Opinion: In praise of left and right

One of the interesting features of the debates provoked by last week’s analysis of Liberator’s latest assault on ‘the right’ of the party, and the Social Liberal Forum’s related critique, was the refrain in the comments of an old theme about how unhelpful the labels left and right can be in understanding the viewpoint of the person thus labelled. Indeed it’s a point of view that in part has defined Nick Clegg’s approach to answering questions on which way he is taking the party:

It’s not a matter of left versus right, but what is fair. – Independent, June 2008

There is some truth in this. In this party ‘right’ is often used as a catch-all pejorative meaning ‘they like liberal market economics, I don’t’, whereas ‘left’ occasionally gets the prefix ‘loony’ or ‘extreme’ to mean ‘they think they’re a liberal, I think they’re a socialist’. Externally any media analysis couched in the language of left and right is rarely intended to be helpful to the party, more a dog-whistle to put off supporters of the opposite point of view. The Tories call us ‘lefties’, the Labour party ‘right-wing Orange Tories’.

However in respect of giving some sense of where a Liberal Democrat commentator is coming from, whether their priorities lie more towards redistribution and social justice or towards aspiration and prosperity, these ‘inadequate’ labels are far more descriptive than most of the alternatives.

Take for example David Howarth’s thoughtful attempt to redefine social liberalism in Reinventing the State:

Sometime in the late nineteenth century, liberalism began to divide into two different streams. One stream, which came to be called ‘classical liberalism’… The other stream, which has come to be called ‘social liberalism’.

There are three major problems with his case. The first is that his definition of what social liberalism is, is so broad, that I can see no meaningful difference between it and plain liberalism, it doesn’t need the social tag. Indeed he is forced to develop ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ tags to show differences of emphasis between social social liberals and economic social liberals.

These all being hopelessly unhelpful and non-descript labels, what is wrong with simply using left and right to show emphasis and liberal to mean… liberal?

Second there is already a perfectly good term, ‘socially liberal’ that people generally understand to mean tolerant, open-minded, concerned for the vulnerable etc. that causes confusion with the social label. David recognises this problem and states his position should more accurately be called ‘social justice’ liberalism, but is there any meaningful difference between that and left-liberalism other than the latter better conveys his emphasis more distinctly?

Third if the opposite of social liberalism is classical liberalism, which he defines as largely concerned with protection from the state and unconcerned with distribution, it is such a narrow point of view that it applies to practically no one alive today. You would be hard pressed to find many pro-free markets liberals who did not believe in a minimal state, and that part of the role of that state should be tackling poverty, ignorance and ill-health through some redistributive mechanism, either directly or by providing the finance to third parties.

Conrad Russell eloquently noted that liberalism adapts as the world changes; electoral reform, welfarism, green liberalism etc. are evolutions of a core concern with the primacy of liberty not a new species of political philosophy that cannot co-mingle with their antecedents. Classical and social liberalism are manifestations of the same theme, not opposites

Another criticism of left and right is that they are relative terms. Views on the right of the Liberal Democrats tend to be in the centre-ground or marginal centre-right of public opinion in the UK, and those on the left tend to be centre-left compared to the comrades, anarchists, and national socialists that comprise Respect, the Greens, and BNP. To be labelled right or left-wing though automatically associates you in many minds with the extremes.

This is not a an easy problem to address as we cannot control how people choose to interpret meaning in language, and it takes us back to the use of the terms as pejoratives. It is best perhaps not to use left and right as isolated definitive descriptors (e.g. ‘she is left’), unless extremism is the meaning you intend to convey.

In respect of relativism alone though this is not a problem, it is an asset. That David Laws is on the right of the party and Paul Holmes on the left tells you far more, more quickly, about the positions they are likely to hold, than that the former is a personal, political, social and economic liberal and the latter is surely proof that Tony Benn successfully developed a secret cloning project in Chesterfield when Minister for Technology.

