The uses and abuses of the left-right distinction in the campaign

The left/right distinction is a familiar interpretive frame through which to make sense of political divisions and disagreements, but its status, character, and relevance are highly contested. British politics has, in recent years, seen a range of starkly opposed narratives not only between left and right political positions, but also about the continued relevance and viability of the left/right distinction itself.

Simplifying somewhat, the 2019 General Election saw two main narratives about the changing shape of the left/right distinction. One suggested that 2019 was significant in part because it coincided with a reinvigoration of the left/right distinction within British political life. This narrative asserts that the Conservatives under Johnson, and Labour under Corbyn, embraced a politics more unambiguously right and left (respectively) than their predecessors. Johnson’s Conservatives were seen by many as tapping into a groundswell of right-wing nationalism and nativism. Conversely, Corbyn’s Labour found itself frequently characterised as ‘hard left’. Thus, much commentary during the election campaign highlighted, and frequently bemoaned, the supposed abandonment by both parties of their centrist, moderate wings. Consequently, and in contrast to the ideological convergence that marked British politics for much of the 90s and 2000s, 2017 and, especially, 2019 saw the major parties standing on clearly demarcated policy platforms, in which voters had a clear and unambiguous choice between left and right.

A second narrative suggests that far from becoming more relevant, the left/right distinction has become an arcane device ill suited to the various divisions and antagonisms that shape contemporary British society. Evidence offered in support of this view includes: the relatively small percentage of voters who have a clear self-perception as either left or right; the displacing of left vs right by a whole series of other axes of division (e.g. ‘open’ versus ‘closed’, ‘somewheres’ versus ‘anywheres’, young versus old); and the increasing salience of cultural values at the expense of economic factors. The pivoting of many voters in the so-called ‘Labour heartlands’ towards the Conservatives is further grist to the mill of those who say that, in the age of Brexit, the left/right distinction no longer holds. Indeed, it seems likely that, following the electoral failure of a left platform, the pressure on the Labour Party to a return to a centrist politics ‘beyond left and right’ will intensify over the coming months.

But we should be wary of such claims. Irrespective of where one situates oneself on the left/right spectrum, we abandon it at our peril. As Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe has powerfully argued, a clearly delineated left/right distinction is essential for a vibrant, flourishing public sphere. Perhaps controversially, I would argue that the partial polarisation of British politics along the left/right axis in recent years has been positive in terms of citizen interest, engagement and participation in democratic politics, in stark contrast to the depoliticised technocracy and managerialism of the New Labour era. In many cases, therefore, the desire to bury or ‘move beyond’ the left/right distinction can function as a thinly concealed attempt to delegitimise all but a fairly narrow range of political opinion. Furthermore, the 2019 General Election was a victory for a revitalised right-wing of the Conservative Party. Consequently, we need the left/right distinction as an analytic frame if we are to come to terms with how and why the Conservatives won on a more unashamedly right-wing platform than in previous elections.

But if we agree that we need to retain the left/right distinction, this begs the question of precisely how the left/right distinction is understood. Often, left and right are cast as indices of political attitudes, particularly in relation to specific economic indicators such as taxation, public spending, and wealth distribution. But this ‘economistic’ understanding of left and right is too limited, especially at a time when contemporary political movements and identities do not cleanly correspond with class positions, or economic factors. Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio famously argued that left and right should be understood in relation to the relative priority afforded to equality and inequality within different political movements and projects. Consequently, to be ‘left-wing’ is to be motivated by what Bobbio calls ‘the emotive value of equality’, rather than whether not you support particular levels of taxation or redistribution.

Going forward, a more fluid and dynamic understanding of the left/right distinction – along the lines of what Bobbio describes – could become a major asset in our on-going attempts to make sense of a highly fractious and confusing political moment, while also seeking to cultivate citizen interest and engagement in democratic politics. As the dust settles from the upheavals of the 2019 General Election, we must doggedly resist on-going attempts by politicians and pundits at to consign the left/right distinction to the dustbin of history.