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.
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.