Is Left-Right still meaningful in politics? Or are we all just winners or losers of globalisation now?

Theresa May meets European Council President Donald Tusk in April, ahead of the start of Brexit talks. Image: European Council President (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Left–Right dimension—based on the traditional cleavage in society between capital and labor—is the most common way of conceptualising ideological difference. But in an ever more globalised world, are the concepts of Left and Right still relevant? In recent years political scientists have increasingly come to talk of a two-dimensional politics in Europe, defined by an economic (Left–Right) dimension, and a cultural dimension that relates to voter and party positions on sociocultural issues.

In his Policy & Internet article “Cleavage Structures and Dimensions of Ideology in English Politics: Evidence From Voting Advice Application Data”, Jonathan Wheatley argues that the cleavage that exists in many European societies between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation has engendered a new ideological dimension pitting “cosmopolitans” against “communitarians” and that draws on cultural issues relating to identity—rather than economic issues.

He identifies latent dimensions from opinion data generated by two Voting Advice Applications deployed in England in 2014 and 2015—finding that the political space in England is defined by two main ideological dimensions: an economic Left–Right dimension and a cultural communitarian–cosmopolitan dimension. While they co-vary to a significant degree, with economic rightists tending to be more communitarian and economic leftists tending to be more cosmopolitan, these tendencies do not always hold and the two dimensions should be considered as separate.

The identification of the communitarian–cosmopolitan dimension lends weight to the hypothesis of Kriesi et al. (2006) that politics is increasingly defined by a cleavage between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation, with “losers” tending to adopt a position of cultural demarcation and to perceive “outsiders” such as immigrants and the EU, as a threat. If an economic dimension pitting Left against Right (or labour against capital) defined the political arena in Europe in the twentieth century, maybe it’s a cultural cleavage that pits cosmopolitans against communitarians that defines politics in the twenty-first.

We caught up with Jonathan to discuss his findings:

Ed.: The big thing that happened since your article was published was Brexit—so I guess the “communitarian–cosmopolitan” dimension (Trump!) makes obvious intuitive sense as a political cleavage plane. Will you be comparing your GE2015 VAA data with GE2017 data? And what might you expect to see?

Jonathan: Absolutely! We will be launching the WhoGetsMyVoteUK Voting Advice Application next week. This VAA will be launched by three universities: Oxford Brookes University (where I am based), Queen Mary University London and the University of Bristol. This should provide extensive data that will allow us to make a longitudinal study: before and after Brexit.

Ed.: There was a lot of talk (for the first time) after Brexit of “the left behind”—I suppose partly corresponding to your “communitarians”—but that all seems to have died down. Of course they’re still there: is there any sense of how they will affect the upcoming election—particularly the “communitarian leftists”?

Jonathan: Well this is the very group that Theresa May’s Conservative Party seems to be targeting. We should note that May has attempted to appeal directly to this group by her claim that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” made at the Tory Party Conference last autumn, and by her assertion that “Liberalism and globalisation have left people behind” made at the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year. Her (at least superficially) economically leftist proposals during the election campaign to increase the living wage and statutory rights for family care and training, and to strengthen labour laws, together with her “hard Brexit stance” and confrontational rhetoric towards European leaders seems specifically designed to appeal to this group. Many of these “communitarian leftists” have previously been tempted by UKIP, but the Conservatives seem to be winning the battle for their votes at the moment.

Ed.: Does the UK’s first-past-the-post system (resulting in a non-proportionally representative set of MPs) just hide what is happening underneath, i.e. I’m guessing a fairly constant, unchanging spectrum of political leanings? Presumably UKIP’s rise didn’t signify a lurch to the right: it was just an efficient way of labelling (for a while) people who were already there?

Jonathan: To a certain extent, yes. Superficially the UK has very much been a case of “business as usual” in terms of its party system, notwithstanding the (perhaps brief) emergence of UKIP as a significant force in around 2012. This can be contrasted with Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, where populist right parties obtained significant representation in parliament. And UKIP may prove to be a temporary phenomenon. The first-past-the-post system provides more incentives for parties to reposition themselves to reflect the new reality than it does for new parties to emerge. In fact it is this repositioning, from a economically right-wing, mildly cosmopolitan party to an (outwardly) economically centrist, communitarian party, that seems to characterise the Tories today.

Ed.: Everything seems to be in a tremendous mess (parties imploding, Brexit horror, blackbox campaigning, the alt-right, uncertainty over tactical voting, “election hacking”) and pretty volatile. But are these exciting times for political scientists? Or are things too messy and the data (for example, on voting intensions as well as outcomes) too inaccessible to distinguish any grand patterns?

Jonathan: Exciting from a political science point of view; alarming from the point of view of a member of society.

Ed.: But talking of “grand patterns”: do you have any intuition why “the C20 might be about capital vs labour; the C21 about local vs global”? Is it simply the next obvious reaction to ever-faster technological development and economic concentration bumping against societal inertia, or something more complex and unpredictable?

Jonathan: Over generations European societies gradually developed mechanisms of accountability to constrain their leaders and ensure they did not over-reach their powers. This is how democracy became consolidated. Hoverver, given that power is increasingly accruing to transnational and multinational corporations and networks that are beyond the reach of citizens operating in the national sphere, we must learn how to do this all over again on a global scale. Until we do so, globalisation will inevitably create “winners” and “losers” and will, I think, inevitably lead to more populism and upheaval.

Read the full article: Wheatley, J. (2016) Cleavage Structures and Dimensions of Ideology in English Politics: Evidence From Voting Advice Application Data. Policy & Internet 8 (4) doi:10.1002/poi3.129

Jonathan Wheatley was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.