Sticking down the Overton window

Government and public opinion have for most of the last few decades described deep societal injustices as a matter of inevitability and described government action – or inaction – as the morally right thing for government do to.

We’ve been told, and most largely believed as a general public, that it’s inevitable that the economic cycle will see huge numbers of people out of work, huge numbers of people experiencing the worst forms of homelessness as inevitable, inevitable that some of the most deprived and marginalised will live with in poorer health, with less housing and income security and less opportunity.

We’ve been told, and most largely believed as a general public, that overt government intervention in our economy is the wrong thing to do, that those reliant on government assistance to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and the means to live a dignified and free life have come to expect too much, that giving everyone the freedom security of housing tenure and income is inconceivable.

Truth be told, we’ve made these arguments too. Despite being a party that champions a fair, free and open society in which nobody is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity we’ve described the means to get there as, to an extent, Mickey Mouse politics.

But there need not be a connection between non-employment and destitution. There need not be a connection between who we are and where we’re born and whether we enjoy relative economic stability, security of tenure or opportunity. Those connections exist only because of political choices.

Introducing: a global health pandemic.

Putting aside – with great difficulty – the missteps, misjudgements, misdirection of the UK Government in response to the pandemic, there have been some welcome interventions to protect people and our economy in light of the outbreak.

In a matter of days and weeks government and public opinion on a number of issues have significantly shifted. Accommodating everyone experiencing homelessness, protecting incomes, suspending evictions, an investment in the housing entitlement of Universal Credit, suspending benefit sanctions. A greater number of people now recognise how pleasant our towns and cities are without the dominance of the car, people have a greater value and appreciation for their local shopping areas and independent businesses, people recognise the importance of social security, jobs and incomes that afford a decent, living wage. We all suddenly agree that we should make meaningful investment in our public services (and public servants) and that our government can and should intervene to create a more substantial safety net through which nobody should fall.

Now, there’s a real and urgent need to go further and faster on a number of fronts, but the acceptability dial – the overton window – has shifted. This is a starting point for a conversation about the country we want to create; the sort of society and economy that millions of people need. The dial has shifted and if we’re going to create a fair, free and open society in which nobody is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, or conformity we have to stick that overton window in its place long enough to achieve fundamental change in this country. We’ve shown that with the right political will those deep social injustices aren’t inevitable.

There is a very real possibility that, once lockdown measures are lifted, we return to normal. An economy and a welfare system from a bygone era, an acceptance of growing and deepening levels of poverty and inequality, an accepted inevitability that some of us will live precariously with no economic or housing security or safety, and a society suspicious of others, and a government that fuels injustices through inaction.

If we wait until lockdown is lifted to clearly articulate what must change practically to get us to the type of society that we want to create, we’ll be allowing others to move the window back to the cold, nasty normal we’ve come to accept.

So, I hope that, after all of this, we will;

  • Give everyone a living wage and shape a more compassionate social security system. This should be through a Universal Basic Income.
  • Invest properly in our public services and our public servants, recognising that we’re all better off when our public institutions are stronger.
  • Re-wire our economy so it works for small business, entrepreneurs, workers, communities, our public services and our society based on sustainable, green growth.
  • Realise the positive health and environmental impact of a society less reliant on cars and vehicles and invest in public transport and active travel.
  • Give everyone the security of a home by huge investment in building truly affordable social housing, improving security in the private rented sector, and ending homelessness across Great Britain.

* Rhys Taylor is leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cardiff Council.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The SNP have now ,also, called for Universal Basic Income. Things can move in the right direction if the party pushes for change . The problem is how long will it take for changes to happen.

  • Yet another proposal for UBI which misses just one fundamental detail- where will the hundreds of billions of pounds come from to pay for it?

    A UBI which has any change of achieving its proponents’ aims would cost not much less than the entire government budget as it stands.

    Until there is a sensible, realistic proposal on the table for how to pay for this (and I don’t mean platitudes like ‘stop tax avoidance’ or ‘tax the rich’, UBI has as much credibility as a proposal to give everyone a free giraffe.

    We need to stick to pragmatic solutions that can actually be implemented beyond a computer screen.

  • Peter Martin 5th May '20 - 3:53pm

    @ John Smith,

    “….. where will the hundreds of billions of pounds come from to pay for it?”

    If you listen to Joseph B it will come from a Land Value Tax. That’s fantasy economics IMO. But raising the cash isn’t really the problem. The £ is an IOU of government so they can write out as many as they like as we’ve seen in their response to the Covid19 crisis.

    However, what the Govt can, and should, do are quite different. If the UBI is going to do what we are told it should do, ie remove poverty, it simply removes the need for many people to get up in the morning to go out to work.

    This is not going to help anyone. Saying this doesn’t mean we want to see the continuation of a system which values many essential workers at the rate of £8 per hour , or whatever is the legal minimum hourly rate, but paying them just the same amount to stay in bed isn’t a solution!

  • David Evershed 6th May '20 - 1:53am

    What’s an Overton window?

  • Richard Easter 6th May '20 - 4:16am

    Right wing / libertarian economics has been completely debunked since 2008, let alone now.

    The party should commit to Keynesianism and a proper mixed economy. There is no future in global free markets being the ruler of society, and rapidly more and more people are rejecting this ideology – whether it is via the populist right, socialist left or even by more centrist figures cautioning against letting markets run wild.

    Johnson did not stand on a platform of free market economics, he stood on right wing statism. Corbyn stood on traditional socialism – and Starmer’s campaign pledges are similar in nature – he proposes the 2017 Labour manifesto as a base.

