British Election Update, II: Understanding Ideology

One of the things I have noticed in discussing British politics in these parts is the trouble people have understading the ideological configuration of the three major parties. Suffice it to say, do not try to jam Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives into an American political model. Labour is not like the DLC, a kind of centrist party in between the Conservatives on the right and the Lib Dems on the left.

To understand the difference, you have to recognize that British politics (and indeed, the politics of many other "developed" nations) evolved along class lines in a way American politics never has. Broadly speaking, every major political party in American history has been, in terms of post French/industrial revolution European politics, a liberal party. In essence, both the Democrats and Republicans find their ideological centers in differing segments of the middle class (something that is especially true today, but I would argue has been generally true throughout all of American history). In Britain, by contrast, while the Liberal Democrats, and before them, the Liberals, (always) and the Conservatives since the beginning of the 20th century have both been institutionally and ideologically centered in the middle class, the Labour Party has not. It is, and in many ways still is, a party that governs for the benefit of the working class and the poor. It is concerned with improving the lot of the lives of these groups primarily, and only secondarily with the kind of post-1960s civil liberties/lifestyle/quality of life questions that have defined and still define American politics.

* As an aside, I think this tension that is fought out in the left-leaning blogosphere - between those who advocate a more civil libertarian Democratic Party and those who advocate a more social democratic Democratic Party - is a very important tension that is in an important way elucidated by the incomprehension of the confusion the Labour Party generates for many American liberals.*

This very important ideological distinction between British and American politics (not to mention, say, American and French or Italian politics) was brought home to me when I filled out one of those what is your ideology?" type quizzes to which the diarist Welshman at Daily Kos provided a link. One answers a series of questions determing your politics as situated on a two-dimensional axis: one axis, which the tester suggests is more important in determing political affiliation in a post-Thatcherite British body politic (an emphasis I think is correct), stretches from a "rehabilitationist/internationalist" extreme on the left to a " 'hanging/flogging'/isolation" axis on the right. In other words, from a civil libertarian to a authoritarian political disposition. The secondary axis, which distributes on an "up" to "down" basis, puts more pro-free market, pro-war responders towards the graph's top and more socialist, anti-war responders towards the graph's bottom. Interestingly, I scored considerably to the left on the first axis and somewhat to the right on the second axis (note: unfortunately, I could not get the very cool graph to load, so you'll have to make do with this link - to understand the graph, realize that blue dots mean Conservative responders/voters, red dots Labour responders/voters, yellow dots Liberal Demoratic responders/voters):

Crime and punishment, internationalism

Your position on this axis is -3.9 (to the left of center)
You are likely to be fairly internationalist and rehabilitationist.

Economics, etc

Your position on this axis is 1.1 (above center)
You are likely to be slightly free-market and pro-war . . .

The Civil Libertarian/Authoritarian Axis:

By comparing your answers to the answers of the respondents in the opinion poll, we can tell you how your views compare to those of the whole population of Britain. Compared to the whole population...

4.7% are significantly to your left

13.1% have views about the same as yours

82.2% are significantly to your right

The "Free Market/Pro War Axis":

By comparing your answers to the answers of the respondents in the opinion poll, we can tell you how your views compare to those of the whole population of Britain. Compared to the whole population...

54.7% are significantly to your left

36.7% have views about the same as yours

8.6% are significantly to your right

Fascinating stuff. I would venture to guess that most of the lefty blogosphere-types, particularly those of who are more "mainstream" - i.e. Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Mark Schmitt, Josh Marshall, a good number, if not a majority, of individuals at Kos and Mydd (see this Kos thread if you don't believe me, I'm only slightly to the right of the average) - would score very similarly to me. Now, I think this potentially has a fair bit to say about the social basis of American politics in general and the future of the Democratic Party more specifically, and I think in part addresses, the Tom Frank thesis in important ways. I must say, my scores on the free market axis were slightly more"rightist" than I might have expected. However, I think this helps make my larger point about what constitutes the "left" (and how this survey considers one's stance on civil liberties and internationalism to be more indicative than economics) in 21st century politics and what are (I think, and I think it relates to Tom Frank's argument - more on this at a late date) the important consequences of this. Anyway, as a reference, here is the questions central to determining the second axis.

