Are ‘left’ and ‘right’ useful political labels?

As long-time readers would know, I think the labels left and right are not very useful nor descriptive as each covers such a huge range of ideas that it’s hardly useful.

That’s blogger Sacha Blumen in his comment on my post on left and right attitudes to status.

Sacha’s quite correct that the political labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ can cover a lot of territory.

According to Wikipedia, ‘left’ can cover:

social (as opposed to classical) liberalism, populism, social democracy, socialism, communism, syndicalism, communalism, communitarianism, some forms of green politics, some forms of progressivism, and some forms of anarchism.

While ‘right’ can cover:

conservatism, monarchism, fascism, libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, reactionism, some forms of populism, the religious right, nationalism, militarism, producerism, Nativism, realism or simply the opposite of left-wing politics.

Adding further to the complexity, political parties thought to be of the ‘left’ or ‘right’ don’t always act according to stereotypes. As Paul Keating has been reminding us this week, Labor led the way with market reforms of the Australian economy, while the ‘right-wing’ Howard government has increased spending on welfare more quickly than Keating did.

Though more precise ideological descriptions are often useful, that doesn’t mean that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have no value. They are usually used in a context that gives them meaning. If you describe someone as ‘left’ or ‘right’ in Australia there is a high probability that certain political facts will be true of them. This can be seen in the Australian Election Study 2004, which asks respondents to position themselves on a 0 to 10 / left to right scale and also asks a range of other political questions. Looking at the people who rated themselves in the bottom three most left choices, and those who rated themselves in the top three most right choices:

* 86% of those who classed themselves as left voted for Labor or the Greens
* 87% of those who classed themselves as right voted for the Liberals, the Nationals, or One Nation
* 17% of those on the left thought that trade unions had too much power, compared to 68% on the right
* 77% of those on the left thought that income and wealth should be redistributed, compared to 36% of those on the right
* 26% of those on the left thought that asylum seekers should be turned back, compared to 73% of those on the right
* 62% of those on the left thought that land rights for Aborigines had not gone far enough, compared to 13% on the right

The only issue I checked that did not have disparities as wide as I expected was the urgency of the greenhouse issue, with 58% of those on the left classing it as very urgent compared to 37% on the right (but then there is no intrinsic reason for difference on this essentially scientific question, except that it got caught up in tribal politics coming from other controversies).

On the other issues, the ‘right’ and ‘left’ labels won’t give you 100% accuracy in predicting opinion across a range of issues (though I would not be surprised if accuracy was higher among ‘left’ and ‘right’ activists – some people answering the AES probably don’t understand enough about politics to locate themselves on a left-right spectrum). But you would have a much better than 50% chance of correctly predicting the political opinions of someone on the left or right.

I am also reasonably confident – though this requires more statistical analysis – that a few ‘left’ or ‘right’ consistent answers on seemingly unrelated issues – say trade unions, Aborigines, and asylum seekers – would enable us to guess correctly most of that person’s other political opinions.

Of course there are many contexts in which this broad approach won’t do – if anyone wanted to guess my likely views on political issues the label ‘classical liberal’ is going to help them much more than the label ‘right’, because in the Australian context the dominant ‘right’ is closer to conservatism than classical liberalism. But unlike some of my CIS colleagues, I have never much objected to being called ‘right-wing’. At the very least, it will give people a fairly good idea of what I do not support.

30 thoughts on “Are ‘left’ and ‘right’ useful political labels?

  1. Oh, Andrew – I’m happy to have provided some inspiration for you to write a post! (Well, at least to have had a comment copied to the start of a post!)

    From the responses to the Election Study you mention, the labels “left’ and “right” look like they could be useful; more useful than descriptive.

    From the election study data, is it possible to identify how a particular respondent answered on more than one question or is all the information removed? That’s related to what you discuss in the 2nd last para.


  2. Sacha – I could not work out how to do it, though there is statistical capacity in the software. You can find the AES by going to:

    Then down the ASSDA-ANU tree, to ‘Politics’, to ‘Election and campaign studies’, and down near the end of that is the AES 2004.

    You have to register, but it is free.

    It’s not a particularly user-friendly website so I don’t usually link to it, but for anyone interested in public opinion I would encourage that they make the effort to find their way around it, as there is a lot of interesting data there.


