Opinion: Non-Linear Values: The Z Coordinate

Since the General Election arguments have raged over whether we, or particular people in the party, are centrist, left of centre or right of centre, and, if so, how much left or right of centre.

I think we are getting this wrong. It is not a linear issue. If I am a kind person, am I left of centre or right of centre? If I am selfish, am I left or right of centre? Why do we limit ourselves by a linear construct?

Rather than see liberal values, and the placement of Liberal Democrats on the political map, as linear, my view is we must take a non-linear perspective. Values are overarching. Promoting liberty, equality and community might sometimes involve what might be called right leaning policy, at other times left, but whether it is one or the other or neither is immaterial. What is important is whether the policy achieves liberty, equality and community. Those overarching values should be the litmus test for any policy.

To explain it a different way, in maths the x and y coordinates are used for plotting two-dimensional graphs. If you want to add a third dimension, you use the z coordinate. I suggest that our liberal values are the z coordinate: another dimension altogether. Our values add this third dimension, giving policy depth and meaning.

The Preamble to our Constitution states our values beautifully. The issue to discuss, and to continually work through year in and year out, is how these values are applied. What is the most effective way to promote equality? What is the most effective way to promote community and liberty? We must not be tied down by whether a particular policy might be described as right wing or left wing.

In putting values in a different dimension, we shift the argument on to practicalities: how can we actually convert our values into policy which will make our world freer, more equal and build community? How can we “champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals” and also ensure “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”?

We are the party of liberty, equality and community. We need not define ourselves in any other way. Applying these values is the exciting bit. Thinking in a non-linear way means I can advocate help for small businesses and entrepreneurs but also argue a living wage be paid to all employees. Promoting equality means equal access to education for all as well as equal representation in boardrooms. Delivering community is empowering local people to make local choices as well as staying in the EU so that our rights in those communities are protected.

All of us, being liberally-minded independent thinkers, will each be different combinations of left and right. But that is not what unifies us. What unifies us is z. What is of paramount importance is our joint effort to promote liberty, equality and community.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com.

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  • What does it matter what your preamble says? You were judged on what you actually applied not what you pretended to want. Ex 2010 LibDem voter.

  • Policy is certainly a multi-dimensional space, but the nature of government is political compromise. So the priority that a politician gives to any particular dimension is critical – if there’s a politician that agrees with me on all the things I think are important, but disagrees on the things I don’t much care about, but they have the opposite views on priorities, then they’ll compromise all the things I agree on for the sake of the things I disagree on.

    I suspect that this is one reason so many voters turned away – we still agree with those voters, but the things we compromised on in government were the very things they were attracted to, while the things we really worked to achieve were things they didn’t much care about.

  • Completely agree with this Kirsten. We currently live in a world obsessed with left-right rhetoric, especially within the media. The idea that you HAVE to be one OR the other actually creates divides and causes conflict – which in turn makes solving issues far more difficult. As a party we need to now look at removing ourselves from this linear way of looking at policy and focus on creating policies that fit in with those values of liberty, equality and community – regardless of if they appear ‘Tory’ or ‘Labour’ esque.

  • Alfred Motspur 18th Jun '15 - 5:21pm

    “Our opponents try to divide us with their outdated labels of left and right. But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal.” – Nick Clegg, Spring Conference 2011

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kirsten and Kev: all this left-right rhetoric is damaging. Norman Lamb said during the televised hustings that he wasn’t appreciative of the “cut less than the Tories and borrow less than Labour” stance during the election campaign, because it defined ourselves against others, when we should always be defining ourselves as the real alternative to the left-right politics of Labour and the Tories, to allude to the 2005 manifesto that achieved us the best ever result seat-wise, because Clegg was right: we’re not on the left and we’re not on the right. We’re above and beyond that continuum.

    We have that “z” co-ordinate, as Kirsten put it ever-so-well, and we need to be championing this, now more than ever.

  • David Faggiani 18th Jun '15 - 5:26pm

    I would have loved a graph to illustrate this article! 🙂

  • Richard Underhill 18th Jun '15 - 7:21pm

    Every word of the preamble was negotiated in great detail at the time of the merger of the Liberal Party and the SDP.
    It has stood the test of time very well. There is no need to change any of it.
    ” You were judged on what you actually applied not what you pretended to want.” Probably not, that is not how the human brain works. Please read “The Political Brain” as recommended by Bill Clinton.

