One of the commonest clichés about contemporary British politics is that there are no differences between the parties. It’s not a view I entirely endorse myself – there are differences between the major parties on some issues – but it’s always struck me that there’s enough truth in the assertion to make it hard to dismiss out of hand. So I was interested to come across a website that seems to show that this great similarity does in fact exist.
The website is called The Political Compass, and it seeks to do away with what it calls the ‘old-fashioned’ practice of thinking about politics purely in terms of left and right, and to think instead in terms of two axes. Thus, in addition to the ‘Economic Scale’ of left to right, they suggest an additional ‘Social Scale’ which runs from authoritarian to libertarian. (That’s libertarian in the sense of being radically anti-authoritarian, not necessarily believing in extreme free-market economics. Under this definition, ‘Libertarians’ in the mould of Ayn Rand are not true libertarians, since they advocate authoritarian policing and military action in defence of the interests of the wealthy. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, despite being so leftwing as to have come up with the slogan “property is theft”, was a true libertarian, because he rejected all forms of authority. I agree, it’s confusing – blame the fact that Rand’s followers co-opted a political term that doesn’t properly describe them.) Anyway, making use of these two axes enables the Political Compass to come up with a more sophisticated way of representing political affiliation:
I think there is something to be said for this approach, although I’m not fully convinced by the methodology. I’ll come on to some of the reasons for that in due course (I’ll bet you can hardly stand the suspense…), but for now, let’s presume that the method of analysis is fully reliable. On this basis, the people behind Political Compass have created a chart identifying the position of many of the parties standing for election in the 2010 UK general election:
As I say, I’m not 100% convinced by the methodology, and it results in some strange placings – in particular, I think there are good reasons to dispute the positioning of the BNP relative to the other parties. For now, though, I want to take note of two very striking things – namely, that, on the left-right spectrum, all the major parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats) are significantly to the right of centre line, and, even more noticeably, that virtually all the parties – whether large or small – are clustered towards the authoritarian end of the chart.
It’s this that has helped to clarify some of my thinking around the familiar assertion that there are ‘no differences’ between the parties. Clearly there are differences – almost two-thirds of the left-right spectrum divides UKIP from the Scottish Socialists, and roughly the same amount of the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum separates the BNP from the Greens. But if we were to delete those parties that are not putting up candidates in the majority of constituencies (so the DUP, Sinn Fein, Respect, Scottish Socialists, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and the SDLP all vanish), the resulting chart would reveal very starkly just how similar the remaining parties are.
If your personal political preferences are towards the authoritarian right, then you are literally spoilt for choice, with no less than four parties (BNP, Conservative, Labour, UKIP) to choose from. If you’re comfortable with the level of authoritarianism displayed by one or other of those parties but would prefer a left-of-centre approach – tough, you’re completely out of luck. If you prefer a party from the libertarian right then you have one option, the Liberal Democrats, but they are very much towards the top left-hand corner of that quadrant of the chart, meaning you wouldn’t have to be particularly rightwing or particularly libertarian to find the Lib Dems’ policies pretty weak stuff. For those on the libertarian left, the Greens are more centrally placed within that particular quadrant, suggesting that their policies are more likely to satisfy a broader range of opinion within that sector of the political field, but again there is only a single option.
The major effect of this, I think, is to force a recognition that vast swathes of political opinion are unrepresented within UK-wide political structures. And this is before we have taken into account the fact that virtually none of these parties are significant players – even amongst those parties which are fielding candidates in lots of constituencies, half had no representation in the 2005-10 parliament, and will consider it a major success if they have even one MP in the new one. If those parties are removed from the chart, leaving only those which have a chance of taking a prominent role in government, the position is even bleaker.
As this simplified version of Political Compass’ chart makes clear, these three parties span less than one third of the left-right spectrum, and less than half of the authoritarian-libertarian spectrum. Looking at a chart like this, filled with so much empty space, it’s pretty hard, I think, to deny that there is something to the ‘all the same’/ ‘what’s the point in voting?’ argument. On one level, no, the parties are not the same – even when things are reduced to the three parties that have any chance of a substantial role in government, there is clear blue water (and even a small amount of clear violet water…) between them. On another level, though, it’s also true to say that the similarities between the parties are much greater than the differences. A prospective voter has only to be centrist (let alone anything more hardcore) on either of the axes to be shut out of making a meaningful contribution to politics.
