What does it mean to be left wing today?

The left-right divide is an important divide in British and international politics, but far from the only one.

The Daily Mail’s leaking of Mehdi Hasan’s letter to Paul Dacre did not reveal Mehdi’s hypocrisy, merely an uncomfortable truth: these days, if you want to write for any outlet, you will probably have to disregard profound political differences with it while capitalising on the ground you share.

That a left-wing journalist like Mehdi should admire some of the Mail’s values while loathing others is almost inevitable. For though the model of a simple binary political division between the Left and the Right may have appeared plausible during the 1980s, today it no longer does, and boundaries are increasingly blurred.

In Britain, old-guard Bennite leftists consider it axiomatic that to be left-wing is to oppose Western military intervention. Yet it was Tony Blair’s Labour government that pioneered liberal interventionism via Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, while much of the conservative right has reacted against the idea of risking British soldiers’ lives to help foreigners.

David Cameron – Blairite in foreign affairs – could not mobilise enough of his own parliamentary party to win the vote for intervention in Syria. Liberals are more likely to support intervention in defence of human rights and popular revolutions abroad, while conservatives often view dictators like Assad and Mubarak as positive factors of stability.

Hostility to immigration and Islam are the principal purposes of radical right-wingers in Western Europe today. Yet they employ the language of class to oppose immigration, and portray a metropolitan elite prepared to sacrifice the culture and living standards of the white working-class in order to have more cheap baby-sitters and exotic restaurants.

They also raise the banners of women’s rights and gay rights to attack Muslims and Islam. Conversely, some on the left are reluctant to criticise sexism, homophobia or anti-Semitism among Muslims for fear of pandering to Islamophobia. Supporters of a niqab ban cite female emancipation while opponents cite freedom of expression; both draw upon liberal principles.

Opposition to the EU is the Tory cause celebre, yet it was a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, who took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973, while ten years later it was Michael Foot’s notoriously left-wing Labour opposition that advocated withdrawal.

British liberals are more likely to be ‘pro-Palestinian’ and conservatives ‘pro-Israel’, yet the former often find themselves aligned with conservative Muslims on the issue and the latter with liberal Zionists. Gay marriage is viewed as a liberal cause, yet the institution of marriage is trumpeted primarily by conservatives.

Conservatives like to claim that the right is inherently anti-state while the left is pro-state. Yet Republican president George W. Bush presided over a huge expansion in the US Federal government, while anarchists are arguably the most left-wing and anti-state of all.

Green politics are generally viewed as left-wing, yet many greens and conservatives share common ground, whether in their dislike of modern industrial society, love of the countryside, idealisation of traditional small farmers or fear of third-world population growth.

Opposition to abortion is usually viewed as a right-wing cause. Yet the US is home to a burgeoning liberal and feminist pro-life movement, while even conservative pro-lifers have taken up the causes of traditionally marginalised groups that are targeted in abortions – not only the babies themselves but also the disabled in the West and women in India and China.

Conversely, supporters of abortion adopt the rhetoric of unconstrained personal autonomy and self-interested choice that echoes the values of the libertarian right.

Looked at closely, there are few issues that are strictly left vs right. In fact, there is only one: the left supports the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor while the right opposes it. All genuinely left vs right questions are derivative of that.

Again, the categories are subverted, as policies generally seen as right wing –  introducing university tuition fees; cutting benefits – are sold as redistributing money toward industrious working-class families. Nevertheless, Britain’s present coalition government deserves to be labelled right-wing, as its principal purpose has been to preside over a large-scale transfer of wealth away from the working and ordinary middle classes and toward the wealthy.

Consequently, to be left-wing in Britain today is to side with popular resistance to the government’s anti-redistributive policies; with anti-austerity protesters and striking workers; with those who campaign to defend their public services and welfare state.

This makes the left-right divide an important separation in British and international politics, but far from the only one. Leftists and rightists are as likely as not to find themselves on the same side of a political dispute; for example, to agree over military intervention while disagreeing over spending cuts.