Another good criticism of relativism though is that interpretations of it are not consistent. The Labour Trojan-horse that is the Liberal Conspiracy blog (amongst others) for example uses left to mean ‘anything we like’ and right to mean ‘anything we don’t’ . Consequently the collectivist BNP a working-class party who believe in state ownership of land and British industry are ‘right-wing’ rather than simply ‘authoritarian’ or ‘facists’, whilst those who champion individual rights are ‘left-wing’ rather than simply ‘liberal’.

Left and right, today, are clearly most meaningful when applied to the general maxi-mini approach David Howarth identified in dealing with social problems, and your willingness to use state or market mechanisms to deliver them; whereas I think the Political Compass has it right to highlight ‘libertarian’ and ‘authoritarian’ as alternative axis for other issues, whilst nationalist/internationalist, localist/centralist, democratic/autocratic etc. also have their uses

Someone will no doubt wish point out the origin of the left/right labels in respect of the 1791 French Assembly, and their disconnect from modern meanings, but happily, I have saved you the bother…

So in conclusion, where I agree with Nick Clegg is that the modern Liberal Democrat party is liberal, not right or left. But those labels still matter, sometimes helpfully to show relative emphasis within the liberal spectrum, sometimes not when used as definitive insults to align you to the agendas of our opponents.

What we are not though is ‘beyond left and right’, nor are we some weird social or economic liberal entity disconnected from our own history and uniquely obsessed with either distribution or markets.

It is instead perfectly possible to be a liberal party with a centre of gravity and leadership that swings between the centre-left, centre, and centre-right dependent on the mood of the age; but always mindful of and respectful towards our coalition and wider traditions, and then comfortable with whatever labels our opponents throw at us, within and without.

That party can win power. A neurotic splinter more obsessed with exclusion, being anti-right or anti-left, and uncomfortable with the breadth of the philosophy that guides us, cannot do that.

* ‘Colin Lloyd’ is the pseudonym of a Liberal Democrat member. For LDV policy on pseudonymous articles, pleases click here.

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  • The first three tags listed are – “Conrad Russell, David Howarth, David Laws”

    My brain hurts already !!!

    And I’m just a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Liberal.

  • er, sorry – that was me!

  • Andrew Duffield 26th Feb '09 - 1:26pm

    Well said Jock – with the exception of your call to “privatize currency”.

    As you know, that’s 97% of what we have now – with what amounts to economic rent (the interest charged on debt-based money created from nowt) being pocketed by private banks extracting unearned value from society’s willingness to use a particular specie for trade.

    Otherwise, right-on! You progressive pinko libertarian leftie!

  • Martin Land 26th Feb '09 - 2:42pm

    Liberalism is easy:

    1. do you like people?
    2. do you HATE the Tories?

    Answer Yes to both of the above and…

    Congratulations, you’re a Liberal.

  • Getting rid of welfare and hoping the market will work. Sounds like a big experiment.

    Will you pick up the pieces when Casino Welfare fails just like Casino Capitalism?

  • Martin, I think your tests would qualify a communist cannibal as a liberal, I’m fairly sure then that they need some refinement…

  • Jock, can you tell me which economist you favour who explains quite how to avoid the casino bank scenario? The human factor is critical in this, given that the bankers thought what they were doing was okay. Any system which does not allow for such human error must presumably be rejected

  • David Heigham 26th Feb '09 - 4:15pm

    I think this post of Colin Lloyd’s is largely addressed to me. I am honoured.

    On a previous thread I said:
    “I just about understand the left:right dimension in the British Political Compass (though it seems to have nothing to do with the left versus right in the French National Assembly of 1790 where two hands fighting one another language started). However, I get really puzzled about the idea of right versus left in the LibDems. If anybody can give me a coherent description of two such wings of the party; I am pretty sure I will resent not being counted in both of them.”

