Tuesday, April 01, 2008

United Kingdom politics

The Political Compass ™ UK Parties 2008

Firstly, a few words about popular political terms.

Once you accept that left and right are merely measures of economic position, the "extreme right" refers to extremely liberal economics that may be practised by social authoritarians or social libertarians.

Similarly, the "extreme left" identifies a strong degree of state economic control, which may also be accompanied by liberal or authoritarian social policies.

It's muddled thinking to simply describe the likes of the British National Party as "extreme right". The truth is that on issues like health, transport, housing, protectionism and globalisation, their economics are left of Labour, let alone the Conservatives. It's in areas like police power, military power, school discipline, law and order, race and nationalism that the BNP's real extremism - as authoritarians - is clear.

This mirrors France's National Front. In running some local governments, they reinstated certain welfare measures which their Socialist predecessors had abandoned. Like similar authoritarian parties that have sprung up around Europe, they have come to be seen in some quarters as champions of the underdog, as long as the underdog isn't Black, Arab, gay or Jewish ! With mainstream Social Democratic parties adopting - reluctantly or enthusiastically - the new economic libertarian orthodoxy (neo-liberalism), much of their old economic baggage has been pinched by National Socialism. It's becoming the only sort of socialism on offer. Election debates between mainstream parties are increasingly about managerial competence rather than any clash of vision and economic direction.

In the United States, the voices of dissent over unfettered market forces (ie extreme right economics) are heard from social authoritarians like Pat Buchanan as well as social liberals like Ralph Nader.

As an example, take a look at the ground that the main English parties in the UK's 2003 local elections (May 1) occupied in reality. The difference between the BNP and the Greens in economics isn't great, but there's a huge gap on the social scale. Neither scale, however, reveals enormous distances between the Conservatives and New Labour.

UK Political Parties chart

In the chart below, we look at the three largest UK parties and the positions that they've occupied on The Political Compass in recent years. We see that New Labour, for example, is actually significantly to the right of the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party. The change under Gordon Brown's leadership is one of style rather than substance, with the Blairite agenda continuing in all but name. As the centre of political gravity moves generally rightwards, the Liberal Democrats, who have held the most consistent ground, now occupy similar economic turf to the other parties, while maintaining a markedly greater concern for civil liberties. Although David Cameron is popularly perceived as "less right wing" than other recent Tory leaders, his real difference is on the social rather than the economic scale.

UK Parties at different times

In 2008, we're hearing more than ever from politiicians that 'right' and 'left' are no longer meaningful terms. To the contary, they're as meaningful as ever, providing that it's understood that they're simply defining economic positions. However, with all the main parties embracing to a greater or lesser extent the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy, it's increasingly - and embarrassingly - difficult for them to define their economic differences. No wonder they're anxious to scrap this measure !

Voter turnout is highest when ideological differences are most significant. This helps explain why the voter turnout is lower in the US than in all other western democracies , most of which have a multiplicity of parties and proportional representation. In the UK, voter turnout may continue to fall to US levels. Lowering the voting age isn't likely to excite participation in elections when the choice is less and less to do with a clash of visions than mere managerial competence. And without those traditionally big choices, one might well wonder where this is going to ultimately leave democracy.