To cling to a ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ tag may primarily reflect one’s sense of identity and emotional need to belong to one tribe and to define oneself against the other. Yet at least occasionally, every principled and free-thinking individual must disagree with the tribe.

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33 Responses to “What does it mean to be left wing today?”

  1. CEMB_forum

    A good article. However the first line is wrong. The Daily Mail’s leaking of Mehdi Hasan’s letter highlighted both an ‘uncomfortable truth’ AND Mehdi’s Hasan’s hypocrisy.

  2. Scott

    Very good article, thought I would disagree with a couple of things. I doubt the Zionists in Israel are all that liberal. Stealing peoples’ property in order to fulfill ancient biblical prophecy is anything but, and the ultra-orthodox Jews are as bad as the Islamists when it comes to enforcing religious laws.

    I also wouldn’t give Mehdi Hasan the label of left-wing. He has liberal views on economics and things like immigration, but he’s a religious reactionary and I think to qualify as left wing you need to have liberal views on the social issues as well.

  3. robertcp

    Most people using this site will be left-libertarians on the compass diagram but some Labour voters might be left-authoritarians, because of their views on issues such as immigration and crime. Pro-European Conservatives like Clarke and Heseltine are probably moderate right-libertarians, while some people on the right of the Conservative might be right-authoritarians. To sum up, the left-right division is still very important.

  4. Bugger (the Panda)

    How about not being a member of the Labour Party, in Scotland especially, where we are spoiled for choice?

  5. Rob Riley

    So the Greens are the only ones left worth voting for.

  6. Alex Ross

    That diagram is very strange…

    Firstly, it suggests that Respect are less authoritarian than Labour (which given Galloway’s professed admiration for Hussein, Assad, Castro, Putin etc. and his current work for Press TV alongside his willingness to ally with a bunch of assorted Islamist theocrats, Trots and Stalin apologists, seems like a difficult claim to sustain). Labour may not be an instinctively (small “l”) liberal party at heart (and, as a member, I wish they were!!) but it *is* a social-democratic movement, unlike Respect.

    Secondly, don’t know why the Greens are so far down on the graph. Whilst some strains of Green thinking are quite libertarian, there are also many deeply authoritarian currents in the Green party. I’d suggest, for example, that the tendency to smash up fields of GM crops “on our behalf” – without going through democratic protocols was very much in the worst “vanguardist” traditions of left-wing authoritarianism. Especially given that there is an important public debate to have about how GM might be used to alleviate food shortages in the developing world.

    Thirdly, what the fudge have the Liberal Democrats done in power to promote liberalism??

  7. PhilipL

    Indeed, so why support the authoritarians who would impose GM before that debate is had. And would that debate in a neoliberal hegemonic world order allow the voices who stand to lose their autonomy under the monsantoply allow the libertarian view to be heard. And if you want to talk food shortages see http://www.worldometers.info/ (section under food)

  8. Alex Ross

    I hardly think anything is being imposed (given that the EU have pretty much the strictest regulation of GM research in the world). But it is an important debate, And this debate needs scientific research in order to progress.

    I’ve listened to lots of intelligent argument over GM from scientists and development economists, many supportive, some with very reasonably expressed doubts. Few, if any, fit your picture of “neoliberal” corporation stooges.

    As I said, the idea that a certain, “privileged” group are entitled to sabotage scientific research conducted in a Liberal Democracy, and all detractors are to be denounced as a “neoliberal”, belongs to the dustbin of history.

  9. Dave Mann

    I’m going to have to educate myself on why Labour is perceived as being so authoritarian. Being in Canada is my only excuse.

  10. Nadza

    Most ultra-orthodox Jews are not Zionists, and religion doesn’t
    really feature all that much in mainstream Zionist thought, even amongst the Likudniks and Yisrael Beiteinu (you mainly see it in the lunatic settler fringe like the Shas and amongst Evangelical Christians). By ‘liberal Zionists’ I assume he means groups like Meretz.

