate.”

This isn’t unusual and conversations with colleagues in a range of organisations working with a range of political bodies will often have a similar story to tell. Often there’s a frustration that politicians aren’t bold enough to back their convictions. We may want politicians to lead public opinion rather than follow it. However there is some political theory over why this happens which is particularly useful to anyone seeking to engage in campaigning or to influence the public debate more widely. This theory is known as the “Overton Window”, named after its creator Joseph Overton.

The Overton Window is described as a narrow "window" the range of ideas the public will accept. In this theory an idea's viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window rather than on politicians' individual preferences. The suggestion is that rather than having a free hand at developing policy, politicians are limited to a narrow palette of approaches that will be considered acceptable by the public and to move outside of that window will risk a politician losing office.

Overton described how free politicians are to set policy by describing a spectrum along which ideas would be judged. These stages are:
• Unthinkable
• Radical
• Acceptable
• Sensible
• Popular
• Policy

And of course policy ideas are never fixed in these stages. Many ideas that were once unthinkable do become policy over time so clearly acceptability can change. What this spectrum does do is give a sense of how radical ideas can be moved within the window of popularity. A good way to examine how this occurs is to look at the forthcoming vote on Scottish independence.

As recently as 20 years ago a conversation about Scottish independence would have been unthinkable to many in the UK. However over a number of years campaigners for independence made that acceptable, not by pushing for full independence but for more local control away from Westminster. Devolution to a Scottish parliament helped create a way of showing that local policy development wasn’t unreasonable and created a way of testing some of the claims for independence.

As the national government made a range of unpopular decisions, had to handle an economic crisis and became mired in expenses scandals, then things shifted further. The point was reached where it had almost become sensible to have a discussion about independence, whether you agreed with the idea or not. In November 2013 the Scottish government launched its white paper for independence, describing it as a “prospectus” and producing a large and heavy tome that some described as a little dull. This was part of the point – they were trying to make independence dull and sensible.

And when you look at those campaigning against independence they will often talk about risks, try to show how radical the move will be, talk about what they perceive to be the lack of sensible detail. Both sides are making their cases by trying to move the Overton Window, trying to push the idea of independence to one end of the spectrum or other that will then favour the policy they prefer.

If you’re involved in campaigning it’s worth thinking about the Overton Window when trying to understand how your ambitions might be realised. It’s not enough to make your case to politicians, you need to know the range of decisions they’re able to make beforehand. In many cases, in order to change policy you’ll need years of effort, working with the public to change what is considered acceptable policy.

When we look at public health campaigns some of the biggest successes have often been attributed to legislation – compulsory use of seatbelts and the ban on smoking in public places for example. These are both examples of legislation that only occurred after years of public health campaigns, so that legislation was almost catching up with public sentiment rather than leading it. Although the ban on smoking in public places did lead to some protest, most opinion polls showed that a majority of smokers agreed with the ban, it wasn’t just a majority of the general public as a whole. It was when this happened that politicians were able to make an intervention. This is one reason why legislation on alcohol pricing is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. Although there’s a similar, strong public health case for restriction, public opinion is still set against the issue and with the political climate being so volatile then political parties will hesitate before pushing this issue.

Of course politicians can take a lead and put radical policies in place but more often than not, without popular support they can be damaging. Certainly many politicians will be looking at the popularity of the government’s health reforms, the impact on the career development on the Secretary of State who brought them in and will be wary of taking such a radical approach with the NHS again anytime soon.

So when campaigning, the Overton Window theory would suggest we need to:

  • first understand the public view of the policy we want to put in place.
  • be realistic about what we can achieve; is there a transitional policy that will take us closer to our goal and help shift the debate?
  • understand that politicians represent the people and we need to be convincing the public before we start to lobby politicians.
  • if we think a policy is acceptable amongst the public then whilst we may like the idea of radical transformation we need to think about our language: radical = risky.
  • our policy proposals should be articluated as being sensible, they should be about helping politicians catch up with the public and the biggest risk should be in not implementing them

We can sometimes get frustrated when politicians make decisions that go against many of the views they may have previously expressed. Part of the problem is that when we campaign we may often be misdirecting our efforts by campaigning to politicians in the first instance. If we’ve not tried to give politicians the room to act or aren’t showing them that their electorate think our policies are sensible, then they are unlikely to take the action we want.

However, as a final point, I think there are other areas when the Overton Window theory could be useful and that’s in shaping social norms. In essence this theory tries to understand how large scale social choices are made and that may tie into how we might influence social norms. Public health messages have seen much success but have not been taken up equally within society, compounding many existing health inequalities between rich and poor. For someone who is concerned about their diet then a message of “5-a-day” may only require a small shift in behaviour, whilst others would see such a diet as unthinkable. If, when we want to promote large scale behaviour change, we could do worse than have as a starting point a view of where the public is and being more modest in our ambitions, rather than push messages that may just be considered unthinkable to many.