    I am one of the people who have trouble with words they do not understand. Colin tells us:
    “Left and right, today, are clearly most meaningful when applied to the general maxi-mini approach David Howarth identified in dealing with social problems, and your willingness to use state or market mechanisms to deliver them;”

    That reminded me of the Caterpillar saying to Alice that words mean whatever he says they mean; but then I realised I was being unfair to the Caterpillar. Colin mixes two meanings which are logically independent: mini or maxi on social problems and (relative?) willingness to use state or market mechanisms.

    I still have little idea of what is meant by “left” or “right” in current British politics, and no idea at all of what the terms mean among LibDems. However, I have a strong sense that many people find these are comforting terms, especially when applying them to things they do or don’t like. That emotional use is common , for example, on Liberal Conspiracy (a lively blog which I regard as a place to find people disappointed with New Labour who actually want much the same things that we do: people who will reliably vote LibDem in a LibDem:Tory marginal, and who may yet see the light.)

    But all that is about the margin at which our ways of thinking diverge. Leaving out the few words I do not understand “between the centre-left, centre, and centre-right”, I second with enthusiasm Colin’s concluding paragraphs.

  • Hayek believes that markets and the price mechanism will save us but we are in the middle of a crisis in which prices were very much involved. House prices rose and rose and the bankers speculated on them.

    I do not see why Hayek is certain that prices will save us.

    It is very easy to put forward all sorts of schemes for the ecomony.

    Surely the common sense approach would be to evaluate them in terms of whether they will work given our knowledge of history

  • Then the price mechanism is hardly robust

  • David Allen 26th Feb '09 - 6:45pm

    There’s a very simple reason why Colin Lloyd is correct on this.

    “Right” and “Left” are words that the average voter uses, and thinks he/she understands, when talking about politics.

    Words like “classical liberal” and “social liberal” go straight over the heads of the voters.

    David Owen coined the immortal phrase “Not Right, Not Left, But Forward”. The voters, who are not stupid, worked out that he had something to hide.

    I suppose that it can sometimes be necessary to use the hi-falutin terminology when we talk purely amongst ourselves. Though even then, it can often be used more to conceal than to reveal. Getting down to the nitty-gritty of actual policy is generally more honest and open.

    But if we’re talking to the voters, we have to talk their language. To do otherwise is rude.

    To say “We’re not simply left or right” comes over as “We are a bunch of stuck-up snobs. We think we are better than you oiks out there. We’re not going to explain ourselves to you guys in Sunspeak, that would be beneath us. Don’t you dare tell us you don’t know what the Lib Dems stand for! If you can’t understand how wonderful we are, why don’t you faff off and vote for someone else?

  • David, did you mean to type “incorrect”?

  • David Allen – if we are to use the “language of the voter” (and I would argue that its somewhat patronising of you to assume that voters can’t understand complex ideas – after all, they can appreciate the difference between Blair and Skinner, or Clarke and Rosindell) then why not simply say “Centre” when asked that question?

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Feb '09 - 9:40pm

    David Allen

    David Owen coined the immortal phrase “Not Right, Not Left, But Forward”.

    No, I remember it being the slogan of Imperial College Liberal Club when I joined it in 1978, we even called our magazine “Forward!” in its honour.

  • Julian, no I didn’t make a typo. Just because Colin Lloyd and I are on opposite sides of the party doesn’t mean I’m honour bound to disagree with everything he says. (Hope you might act likewise some day?)

    Tabman, yes, Centre is basically a useful simple word. It is a little less useful than it was thirty years ago, when we were indubitably in the centre between the monetarists and the Marxists. Now we have political cross-dressing, “liberal” Tories, and Labour the banker’s friends. Being at the centre of that lot seems a bit less appealing!

  • Jock, it seems to me that economics is a complicated business. Would you be prepared to discuss your proposals for reform in detail in IRC?

  • There are free IRC clients available for download. Perhaps you can investigate what your options are for your chosen OS

  • You may want to try the website mibbit.com which should give you access to IRC (possibly depending on your browser) without software installation.