A person on the extreme right of this axis (in the free market/pro war direction) is likely to agree with all of the following statements (my answers in parentheses):

Britain's railways should remain in private ownership (tend to agree)

Rich people already pay enough tax (tend to disagree)

I am comfortable with the way that genetic engineering is being used in the food industry (tend to agree)

The UK was right to go to war in Iraq (tend to disagree)

Most people should take responsibility for saving enough for their retirement, rather than relying on the Government to pay a big enough pension to live on (strongly disagree)

This country should try to become more like the United States of America than like France or Germany (tend to disagree)

UPDATE: apparently, your axis position is relative to other respondants, not measured against some value neutral mid point. I think this makes the comparison between the British and American left all the more interesting.

UPDATE II: Sorry, I accidentally erased the first version of this post, along with the first 15 comments. Feel free to post again!

Tags: Foreign Elections (all tags)



Great post!
This was really interesting. I wish the American Democratic party would be more like Labour and stand for economic issues first, and the "post-60s" issues second or even third; maybe then we could win elections nationwide. I wonder though if the Tories could pry away working-class voters from Labour if they attempted to somehow use the same kind of wedge issues and cultural framing as our Republicans.
by PantslessYoda1 2005-04-18 09:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Great post!
Good points. The Tories can and do try, although the issues are different. Compared to the US, Britain is considerably less religious, so the God, gays, and abortion thing doesn't really work. Instead, you have anti-immigrant and anti-Europe politics. Still, in many ways - and this point is complicated - the Labour Party and the working class (or at least large segments of its) historic identity as a distinct class has tended mean more downscale voters tend to be more progressive than their American counteparts. Simply by being socialized in a trade union makes one more progressive across the board, and not just on economic issues. I should be careful not to overemphasize the degree to which this is true (and it is more true in places like Scotland, Wales, and the North of England than elsewhere), but it is a phenomenon simply not as present in the United States.

Ben P

by Ben P 2005-04-18 09:45PM | 0 recs
Re: Great post!
I wish the Democratic Party would be less like Labour: stand against the War in Iraq, fight for civil liberties, support free universal healthcare.

Labour doesn't do that stuff and neither does the Democratic Party. I think the Democratic Party should be more like the Liberal Democrats.

by craverguy 2005-04-18 10:02PM | 0 recs
Re: Great post!
No, no, no. Not if you want to achieve majority party status. This is in some ways the point of my post: that the Democratic Party needs to emphasize the economic first and foremost and allow for a range of views on other issues to be successful. Yes, I personally think marijuana should be decriminalized, but the country as a whole is not ready for it. And at the end of the day, progressive/left leaning politics is about sacrificizing for the greater societal good, not finding candidates that push for your list of issues, exactly. It is about improving society for all its members, not just for yourself.

And I strongly disagree with you on universal health care. Blair might seem a bit "wishy washy" on the issue, but the Labour Party isn't. Anyway, "liberalization" of the NHS would still leave it as a universal program, and would put the NHS more in line with "universal" programs like that of France. I'm not saying that Britain should move in this direction: but even if Blair does this (and I don't think he will, even if he wants to in his heart of hearts), the NHS will still be greatly more comprehensive than anything the US has.

by Ben P 2005-04-18 10:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Great post!
In regards to the first half of your reply: EXACTLY! I've been trying to understand this to some of the college democrats at my school, but they just refuse to believe that it would be a good idea; they claim that it would mean "selling out our principles".
by PantslessYoda1 2005-04-19 05:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Great post!
Dammit...I meant explain, not understand. Sorry.
by PantslessYoda1 2005-04-19 05:07AM | 0 recs
Would saying great post be redundant?
Thanks for the update on the British elections. I like to check the BBC from time to time to keep up on what's going on over there, but any further analysis and information is welcome.

We Americans need to understand the rest of the world better, particularly their election systems, so we can better judge our own.

by rich kolker 2005-04-19 04:40AM | 0 recs
I took the Political Survey 2005 again, and I seem to have gotten more left-wing in only 10 hours.

Last night, I scored -5.9 on the first axis, meaning I am "very rehabilitationist and internationalist" (true). I scored -0.9 on the second axis, meaning I am "slightly socialist and anti-war".

