Something we’ve been trying and failing to clearly and concisely articulate for a while – and something that stubbornly keeps being relevant. The media, the political mainstream, and people in general talk about ‘left’ and ‘right’ as if there’s absolutely no debate about what those labels mean, and who they should be attached to. But there is. Or at least there should be.
The political spectrum is a concept that allows us to represent different political positions in relation to one another – usually by determining how ‘left’, or committed to equality, or ‘right’, committed to defending inequality and social hierarchy, someone or something is.
But there are actually two versions of that spectrum in use, even if most of us don’t realise it – one you might call the classic spectrum, and one you might call the relative spectrum.
The classic spectrum is the one everyone knows. It’s also the one everyone assumes is the only one. Full-blown communism sits at the leftmost end, out-and-out capitalism at the rightmost end, and everything else sits somewhere in between, with left-wingers and right-wingers posing substantially different ideas about how societies should be organised.
Then there’s the relative one. It’s the one you’ll hear TV journalists and mainstream politicians use nine times out of ten. Essentially, it treats neoliberalism – politics skewed in the interests of the banks and big business, and trenchantly hostile to anything redistributive – as ‘the centre-ground’. Ideas that are eye-wateringly right-wing as far as the classic spectrum is concerned are treated as being society’s default setting.
As a result, left and right cease to have anything to do with clashing visions of how society should be organised. Instead, people and organisations are labelled as being ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ purely based on how far they’re willing to depart from that basic corporate-dominated, market-fundamentalist template. This is how you end up with a situation where Ed Miliband can be called ‘far-left’, even ‘socialist’, for mildly criticising big business.
In other words, the relative spectrum is an ideologically-motivated distortion of the truth. The classic spectrum does an excellent job of capturing the vast array of different ways human beings have sought to run their societies. The relative spectrum doesn’t, and it doesn’t try to.
The reason the mainstream likes to use the relative one so much is that it helps preserve and cement a politics that favours the wealthiest and most powerful, and prevent any genuinely radical alternative from emerging. Political elites and a criminally impartial corporate media use it to try and do two things – one, delude people into thinking they live in a healthy representative democracy, where there are substantial differences between the main parties and in which a wide spread of political viewpoints are given a voice. And two, eradicate all political viewpoints that aren’t neoliberal.
Let’s go back and use poor old Ed Miliband as a convenient example. On the nice, objective, classic spectrum, Labour under Miliband was still solidly centre-right. It was less right-wing than Labour under Blair and Brown, but its most interventionist proposals were fairly flimsy and tokenistic, like the so-called ‘Mansion Tax’. Ed and Ed were still putting forward a fundamentally neoliberal view of the world – one fixated with balancing budgets and appeasing business.
But the mainstream media pilloried Miliband, painting him as a sort of state-bankrupting communist. Why did the pundits and the papers make him out to be something he so evidently wasn’t?
Firstly and most obviously, so he wouldn’t get in. If he did, he wouldn’t have changed much at all. But the few changes he would’ve made may well have nudged Britain in a microscopically more egalitarian, less corporate-friendly direction. He might’ve created the impression that political change wasn’t a one-way street – that things could actually get better for ordinary people, not just continually worse. Which in turn, may have given millions of people the dangerous idea that the country could be made significantly more equal. Ed Miliband, in other words, could’ve served as a sort of gateway drug to socialism.
And secondly, because if you can dupe people into thinking that Miliband’s timid neoliberalism with a human face is ‘far-left’ and dangerously extreme, you ensure that anything genuinely radical looks insane.
If you want to see just how distorted our perception of left and right has become, the best thing to do is to try and map the spectrum out scientifically – or as close to scientifically as you can get while dealing with something as resolutely un-scientific and subjective as ideology.
The political spectrum is usually represented as a straight line, going from left to right. But it’s actually much better visualised the way the Political Compass organisation does it – with a horizontal left-to-right line representing the full range of economic viewpoints, and a vertical line representing social attitudes, totalitarianism at the top, libertarianism at the bottom.
What you’re left with is a grid made up of four quadrants – going clockwise, one each for the authoritarian right, the libertarian right, the libertarian left, and the authoritarian left. We like to call it the Battenberg model, because it looks like a lovely slice of Battenberg cake.
And it’s excellent for our purposes – demonstrating just how narrow and ideologically limited big politics has become. It shows the vast expanse of ideological space available, and the radically different directions society could be taken in – to the left, to the libertarian right. And it shows how public life has stuffed itself into the same stifling, crowded corner. Every mainstream political party, the editorial line of every mainstream paper, practically every opinion you’ll hear voiced on the mainstream news, fits into that authoritarian right quadrant.
So many of our institutions have been horribly and unreservedly compromised. Least-worst newspapers like The Guardian, neoliberalised ex-socially democratic organisations like the Labour Party, all commonly continue to be called and call themselves ‘centre-left’. But really, they’re just sat on the left-most bit of the centre-right. Someone like Polly Toynbee is presented as Queen Leftist – but the most politically significant act of her career was when she stood for right-wing Labour Party splinter group the SDP in Lewisham East in 1983, ensuring Labour lost a previously safe seat to the Tories.
What’s more, the only reason the Green Party is seen as being so radical is because the mainstream has been shunted so far to the right. It’s certainly a welcome presence in modern day British politics – genuinely centre-left amid all the phonies – but nowhere near as radical as the Attlee-led Labour government of ’45 – ’51. Which in itself was relatively mainstream for the time.
But surely ‘for the time’ is the operative phrase? Politics seems to work in consensuses. From the ‘40s to the ‘70s, it was quite mainstream to be left-wing to an extent that would be seen as unthinkably radical now. At the same time, it’s now mainstream to be further to right of what even most pre-Thatcherite Tories would’ve seen as desirable. Times change. Surely all this ‘classic spectrum’ business just risks fossilising the way we talk about politics, and not reflecting the way it changes over time?
Here’s the counterargument. When Harold Macmillan was building more council houses than Labour at the height of the welfare consensus, hard-right politics hadn’t been wiped off the face of the earth. It wasn’t very fashionable, but it still existed as a possibility – a potential direction society could be taken. As we now know all too well.
And just because we’re living in a horrifically neoliberal era now doesn’t mean genuinely radical left-wing politics has ceased to exist as a possibility either. That’s why we need to hang on to the classic spectrum as a concept – an objective, timeless guide to the dazzling range of political directions society could potentially take, so we can look beyond the blinkered short-termism of whatever consensus we happen to be in the middle of at the time. Given that the present one is morally, socially, economically and ecologically awful, that’s quite important.