    You can drop me an email if you get things set up.

    My email address is:
    gideon425.gb5 at mailnull.com

  • Andrew Duffield 1st Mar '09 - 12:08am

    Tell you what Geoff, let’s abandon this superficial left-right dichotomy and just agree that the social-liberal outcomes which we all want to see are indivisible from, and interdependent on, economic-liberal inputs.

    It’s a chicken and egg thing – and the economic egg comes first, as any fule kno.

  • Andrew Duffield:
    “… let’s abandon this superficial left-right dichotomy and just agree that the social-liberal outcomes which we all want to see are indivisible from, and interdependent on, economic-liberal inputs.

    It’s a chicken and egg thing – and the economic egg comes first …”

    I assume that trying to settle a “chicken and egg argument” by means of a flat assertion that “the egg comes first” is an example of irony.

    Somehow I don’t think this argument is going to be settled unless people start arguing policies on their merits rather than simply insisting “this policy is liberal – if you don’t support it you should be in a different party”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Mar '09 - 9:33am


    Part of the issue is that lines very similar to yours and those of others in the party associated with the idea that “free markets” are the key freedom have been used by those who it turns out were making themselves very prosperous at the expense of others. Of course people who are fleecing us are not going to say “we are fleecing you”, they are going to say “what we are doing is for your own good”.

    Now, I know you say that your form of extreme free market policy isn’t like the form we have had since it was championed by Thatcher and Reagan, but I think you ought to acknowledge there’s a good reason why others might be sceptical. If we’ve been sold a nightmare by people who superficially sound like you, you are going to have to do a really convincing job to persuade us of why you aren’t just another snake-oil salesman.

    We can see if we look at history that new challenges to our freedom arise over time, and those who have comfortably got into power by fighting the old ones ignore the new ones, perhaps brought on by themselves. They may claim still to be fighting for freedom while doing the opposite by pretending the old battles which they or their forefathers fought are still the main battles for freedom when they no longer are.

    This is one reason why “left” and “right” are such slippery terms. If we suppose “left” means those who are challenging current power structures, then “left” if successful becomes “right”. When “free trade” meant countering the power of the landed aristocracy, it certainly was of the “left”. When it means big companies dominating our lives and turning us into dependent wage slaves, it is of the “right”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Mar '09 - 11:23am


    I spent large parts of the 1980s arguing with people who came along clutching Marx and saying they believed in the idea of the workers vanguard party seizing power, and when I said that sounded very much like what led to Soviet Communism having to listen to their pathetic excuses as to why it wouldn’t be. Usually it was along the lines of “oh that big bad boy Stalin came along and …” or “the nasty capitalists stepped in …” and lah-de-dah, it was crap because if their ideology was so fragile as not to be able to stand up to such things it was worthless.

    Margaret Thatcher came to power clutching Hayek and saying that was her ideology. She is that practical example of what that ideology meant, and if she did it wrongly, well I don’t remember too many of her ardent supporters who claimed what she was doing was true liberalism at the time and that the liberalism of the Liberal Party was not making the “oh, it wasn’t really true liberalism” noises you now make retrospectively.

    I do not know what you mean by William Beveridge since neither I nor anyone I know advocates banning any sort of welfare provision except that provided by the state. Neither do I advocate the banning of private education which your remarks on state education would suggest I do. I have indeed argued the case for faith schools, against many in the Liberal Democrats, on the grounds their banning would be a small step to what you fear.

    You say “The ‘free market’ was never about ‘countering the power of the landed aristocracy'”. I, in looking at the speeches and writings of many of those you claim as your forebears, note a great deal of aristocracy-bashing amongst them. The fact that you are unwilling to acknowledge it, and unwilling either to engage in much bashing of the present day aristocracy such as hugely over-paid bankers, is itself enough to raise suspicions.

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