Another part of the Electoral Compass site features a test that enables you to determine where on the standard chart your own opinions place you, and it turns out (though it’s no great surprise to me…) that I am one of the people who is disenfranchised in this way. Here are my results:
As you can see, according to the designers of this test, I am ultra-leftwing, and pretty strongly libertarian. Given that I tend to haver between describing myself as an anti-authoritarian socialist and an anarchist, the broad sweep of this is reasonably accurate. (That’s an anarchist in the proper sense of the word, by the way, not the no-rules, every-man-for-himself, I-can-do-just-what-I-like-and-no-one-can-stop-me sense that it’s acquired in popular usage. An anarchist society (or, at least, the flavour of anarchist society I advocate) would still have rules – in fact, it would be very highly structured – it’s just those would rules would be determined and upheld by common consensus, not by an authoritarian elite. You should look anarchism up sometime, if you haven’t already. It’s a very persuasive philosophy, and a lot more practical than it’s given credit for.)
That said, and despite my positioning on the chart making sense in broad terms – I’m definitely a bottom-left-hand corner kind of guy – the specifics of it do strike me as a little odd. For example, I’m positioned as being more leftwing than anti-authoritarian, which is pretty much the opposite of what I would expect. I think I know what has damaged my anti-authoritarian credentials – I mildly endorsed the proposition that it can sometimes be right for a parent to smack their child, I also think that education in childhood should be compulsory, and I declared support for government regulation is some areas of economic life – but that’s not to say I agree that expressing these views should be regarded as particularly authoritarian.
On the smacking point, for example, I tend to take the view that children are not adults, and that in certain very narrowly-defined circumstances, and in the heat of a particular moment when there may be a risk of harm to the child or to others, a slight physical remonstration can be more effective than any alternative, but this is a long way from the premeditated violence with intent beloved of the pro-smacking lobby. And on the subject of compulsory education, since a self-organising society can only hope to function if all its members are capable of following and engaging in discussion, a certain minimum standard of education is mandatory. That said, I think a system of education that was less formalised and more interested in instilling knowledge than it was forcing children into a set curriculum would be an active pleasure for most kids – learning stuff is pretty much hardwired into all young animals – so I’m not sure the compulsion part would amount to much more than parents telling their kids to get out of bed.
If I can at least understand why the test has placed me higher up the authoritarianism scale than I might have expected, I am rather more at a loss to understand how it has decided I am so dedicatedly leftwing. To be positioned at the far left of the chart means that I have been judged to favour a fully collectivised economic system in which there is no role for the free market. As it happens, this is a less-than-accurate assessment of my views – as we’ve seen before, I’m an advocate of employee-owned cooperatives in preference to traditional corporate structures, but I would fully expect those cooperatives to compete on the free market. What intrigues me most, however, is how the designers of the test have arrived at the decision that I support fully collectivised economic activity when they didn’t actually ask me any questions that would establish my views on the issue one way or the other.
When it came to issues of corporate governance, I was asked: if I thought that companies that do something wrong should be punished; and I was asked if I thought companies failing to do what we wanted them to do voluntarily should be made to comply with our wishes; and I was asked if I agreed or disagreed with the assertion that companies have no social responsibilities beyond generating profits; and I was asked if protectionism is always wrong; and my views about corporate behaviour in the developing world were probed. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while I would imagine you can guess what my positions on all of these issues are, but the thing is – all of these are reformist notions. Taken together, they imply a series of restrictions on companies’ freedom of action, but this is not to say that they presuppose the abolition of companies, nor of markets. In fact, what they add up to is a formula for a socially-directed market, which is, necessarily, still a market. Yet, having expressed opinions which showed that I supported the idea of socially-directed markets, I was identified on a graph of famous political figures as being as hard left as Stalin, who instigated a fully planned economy – i.e. one in which markets had no place (or, to be pedantic, only semi-legal grey markets and fully-illegal black markets had a place).
In fact, this was not the only time I had a sense that the creators of the test were ascribing views to test subjects without fully investigating if they applied. For example, in order to test my attitudes towards drug policy, I was invited to offer an opinion on whether possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use should be a criminal offence, but in the arena of drugs policy this is really only very moderately libertarian (and relies on the ludicrous fudge that it’s ok to possess drugs, but not to buy, sell, grow or manufacture them). To fully test my libertarian credentials, I would need to have also been asked what my attitude towards the sale of hardcore drugs like heroin or crystal meth was. (If you’re interested, I would argue that they should be available for sale, but that we should also do all we can to persuade people not to take them, and they should be taxed sufficiently to recover all the costs – medical, social and criminal – associated with their use.)