  3. Cheers Andrew – I’ll have a look at the AES soon. I have to admit I’ve always relied on others’ analysis of the AES results, especially as I don’t work in social science and spend other time focussing on other areas. I’ll have to devote some time to looking at it! (In amongst the full load of activities I’ve given myself recently.)


  4. Paul Keating, in addition to reminding the public of his structural changes to the economy, also put forward his own suggestions about industrial relations.

    He essentially claimed that all that was wrong with WorkChoices was that it “negatively” discriminated against unions, and that the Federal Government should simply legislate a bunch of minimum conditions.

    Is the view that WorkChoices are more anti-union than pro-freedom (particularly freedom of association) without merit, or does the legislation represent the “conservative” side more than the “free market” side of the right wing spectrum?

    From a market perspective, it seems that Paul Keating’s legacy is far greater than that of Howard/Costello, given their relatively similar political lifespans.


  5. One thing I don’t understand is why in so many Western democracies the population always seems to divide about 50/50 in supporting a ‘left’ or ‘right’ party ??

    Might be interesting to know what the trend is with this left/right identification. I grew up when it was much more pronounced – more people belonged to the parties, and to unions etc – that seems to have fallen away. Like popular culture, politics could be fragmenting. Could be the decline in newspaper reading ? Could be that from Watergate on everyone has become cynical about politicians, therefore politics – we know so much more about them (thanks to phone tapping Crime & Corruption Commissions). It’s all light years away from the respect a lot of people used to have for politicians on their side of politics. My father’s uncle had a framed photo of Winston Churchill on his hall table! (but then I suppose Rafe has a shrine to Margaret Thatcher somewhere).


  6. I’ve noticed this in Australia, Russell (I don’t know about countries such as France in which there isn’t a two-party system – but also in the UK it’s not really a 50/50 split as there you have the Lib Dems). NB recently in a number of Aus. state elections, the share of the vote hasn’t been that close to 50/50 (it was about 60/40 in the 2001 Qld state election). Perhaps, in Australia, the parties actively seek to maximise their share of the vote and so, over time, tend towards evenly sharing the electorate on average?


  7. Yes, aound the edges there’s some movement – we have the Greens etc, but even with ‘polarising’, landslide elections it’s never 80/20 – despite changing social structures, globalisation and all the rest, most countries, like us, seem to divide up fairly evenly. It’s a bit like being a Holden or a Ford family, a Myers or a DJs customer …. perhaps, being sports loving nations we just like to divide up into two nearly even teams – just to make a more exciting contest.


  8. The Hotelling theorem explains why two-party systems tend to evolve (one major on the right and one major on the left) in a winner take all type environment. Of course other parties tend to emerge too (especially in proportional voting systems), but they are likely to be minor. Based on this I predict two effective parties in the House of Representatives and more than two in the Senate. A paper at the local politics journal tests this and finds support for this hypothesis.

    I’ve had another paper at a journal for over a year on this issue. Using data from the AES can we predict voting ehaviour given what we know about left-right self identification. Basically, the left-right ID is the best predictor of voting intention.


  9. Sinclair – Does that finding on the left-right indictator hold true for those who express only slight leanings left or right?


  10. From memory, yes. The largest single group of respondents place themselves around the centre. I don’t have the latest version of the paper, but here is the abstract of the version I do have,

    Spatial models of voting behaviour are the dominant paradigm in political science. Consistent with this approach, it will be the case that, ceteris paribus, voters should vote for the party nearest to them on the political spectrum. A key question is how we measure nearness or distance. We investigate this issue by estimating discrete choice models for voting outcomes using the 2001 Australian Election Study survey data. Our findings suggest that where a voter locates on the political spectrum is at least as good a predictor of their voting outcome as how close they are to the parties. The evidence also supports the proposition that it is perceived and not actual distance that performs best.

    (from memory we updated that with 2004 data)

    and the summary conclusions.

    We estimate six different models, using two measures of location and two measures of distance, and compare their accuracy. We also include (in the six models) two models that test the directional spatial model (Rabinowitz and MacDonald 1989). Our results indicate that when distance is measured as the difference between voter location and mean party location that the directional and proximity models are empirically equivalent. When distance is measured as the difference between voter location and voter placement of the party that the proximity model empirically dominates the directional model and the absolute measure dominates the quadratic measure.