  • Kirsten johnson 18th Jun '15 - 7:56pm

    A graph…that is tempting! Thank you everyone for reading and commenting. I am hoping we can be a unified party under our shared values, and with this re-build trust with voters such as Anne.

  • Good article, and very much what I think! We are NOT in the centre!

    On the subject of graphs though, I would strongly recommend a triangle (with apices Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism), rather than a 3-D graph!

    People will find it much easier to visualise and it has the added virtue of putting Tories and Labour on a line, quite close together, and us way off in another direction! If we want to sound scientific we can call it the Ternary Model of Politics! The Greens would plot near the socialist corner these days, a long way from Labour…

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jun '15 - 10:53pm

    Interesting mathematical point about the Z (or third) access. Personally if I were to include a third-access I would go for security and defence. I have seen economic liberals fiercely divided on defence policy and think it deserves a left-right axis of its own.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Jun '15 - 10:54pm

    axis not access sorry 🙂

  • Little Jackie Paper 18th Jun '15 - 11:01pm

    ‘Why do we limit ourselves by a linear construct?’ In that sentence who is, ‘we?’ I don’t want to be hard here because I’m quite sure that you have your heart in the right place here. But this just reads like something written for the internet commentariat rather than anyone real.

    These terms left, right, centre and so on get lobbed around the internet like confetti and, of course, in these forums they just bounce around the echo chamber to fever pitch. But more and more I have to ask myself whether there is a, ‘classic,’ left and right now in 2015. To my mind the idea of a classic left/right now is at best a clumsy abstraction and at worst is dumbing down our debate.

    Indeed for some issues there has never been a clean left/right narrative – most notably the EU.

    So called Red Ed wasn’t exactly talking about mass nationalisation and union rule – he certainly talked about large cuts. Cameron stood on a manifesto that contained £8bn (dubiously funded) for the NHS, a rail fare freeze and an eye-wateringly costly triple lock pension. Not exactly head-banging right wing stuff. Politics isn’t clean left/right and the voters see that. Give the public credit – they can move on and make value judgments on what they see.

    So when you say, ‘We must not be tied down by whether a particular policy might be described as right wing or left wing,’ I’m not sure who is tying anyone down, certainly I think you need to stop thinking about how the internet will react and what labels will be attached, tempting as it is. Switch off the internet for a while, we’re really just a load of windbags with zero relevance!

    The whole left/right thing is now much weaker and the dividing lines are complex, different – and probably contradictory in some ways. In my view, the divide between those who benefit from, ‘open,’ and those who want a more closed world is the coming social split. UKIP, the good, the bad and the ugly is probably a sign of things to come. I will let you form your own views on, ‘open,’

  • Are we basically talking about the Political Compass of Left v Right plotted against Authoritarian vs Libertarian?

  • Kirsten johnson 19th Jun '15 - 6:15am

    In all this post-election soul searching, I would hope our identity as Liberal Democrats stem from our values as set out in the Preamble of the Constitution. Without unifying values there will not be a cohesive basis for debate on policy.

    Eddie, regarding security and defence as a particular issue, it is a good example of where we need to work together in further equality, liberty and community in the world. If these values are at the forefront of policy debate, then it becomes a matter of how we best achieve those values, not only in the UK but in the wider world.

    Hi Matt: regarding left right versus authoritarian/libertarian it is just such polarity I am trying to rise above. Surely we restrict ourselves when defining ourselves as any of these? We are using others terms to describe who we, as a party, should be. If we primarily fly the flag for liberty, equality and community (an all the other nice things in the Preamble) then how this works out on the ground will vary according to local, national and international situations as they arise. I guess I want the freedom to apply values and live out values without the stricture of being labelled ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘libertarian’.

  • John Tilley 19th Jun '15 - 7:58am


    I agree with every word of your piece when you say —
    “…The Preamble to our Constitution states our values beautifully. The issue to discuss, and to continually work through year in and year out, is how these values are applied. What is the most effective way to promote equality? What is the most effective way to promote community and liberty?”

