But re-reading that article after all this time makes me think that if anything ‘left’ and ‘right’ have gained in utility since the early 1990s. The test of labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ is not whether they can fully describe someone’s political position. Rather, it is whether the label will reasonably reliably locate someone in significant political contests of the day.
In 2007 I used results from the 2004 Australian Election Survey to suggest that this was the case with the questions I examined – especially on party preference, perhaps the most important indicator because of the way it bundles reactions to many different issues.
In my 1993 article I suggested that Labor support for market reform was complicating the old left-right divide. Now there is little support for further market reform in Labor or anywhere else on the left, and near universal left support for a serious reform rollback on industrial relations.
I also mentioned the divisions on the right over economic policy which were then noticeable, led by Robert Manne and John Carroll with support from BA Santamaria. But now Manne has returned to his left-wing roots, Carroll has admitted he was wrong, and Santamaria is dead. While the broad right is economically pragmatic and has its share of rent-seekers, there is little in-principle opposition within the right to market reform.
‘Left’ and ‘right’ are simplifying and sometimes simplistic. In many contexts more nuanced labels will be preferable. But in other contexts they are likely to preferable to long-winded lists of various ideological sub-groups who, on the issue in question, are largely in agreement.