    In other studies we have just included left and right as measures – they work just as well (if not better) than more sophisticated measures. The interesting thing is the Greens – they are a left party (ALP are centre-left). To be successful, the ALP have to get all the Green preferences (or at least a very large proportion of them). Using this type of analysis, I also predict the Democrats will disappear – they occupy the same ideological left-right space as the ALP.


  11. SD: Are there known cases where Hotelling’s Law breaks down? It seems to me that in the past decade or some of the two-party systems have been breaking down and a third one gaining some foot hold. France seems like a reasonable example (although with a movement back the last election), and the Social Democrats in the UK are also. I believe there is a case that is restricted to BC in Canada (BC) as well if I remember correctly.

    Is the prediction that a third party can get established if the two major ones become to similar?


  12. I’m also wondering about this Hotelling thing – it sort of works if there is a large middle ground, not if the society is more polarised: presumably the Labor Party was able to become a large party because there was a large distinct working class with it’s own interests at heart?

    Back in the 80’s when it did seem are two major parties were converging the Democrats did make a bid to break out into mainstream size – Janine Haines stood for the Reps, but lost.
    The Greens seem to have turned their backs on Hotelling and held on to their principles.


  13. Conrad – quite probably. Afterall the UK Labour Party took the second party role from the Liberals in the early 20C. Bear in mind, however, that the Hotelling principle indicates that two parties will occupy the middle ground and tussel between them. I don’t know enough about the French system to comment on what has happened there.

    Russell, the Greens are not a viable party in the House. To the best of my knowledge they have only ever won one seat (in a bye-election). They can only play a spoiling role for the ALP there, or if enough preferences flow and the primary vote high enough then an enhancing role. (Trying to win an election on preferences is quite hard – a boxer never goes into the ring saying ‘I’m going to win on points’, so too political parties should try to win outright.)

    Hotelling doesn’t explain what happens in a proportional voting system i.e. our Senate. There the Greens can be expected to do better.


  14. Sinclair, you mentioned that a Left/Right scale predicts how a voter will vote as well if not better than more sophisticated models. Are the “more sophisticated” models ones in which there are two or more dimensional variables (for example, social liberalness and economic liberalness) ?


  15. “Hotelling doesn’t explain what happens in a proportional voting system i.e. our Senate. There the Greens can be expected to do better.”

    But it doesn’t seem to account for parties like the Greens that don’t plan on capturing the large middle-ground and a majority in the Reps, but do aim to threaten to take enough votes from a major party that they can pull them a bit over toward their own direction.

    In business too, probably most businesses don’t follow the Hotelling thing – they are small and don’t plan to get big. The Morgan Motor Company (not that I’d want a status-seeking little sports car like a Morgan, of course) likes to stay “small and flexible” they say – they’re not challenging Toyota for the middle-ground.


  16. No. it’s quite hard to calculate variables like that using the AES data (no consistency across time). I have had a first go at that (for 2004 only), but haven’t yet looked closely at the results. In particular I’m trying to see how big the libertarian vote in Australia is. From memory and a quick eyeball of the data, the libertarian vote is quite small and many of them vote for the ALP.


  17. But it doesn’t seem to account for parties like the Greens that don’t plan on capturing the large middle-ground and a majority in the Reps, but do aim to threaten to take enough votes from a major party that they can pull them a bit over toward their own direction.

    No it doesn’t. It doesn’t really intend to explain that situation – that’s what I would call ‘spoiling’. The full effect of that is lessened, but not eliminated, in Australia with our preference voting system. In essence the Greens by following that strategy could keep the ALP out of government if the marginal voter defects to the Coalition or remains a Coalition voter. The Greens are a huge threat to the ALP which is why the Peter Garrett strategy is a good one. (I can’t vouch for its ex post success, but ex ante it is a good idea).

    Given that situation the Coalition should encourage its voters to vote Green in ALP safe seats and second preference the Coaliton – in the seat of Melbourne, for example, that could unseat the incumbant.


  18. Sinclair, I agree that the Coalition strategy you mention in the last para would be potentially quite useful. I don’t understand why the Coalition in NSW refused to do deals with the Greens in order to attempt to knock off ALP members in Marrickville and Balmain.