  11. swatnan

    i agree that Medhi Hasan is a bit of a hypocrite and that he could be the spearhead for reform in the Muslim Conmmunity but still, like many educated Muslims, is in self denial and still continues to make excuses for them. There has to be Reform. You cannot continue to accept the practices applicable to the deserts of Arabia in the C16 to present day life in a multi cultural Britain. It simply will not work, and I fear for community relations if so called progressives like Medhi cannot see it and take the lead in reforming their religion.
    It is not ‘left wing’ when you see something that is basically wrong and opposed to equality and diversity and progess and human rights and you choose not to do anything about it but let it pass. That is being ‘conservative’. Being leftwing is about change society for the better, whatever it takes, redistributing that wealth and improving peoples lives in an open and free society.

  12. Adam Ladley

    I think it would be good if LFF credited their diagram, seen as they didn’t create and it doesn’t belong to them. Also, the reason why Labour is seen as so authoritarian is that this is a diagram for the 2010 election. You can see where you are on the compass yourself by going to http://www.politicalcompass.org

  13. Adam Ladley

    I can’t see the hypocrisy. Socially conservative views combined with a left viewpoint on the economy was a dominant Labour viewpoint in the 20th century.

  14. Adam Ladley

    The point of the compass is that it separates the social and economic dimensions. As a result, Mehdi Hasan can hold conservative religious views as well as leftist standpoints on the economy and still be left-wing.

  15. Adam Ladley

    LFF didn’t crate the graph. It was created by the website http://www.politicalcompass.org for the 2010 election, which may explain various disparities.

  16. Socialist agenda

    How anyone can say that Plaid Cymru is ‘ left wing’ shows the depth of ignorance of Welsh politics. Plaid Cymru would sell their grandmothers to get a few votes. No nationalist party can ever be left wing, their are nationalists….good grief..

  17. Socialist agenda

    Don’t take the diagram too literal. British politics is far more diverse, notice that they have nationalist parties as ‘left wing’ shows how wrong this is…

  18. Nadza

    You think nationalism can’t be left-wing?

  19. Nadza

    I think the hypocracy is how he sharply criticised the Daily Mail on Question Time, but had sang their praises when he applied to them for a job. That’s my understanding of it anyway.

  20. flux5000

    It’s really very simple, right wing equals representation of the corporate interest.

    Left wing equals representation of the public interest, re-privatisation of essential services such as water, power, transport, education and health.

    Any person that thinks right wing is good is either wealthy and doing just fine without a care for anyone else, or stupid.

  21. robertcp

    Unfortunately, Labour was very authoritarian from 1997 to 2010. The worst examples were trying to bring in detention for 90 days without being charged and ID cards, although both did not happen thankfully.

  22. Baxter Parp

    Good lord, how wrong can you be?

  23. Alec

    Is this a spoof? If not, I expect you think that right-wingers torture kittens.

    Traditional conservatism, rightly or wrongly, has been about defending the individual from the faceless power of the corporation be it privately owned or state-run.

    This was pretty much MAH’s sort-of point – although Hasan wasn’t ripped-apart for betraying “left-wing” orthodoxy, he was ripped-apart for ripping-apart the DM which was no different in 2010 when he went pleading for a column – that “left” and “right” have becoming basically meaningless as they’re applied as “something I like” or don’t like” and who’re so intellectually truncated that they cannot imagine sincere disagreement with their views (usually by members of the former group)


  24. Alec

    I think the use of “hegemonic” was overkill.

    What opposition to GMO – and fracking which can come to my county tomorrow as far as I’m concerned – seems to be derive from people who don’t know much about the science they took (if they took any) but feel really really strong and have to deny it to the rest of us.


  25. flux5000

    It’s complete nonsense, most people have views that spread right across the political spectrum depending on what the issue is.
    The right/left wing is only there to divide people, same as religion…

  26. flux5000

    You have no idea, Plaid are, for a UK political party, progressive, to say the least.

  27. j

    well greens and conservatives may be against third world population growth, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same because the reasons why they want this are very very different.

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