A quick explanation on what an Overton Window is: it is the range of all policies that will be acceptable to the public at any given time. So to take an easy example, in the late 18th century, slavery as a viable and legal concept was within the Overton Window – these days, it is thankfully not.
I believe one of the central problems faced by the centre-left at present is that not only is the Overton Window on what is and isn’t an acceptable level of public spending shifting ever rightwards, there still isn’t anything that’s on the horizon that might usefully pull the Window back in a leftwards direction. I think public perception of what size the state should be is getting away from the Left at an alarming rate and is in danger of being anchored permanently far to the right of what it was even ten years ago.
The last parliament, with Labour under the leadership of Ed Miliband, was extremely unhelpful in this regard. Part of the problem was that while the Tories had a simple story to tell – New Labour told you could have high spending, low taxes, only that turned out to be bollocks, but don’t worry we’re here to sort things out like we always do – the Labour counternarrative was extremely confused. First, there was no need to change anything and all Tory cuts were ideologically driven; then yes, there had to be cuts but “nicer” ones than the Tories wanted; finally, that Labour agreed still there needed to be some cuts, but no, there was no overspending during the Blair-Brown years.
Added to this, Miliband’s Labour consistently cried wolf on matters of public spending, something I think did long term damage to the centre-left. “You have three days to NHS” is a problem when the three days elapse and the Health Service remains standing. Every time Labour said that some latest round of cutbacks were going to be the end of civilisation and nothing visibly bad happened (to the people in question, I’d like to add here), that hammered home the idea that a smaller state was the only way to go, and it was Labour who were ideologically driven.
Is there a way back from any of this? Hold your breath, because I’m about to say something positive about Jeremy Corbyn: under his leadership, there would be someone definitively trying to drag the Window leftwards. It won’t work and will be electorally disastrous for the Labour Party, but at least a few leftish ideas will percolate through to the public consciousness and possibly even tempt the Tories to nick them. This is perversely the only hope for the centre-left for the time being: that George Osborne steals a few populist nuggets from a Trotskyite serial parliamentary rebel. I guess it’s better than nothing.
I fear you are right. There is one interesting (failed?) exception to this which is the ‘care cap’ and the attempt to increase the means-test threshold for social care — ie increasing the state’s reposisibility’s to fund interventions into private homes. There was a widespread consensus that this would have been A Good Thing (largely from people who would benefit from it and feel shut out of expert advice and access to state money, but hey, they could be right).
The problem for me is that this was like a lot of legislation and proposals from all three parties socially divisive – baby-boomers and the pre-war generaiton who were trained by politicians over many years to expect the state to stump up, were being given a last hurrah, whilst the withdrawal of the state from the needs of young adults and younger people continues apace (well, OK, at varying paces).
Anyway, looks like the exception to the rule isn’t now going to happen. Even for the generations that vote.