  19. The Greens might be refusing to deal with the Coalition. Who knows? I doubt the Coalition would ever advocate that their own voters should vote Green first though. It would be interesting to watch.


  20. Sinclair – It’s pretty clear from just tabulating answers to two questions that the number of libertarians is small – I tried it earlier in the year, though I did not also look at how they voted.

    And it is the Greens who won’t deal with the Liberals rather than the other way around. Generally, the Liberals have preferenced to the Greens above the ALP, but in my view they should preference the ALP for at least one election to signal to the Greens that Liberal preferences cannot be taken for granted.

    Without Liberal preferences, the Greens have no prospect of winning any lower house seats.


  21. My RA pulled all the characteristics of libertarians (or the proxy anyway) – so when I get to it, I’ll be able to say heaps (I hope). In the seat of Melbourne, I wouldn’t give them Liberal preferences, I’d give them Liberal votes. 🙂 Make the ALP have to win net 17 to form government and remove one of the better performers.


  22. Actually, thinking of Green parties and Hotelling’s law, I guess the German Green party is a good example of the opposite of my previous ones, where a third rival party gets dissolved via assimilation into the two main parties. However, there are other ones like One Nation which only get assimilated into one party (and a similar phenomena of Le Pen being somewhat assimilated into into Sarkozy happened in France too I think). Perhaps the Australian Green party keeps its self well differentiated so this doesn’t happen to it (although personally, I see the example of the German Green party as a win for green politics).

    Back to Hotelling’s law, I’m not sure if this really working as spatial metaphor. I guess the German green party must have been to the left of the socialist party (?) and it really got assimilated into both parties, whereas the far-right parties in the other two examples seem to have only got assimilated into the party closest politically to them, so there is a dissociation between how assimilation works in the two cases. In one case the closest party to the smaller one assimilates it, and in the other case, both parties do.

    I guess it would interesting to see some sort of quantitative analysis to see what happens to minor but large enough to worry about third parties in these sorts of situations, particularily with respect to how they get assimilated and whether this spatial/attractor-state metaphor works well.


  23. So Sinclair, you have a Research Assistant? Ah – you academics – having access to paid servants – the rest of us have to do all our own (unpaid) research! (BTW if you ever need a mathematician, give me a buzz 🙂 )


  24. Sacha – I’m very embarressed. One of the anomalies of Australian academic life (there are many as Andrew keeps indicating) is the ARC grant. Now you can’t get promoted without them, but what if you don’t need lots of money for your own research? The RA comes into their own at this point and extensive library collections, and the like.

    I hope you’re not suggesting I have unpaid servants?? 🙂


  25. Not at all! Unless they freely entered into an agreement to work for you without remuneration and are free to leave any such agreement at any time.

    I’ve only been a casual academic, so I don’t directly know the ins-and-outs of a long-term academic career, although I’ve heard people muttering greatly about the importance of ARC grants. Personally, while I understand why it is conceptually important to obtain grants, it seems (to this outsider) as if the whole process is inefficient – possibly as indicated by your low-cost research situation and also by the apparent expectation I’ve seen in some academic job application kits that one might be expected to devote about 30% of one’s time to writing applications to win research grants.


  26. ARC discovery grants have a minimum of $20K funding per year, when in fact such sums may not be necessary in the humanities and social sciences which can draw on previously collected information. However, as Sinclair notes, being awarded a grant brings prestige, as powerful a currency in academia as $$$.


  27. My impression is that large sums may not be important in pure mathematics either – funds could pay for attending conferences and travel and a postdoc/RA. Not sure though.


  28. Sacha — its true about the ARC grants (and in fact other types). In case you do really good research, but don’t bring in lots of money, this seen as worse than if you do cruddy research but bring in lots of money. It’s the opposite of an efficiently running business. People feel constantly obliged to ask for as much money as they can, when their time might be far more productively spent actually doing something interesting.
    This is partially based on the government’s stupid rules/funding formulas, which basically calculate a score based on research productivity plus grants additively, when in fact what you really want is a score where research productivity is divided by amount of funding.
    Many of the big US universities solve this conundrum to some extent (which doesn’t stop people feeling obliged to ask for more and more). They are happy to give you big research money, but if you are not productive enough with it, you basically get the flick. Thats quite a different strategy to Australia where wasting money is a positive.


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