    The Lib Dems had their most statist manifesto for a long time in 2019. Plaid and the Greens have never been free market parties. Even the alt-right aren’t calling for libertarian positions anymore.

    It is time people whipped markets and ruled them, rather than markets whipped people and ruled them.

  • John Marriott 6th May '20 - 8:18am

    Mr Taylor says how pleasant people are finding our towns and cities “without the dominance of the car”. Well, I’ve got news for him. In order to avoid the inevitable crush of public transport for personal safety reasons, “when the world is free” (thanks, Vera), we might find even more people preferring that little box on four wheels if commuting distance precludes the use of two wheels or Shanks’ pony.

    All this semantic talk about Universal Basic Income does my head in at the moment, even if it does excite the more cerebral contributors. Let’s worry first about a) containing this and any other future virus that comes along (and, believe me, without a major change in how we run our lives, they surely will) b) finding an effective treatment and eventually a vaccine for the current one and c) a way of getting the maximum people possible back to work and setting us over 70s free without endangering our lives again. As for paying people to do nothing, just remember what I wrote recently elsewhere about giving a group of individuals £100 each to do with as they wished. As some once said; “The poor will always be with us”. However, it all depends on how you define poverty. We can but hope that we might end up with a fairer, in terms of opportunity if nothing else, if not ever equal society.

  • So, if I can just sumarise some of the contributions above, capitalism is bad, a big powerful state is good, we can get rid of poverty by taxing anyone who owns land (even Mr and Mrs Bloggs with their semi detached sitting on a fraction of an acre and already stretched to make the mortgage payments ?). We can spend as much as we like because the government just prints more of the stuff if it needs to, and anyone who argues with this is espousing “right wing economics”.
    When I was a lad I used to have a drinking pal who used to tell me all this. But then he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party. I know it’s hot today, and we are all going a little crazy not getting out much, bet please, get a grip.

  • There are parts of this article which I like – the call for a new normal based on the idea that the government can spend vast amounts of money helping people and it doesn’t really have to worry about balancing the budget or paying off the national debt. Of the things which Rhys Taylor lists the government has done – providing a roof for everyone who was homeless and suspending benefit sanctions, we as a party should call for them to make permanent.

    Rhys Taylor lists some things which I assume he hopes the government will do. I think all of us can agree with the last four points. However, the first one is problematic. I hope we can all agree that the social security system should be made to be compassionate. And we have some policies to do this, such as ending benefit sanctions and the benefit cap. All Liberal Democrats should be able to agree that no one in this country should live in poverty, after all we say in our preamble to our constitution that we want to build a society where no one is enslaved by poverty, implying that anyone living in poverty is enslaved.

    However, Rhys Taylor suggests a UBI without stating what level it should be set at and how it would be paid for. It is only possible to have a well-informed debate about UBI once these two things are set out. Perhaps Rhys should look at two my articles on a UBI from 2018 –

    While having a UBI is a liberal policy it will not help the poorest in society unless it is on top of the existing benefit system or the rate is very much higher than the current benefit rates.

  • @Michael BG

    Do you support a UBI?

  • Dilettante Eye 8th May '20 - 10:47am

    The Overton Window may or may not be open to the ideas such as LVT and UBI, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

    One of the main problems with blue sky ideas like UBI and LVT is in its poor understanding of what human nature will make of it. And human nature is very astute at spoiling the best laid plans….

    Take Land Value Tax. Land is finite, and the owner must pay tax on the value of land they own, even if it’s left idle So the theory goes that productive land will not remain idle for long, and will be put to use for the production, and benefit, of all.

    But some of the most profitable companies on the planet use cyber space, and very little land. So how how does LVT propose to handle the infinite virtual realm of cyber space, indeed what if those companies used NO land at all?

    Imaging the analogy of Pirate Radio (1960’s), and gear it up to today’s Facebook, Google, Amazon. Suppose Facebook acquired half a dozen unused oil tankers and a disused oil platform. Moored out at sea beyond the jurisdiction of any nation. Each oil tanker refurbished and with a server farm (cooled by seawater) in its hold, linked by satellite connection to the internet.

    How would your LVT tax such an offshore enterprise, with no land use and no nationality?

    In fact let’s go one better. What if Google put their head office in a geo-stationary orbit in space. How do we tax an entity operating in space?

    Remember there was once a radically brilliant idea to tax the number of windows a property had, so what did human nature do,.. they bricked up all but a couple of windows.

  • Dilletante Eye,

    “Land” as defined in land value tax includes any natural resource that is not man-made and any privilege or right conferred by the state on an individual or enterprise that generates economic rents. This, of course, includes the radio spectrum that is licensed and auctioned to mobile phone operators. Ofcom has the power to shut down any pirate radio station. if it so chooses.
    Facebook, Google, Amazon all rely on the internet that is delivered via cables that are run through land. There are your sources of economic rents based on usage of bandwith.
    Investopedia gives a definition of economic rents
    These excess profits have historically (in wartime) been taxed as a surplus profits tax on profits above a normal return on real capital or in the case of individuals at higher additional rates of tax e.g. the 45% tax on incomes over £150k in the UK.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Helen Dudden
    With diphtheria and other serious illnesses in the migrant population this does carry more risks with untreated sewage. I feel this is another utility that ...
  • Helen Dudden
    It was Jeremy Hunt who agreed with the Chinese handling with regard to Covid zero. Lock up and cull pets from those infected....
  • Helen Dudden
    This is needed to cover the buying of services within Public spending. Well Done to you both!...
  • William Wallace
    Mark as 'somewhat erratic'? Surely not - wonderfully dependable and reliable....
  • Russell
    I agree with Vince....