    But I also know that I could go anywhere in the world where people seriously discuss politics and in any language that I am capable of (and certainly in English) most people will have a common understanding of which political ideas and which parties are on The Left and which are on The Right.

    I get hugely frustrated when Liberal Democrats in England try to reinvent the language of politics.

    The Preamble to the Constitution (and earlier versions of the Liberal Party Constitution) makes it absolutely clear which side of the divide this party is on.

    No party calling for internationalism, equality and using the power of the state positively for the benefit of all could sensibly be placed on The Right or in the mythical Centre (the always rightward moving Centre) of the political spectrum.

    If people could have just grasped this simple fact in 2010, there would have been less confusion and fewer cardinal errors made when entering a Coalition with the main party of The Right.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jun '15 - 7:59am

    Very interesting, though I’m not entirely sure how useful it is to define Lib Dems as a single point in a 3 dimensional space.
    If we consider a left-right spread on a range of separate policy issues, perhaps a radar chart (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radar_chart) or a parallel co-ordinate plot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_coordinates) are better ways to define a finger-print or 2-d space that represents Lib-Dem-ism and which allows for comparison with other parties and individual voters.
    If Lib Dems are truly centrist then they would be represented as a circular radar chart or a flat line in parallel co-ordinates, but I suspect that the truth is more interesting than that.

  • I wrote something similar a couple of days ago on one of the threads. Kirsten is merely describing a system where the vectors are unknown and dimensions disputed, it doesn’t require non-linearity. Whilst there can certainly be bifurcation points in ideological maps/mesh, this is contingent on the individual’s construct and how smoothly they perceive shifts in political ideas. In order to convey the analogy, non-linearity is merely another factor in her arbitrary system definition, it has nothing to do with the dimensionality of a system/space (or the argument). As such she’s introduced an unnecessary distraction from her dimensional analogy.

    After reading the comment afterwards I see Kirsten is attempting the impossible, avoiding strict definition whilst strictly defining. She says “I want the freedom to apply values and live out values without the stricture of being labelled ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘libertarian’.” but also creates an analogy based upon 3D Euclidian space – that didn’t make any sense to me. This gave me a chuckle: “Thinking in a non-linear way means I can…” – everyone has to think in a non-linear way or you’d have to remember the sequence of all things to get to any information! 🙂 I think she’s using the social science buzzphrase “NL thinking” here rather than the mathematical term, which is confusing because she’s trying to use a maths analogy simultaneously.

    I believe there’s a feasible model/analogy similar to this, but this wasn’t it. There were a lot of long words and complicated terms but instead of creating a clearer picture with them all I got was a very muddled and confused argument.

  • And what are the Liberal Democrats going to do to try to convince the 92% of the electorate who don’t think that Liberalism is that important to vote for them?

  • Ed Miliband rightly got laughed at for talking about predistribution without defining in simple terms what he would do differently and why it would work.

    If we talked about our key policy plank being the z axis, I shudder to think where the average voter would ask us to shove it!

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jun '15 - 11:48am

    Kirsten Johnson

    To explain it a different way, in maths the x and y coordinates are used for plotting two-dimensional graphs. If you want to add a third dimension, you use the z coordinate. I suggest that our liberal values are the z coordinate: another dimension altogether

    Well, no, because your line is that politics is one dimensional i.e. left-right, and you want to introduce a second dimension. So that would be y, not z. Otherwise, if x is the position on the left-right dimension what do you say y is?

    Let me propose one: y is the nationalist v. internationalist scale, so both UKIP and anti-EU Labour Party people are at one end and we are at the other.

    There is a lot to be said for trying to view politics in a multi-dimensional way, and I’ve always been a fan of that sort of analysis. However, it can be simplistic if it denies the possibility of dependencies between factors. That is, one cannot necessarily take y and z as entirely independent values which have no impact on x. Many would, I think, feel there is a link between the y I’ve proposed and the z you’ve proposed, so that a heavily pro-freedom position must also be a fairly internationalist position.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jun '15 - 11:48am

