Am I left or right wing?
Even the most minimal engagement with politics appears to throw up the words ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ to describe politicians, activists, and policies.
These terms are commonly used in headlines, whether it’s over outcry about the affiliation of a media outlet or to talk about the policy agenda of a government cabinet. The left-right spectrum has come to be one of our most popular ways of mapping our political landscape. Despite this, recent research from YouGov shows that not only is it more complicated, but that at most only half of the British public know what a stereotypically left-wing policy and what is a right-wing policy is.
Broadly, left and right-wing are terms used to describe political positions, ideologies, and political parties. Left-wing often refers to those who are concerned with advancing forms of redistribution of wealth and more state regulation. Right-wing generally refers to the conservative end of the political spectrum, with those affiliated to this position holding a concern for social hierarchy and free trade. However, mapping this can be difficult without introducing preconceived ideas about what these terms might mean, and often it’s more complicated than common usage would lead us to believe.
Left-Right in Party Politics
The terms left and right-wing originated in the early days of the French Revolution in 1789. At this point, they were used to describe the seating arrangement in the French constituent assembly. The Jacobin radicals, those who supported the revolution, sat on the left side of the King, whilst moderates sat in the centre, and those who supported the King and members of the clergy sat on the right.
The terms gradually passed into general use and no longer refer to seating arrangements in legislatures, instead they have come to be associated with political identities. In the UK, usage of the term increased in popularity over the course of the 20th century. Typically, the Labour party are regarded as left-wing, as are the Green party and the Scottish Nationalist Party. The Liberal Democrats are thought to be a centre/moderate party, and the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party are identified as right-wing.
It is worth bearing in mind that although this is a common way of mapping the major UK political parties onto the left-right spectrum, the parties have shifted and changed their positions depending on a variety of factors over the years and throughout their histories. Perhaps the most referenced shift in recent years is the movement of the Labour party further left of the spectrum since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. As this example shows, how we plot political parties along the left-right spectrum is often changing. Similarly, you might hear reference to a politician being ‘to the left/right’ of their own party as a spectrum of views exists within each party itself.
Views of the British Public
As you might have noticed when reading about the on-goings of contemporary politics, politicians and journalists are familiar with grouping parties or policies as left or right wing and frequently use the term. However, identifying yourself neatly with these terms or identifying policies that map onto the left-right spectrum can be more difficult.
Research carried out by YouGov found that the wider general public in the UK struggled to identify policies as either stereotypically left or right wing. When putting more than 100 political views to people, they found that more than 53% of them did not identify any of them as specifically left or right wing. This suggests that although the left-right political spectrum is often used and politics is frequently framed in terms of this, there’s little wider understanding of its use.
Further to this, YouGov’s research found that of those that did identify themselves as being either left or right wing, they also found them to hold views that they ‘shouldn’t’. This is to say that they found that self-described left or right wingers agreed with political views of the opposing side. For example, a commonly held stereotypically left-wing view that was found amongst people who identified themselves as right-wing was that 60% of them thought that the House of Lords should be mostly or entirely elected. Additionally, the most commonly held stereotypically right-wing view held amongst left-wingers was found to be that 59% believe that school discipline should be stricter.
As this research suggests, it might be a bit more complicated when it comes to identifying ourselves as left or right-wing. Our own political views are not always grouped neatly into left or right categories, and we can often hold a range of beliefs that are not clustered to one end of the spectrum or another.
So, is it redundant?
All of this is not to say that the left and right wing political spectrum is redundant. It acts as a useful shorthand for describing policies and political parties, and its use certainly isn’t going away anytime soon! Understanding how the left-right spectrum can sometimes fail to capture the variety of views held is important though. When it comes to identifying with being left or right wing, it is worth bearing in mind that you might not neatly fit into one category or the other.
As you consider who to vote for or whether to join a political party, it is useful to read party manifestos and see whether they align on views that you consider to be most important. If you are considering alternative ways of engaging in politics, such as by speaking to your local MP, even if their political alignment does not necessarily match your own there may be specific issues on which you can work together.
- ‘Right wing and left wing’ cited in C. Calhoun (Ed.), Dictionary of Social Sciences, Oxford University Press, 2002.
- King, ‘Right’ cited in J. Krieger (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, 2001.
- M. Schwartz, ‘Left’ cited in J. Krieger (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Smith, ‘Left-wing vs right-wing: it’s complicated’, YouGov, 14th August 2019, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/08/14/left-wing-vs-right-wing-its-complicated?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=website_article&utm_campaign=left_right_wing