To take a second example, on the issue of gay rights, I was asked to accept or reject the assertion that it’s impossible for a person to naturally experience homosexual feelings. Unsurprisingly, I opted to reject the assertion, but this is not actually a test of social attitudes towards homosexuality. You can be entirely libertarian in your approach to gay rights – can in fact be freely and happily homosexual yourself – while still believing that homosexuality is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon, but a learned one. It’s true that those who condemn homosexuality often do so on the grounds that it’s ‘unnatural’, but I have personally met a self-identified gay man who passionately believed that only the urge to have sex is naturally-occurring, and the choice of opposite- or same- sex partners is just that – a choice. He fully endorsed equal rights for gay people, but he would still have answered this question in a supposedly ‘authoritarian’ way.
In fact, I think the gay rights example exposes a pretty fundamental flaw in the way the test evaluates authoritarianism/ libertarianism. It’s pretty obvious that holding what in America are called progressive social views – equality of the races, equality of the sexual orientations, etc – are taken by the test’s creators to indicate a libertarian perspective, but it seems to me this is not necessarily the case. For example, we have recently arrived at a situation in the UK in which people who hold very progressive views on matters such as sexual orientation advocate a strongly authoritarian approach towards those who don’t share them, as was demonstrated late last year when a number of people (including a spokeswoman for the supposedly ‘libertarian’ Liberal Democrats) lodged formal complaints with the BBC for daring to allow people to express views that dissented, sometimes radically, from the liberal consensus on gay rights.
It seems fairly obvious to me that there are two separate spectrums of thought involved in the range of opinions on matters such as homosexuality. There is, firstly, a spectrum that runs from (for want of better terms) progressivism to conservatism, with those who advocate full equality at the progressive end, and those radically opposed at the conservative end. At the same time there is a separate spectrum that runs from authoritarianism to libertarianism. In this way (and looking only at the extremes of the spectra), it’s possible to have people who are strongly opposed to homosexuality, and believe that it should be illegal and punishable by death (as in many countries that endorse a conservative interpretation of sharia law), but it’s also possible to have people who are strongly opposed to homosexuality, but also believe that questions of personal morality are a matter for individuals not governments (as some rightwingers in the USA do). Equally, at the other end of the conservative-progressive spectrum, it’s possible to have people (like Lynne Featherstone of the Liberal Democrats) who take an extremely progressive approach to gay rights, but think that the law should be used to prevent people expressing a dissenting view, and also people (like me) who share the extremely progressive approach, while still thinking that we have to protect the right of people to express dissenting views. (In the interests of full disclosure, I do think there should be some limits on freedom of speech, but only when the comments expressed are likely to cause or result in actual harm to real people.)
Of course, in terms of establishing the political opinions of individuals and parties, this progressive-conservative axis would have to operate alongside, not just libertarian-authoritarian, but also left-right. There are dedicated free-marketeers like Alan Duncan who are very progressive on social issues, and dedicated free-marketeers like Norman Tebbit who are decidedly not. If this three-axis system was introduced I think it would help to clarify some of the problems with the positioning of parties like the BNP.
In the chart I reproduce above, the BNP are positioned as extremists on the authoritarian axis, but they are placed as being only very slightly more authoritarian than Labour. I wouldn’t be particularly inclined to argue about Labour’s place on the authoritarianism axis – this is the party that dreamed up control orders and the ID database, after all. I can also see the case for regarding the BNP as not being especially right-wing – they advocate protectionism after all. But it’s also clear that the chart above is not accurately reflecting the extremism of the BNP vis-à-vis Labour and the other mainstream parties. Despite their many undoubted faults, the Labour party have been very progressive on many social issues, where the BNP are decidedly not (and even their current grudging tolerance is a very recent development – within the last year or do). It’s also clearly nonsense to argue that Nick Griffin would have been only fractionally less likely than Tony Blair to set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the organization which took the BNP to court for having a discriminatory membership policy. A three-axis system would represent the extremism of the BNP far more effectively, since it would position them (along with UKIP) at the extreme conservative end of the progressive-conservative spectrum, poles apart from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the (present-day) Conservatives.
In fact a three-axis system would be generally more useful in assessing the views of individuals and groups, as it would help to resolve a number of the oddities of placement in Political Compass’ system of analysing political opinions. Of course, until such time as 3D computer displays become standard, creating a graphical representation of a three-axis system would be fairly problematic, so I can understand why it hasn’t been implemented. In their FAQ, the designers of the Political Compass acknowledge that their two axis system may not be perfect, but that it offers an improvement on the old-fashioned way of thinking about politics purely in terms of left and right. I think that’s probably true. I’ve certainly found it an interesting way to think about politics in the run-up to this election, and also to think about some of the more deep-seated reasons why disengagement from politics is so prevalent. I’d encourage you to go and have a look round their site yourself – it’s very interesting.