    OK, so if you were to ask most people what is the biggest constraint on their freedom, what would they answer? I think most would say lack of money. People who earn barely enough to get by don’t have much freedom. People who are desperate for work and so are forced to take on unpleasant jobs don’t have much freedom. Ignoring this and supposing freedom in an entirely separate issue from wealth distribution leads to the “freedom to dine at the Ritz” syndrome, i.e. an emphasis on technical freedoms which in practice aren’t freedoms for people who don’t have the money to get to that point. This reminds me of a rather rude reply I wrote a while back to someone who seemed to be suggesting that the existence of council housing was a barrier to freedom. I know very well that the existence of low-cost housing to meet needs that was around when I was a child hugely enhanced the freedom of my family at that time, had my parents had to pay much more money for private housing or we’d been squeezed into an even smaller space than the three bedroomed house we grew up in, we’d have had much less freedom.

    So, I think to suggest that the freedom factor z you mention is entirely disconnected with the left-right factor x is wrong. This is recognised in our constitution where “freedom from enslavement by poverty” is given prominence.

    It depends what you mean by left-right, and I think part of the issue is that those terms are often used in various different ways. Some would like to use them to mean state control v. private business, but in that case why do we refer to fascism as “far right” when it is very much about a strong state?

    I would say the most basic definition of left-right, and when I use those terms I always use them in that way, is that “right” means a belief that power and wealth are in the hands of the people they should be in, that should be protected, and it would be dangerous to try and change it, while “left” means a belief that power and wealth are over-concentrated in the hands of a few and that positive action is needed to change that.

  • I’m glad you put values above position Kirsten and I enjoyed your article. However on the SLF blog there is a plea for the party to adopt positive affirmation. Could this be posted here too please Caron? I think these ideas which challenge our values are the sort of issue which we should be discussing here not the fairly narrow concept of where to position ourselves.
    I was rather reluctant to suggest this in case people think hummm SLF don’t agree with that lot, but I think people would be moved by the argument.
    I would also like to see some economists putting pen to keyboard because we need to have some new ideas about how we can afford to follow our Liberal instincts.

  • Kirsten johnson 19th Jun '15 - 4:53pm

    Thanks everyone for reading and putting down your thoughts. I’m glad this has stimulated so much debate. Owning our values, applying them and regaining trust is the way forward.

    X and y axis are necessary. We need two axis (x being right wing, y being left wing for example) to deal with the fact that some policies would be favoured or not favoured (negative numbers) by left and right thinkers. That’s why I was seeing Z as a necessary third dimension. But I take your point that I am mixing mathematical metaphors by calling for non-linear thinking when indeed it is perhaps non-planar thinking that is called for.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jun '15 - 7:27pm

    Kirsten Johnson

    X and y axis are necessary. We need two axis (x being right wing, y being left wing for example) to deal with the fact that some policies would be favoured or not favoured (negative numbers) by left and right thinkers.

    Well, that’s an interesting analysis. So you are suggesting there is no dependency between how left-wing someone is and how right-wing they are? Someone could be simultaneously extreme left and centre-right? Or any other combination of leftness and rightness?

  • Well, this discussion of how to map politics onto topology is very entertaining. Especially the contribution of Chris B which I am still trying to get my mind round (A bit like reading James Joyce!).

    But can I just appeal for no more than two dimensions! People understand the one-dimensional left vs right (yes, I agree with Matthew that it is one dimensional!) and most people can just about manage the political compass 2-D space (I am always amused that Cameron and Blair plot so close to each other while I was proud to be located almost exactly coincident with Gandhi 🙂 ). But 3 dimensions are just not worth trying!

    Regarding the idea that 92% of the electorate rejected Liberalism, I am pretty sure that not one person went into the polling booth thinking that! (quite a lot might have thought “I am rejecting Nick Clegg” however). Liberalism was not a concept that I remember being mentioned in the election… I think that if we, at every level of politics, just refused to be defined in terms of the “centre ground”, or left and right and said “No we are Liberal Democrats: this is what we believe in” then we might stand a chance of getting our message across (especially using a political triangle, where by the way we would not be at one apex any more than the Tories or Labour are!). As has been pointed out, both Tories and Labour mix up left and right wing views and stepping away from the centre ground would enable us to point out how close together they are! It is effectively the view Clegg put forward so clearly in the first 2010 debate (“we are not like the old, tired parties!”) and then so spectacularly failed to deliver…

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