But today, I've gotten dramatically more lefty: -6.6 on social issues, meaning I am even more "very rehabilitationist and internationalist", and -1.6 on economic issues, meaning I have gone from "slightly socialist and anti-war" to "fairly socialist and anti-war".

Geez, it must be that damn liberal media! Tomorrow I'll probably be dressing in only red and telling my friends that the Soviet Union wasn't so bad after all.

Moderate SNARK....

by raginillinoian 2005-04-19 05:41AM | 0 recs
Free Market/ Anti War
Like you I was way left on Rehab/Internationalist and slightly right on Socialist/Freemarket scale.  I guess I'm Free Market, Anti War.  But I think these questions are poor-

Britain's railways should remain in private ownership

Britain's railways are the most expensive in Europe but vastly better than Amtrack.  So I'd like them to stay the same as they are compared to us, but less expensive like the rest of Europe.  The American in me would tend to agree with this.

Rich people already pay enough tax

This quaestion is way too obvious.  Here in America the rich don't pay enough and it's getting worse with this administration, obviously.  I don't know what it's like Britain.

I am comfortable with the way that genetic engineering is being used in the food industry

This is a difference between Europe liberals and US liberals.  We're fine with genetic engineering and actually would like to see more of it if it can feed the world.  Maybe we can agree to label it as modified, but we're all for science here.  Probably because we're fighting creationists and Europe doesn't have that problem.

The UK was right to go to war in Iraq

This isn't the same as whether the US was right to go to war in Iraq, but I'd still disagree.  A better question would generalize about preemptive war.

Most people should take responsibility for saving enough for their retirement, rather than relying on the Government to pay a big enough pension to live on.

I read this differently than you.  I think people should save for retirement AND have a safety net which will enable them to live comfortably if things don't work out.  This question is loaded- people should take responsibility and they shouldn't rely on anything.  But that's in an individual sense.  The government should absolutely be in business to provide comfortable retirements for everyone.  The government should be in business making sure no one goes hungry or homeless, elderly included.

This country should try to become more like the United States of America than like France or Germany

This is another poor question.  I don't know the answer at all to this.  Should the UK have a government like the Bush administration? No.  Was Clinton's America better than France or Germany. Yes.  My advice to the UK is to try to be better than the US, France and Germany.

by Rob C 2005-04-19 05:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Free Market/ Anti War
A slightly better political test is available at

The questions at Political Compass are more reasonable, if I remember correctly.

by raginillinoian 2005-04-19 05:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Free Market/ Anti War
Oddly, Political Compass' questions have led them to rank me far more to the left than Political Survey.

I scored -8.63 on economic issues and -8.46 on social issues - practically a Communist! That can't be right, because I support many of the ideas of a free market, even if I am socialist-leaning. I mean, I'm not Maggie Thatcher, but I'm not Pol Pot either!

by raginillinoian 2005-04-19 05:58AM | 0 recs
your main complaint is, then,
that a survey about your alignment relative to British parties assumes too much regarding your opinions about British politics?  
by Valatan 2005-04-19 12:42PM | 0 recs
Don't beleive the hype
Classes- not just in purely economic terms, but in social terms- are alive and well here in the US.  It's just hidden from sight.

One example- consider the stereotypical liberal bugbear on the right.  Quick- how do you describe them?  Right.  They're the volvo-driving, latte-drinking, college educated, urban liberals.  People wealthy enough to drive expensive foreign/european cars (instead of chevys and fords, like "real Americans"), drink expensive coffee (instead of Folgers drip, like "real Americans"), live in somewhat more expensive neighborhoods, pay tens of thousands of dollars for college educations, and otherwise be better off economically than "real Americans".  If this isn't economic (and social!) class conciousness, I don't know what is.

There are multiple problems here.  But the biggest problem is that the distance between the middle classes and the truely rich is just so extreme that the top of the pyramid is literally out of sight.  Imagine winning the lottery.  Got that?  OK- now imagine winning the lottery every year, for decades.  Now imagine all of your friends also win the lottery every year, and have been for decades.  Imagine your parents won the lottery every year, for their entire lives- and all of your friends parents did the same.  For most Americans, winning the lottery once would be a life changing event (for better or worse)- the concept of regularly and repeatedly (and predictably) winning the lottery is simply not on the mental radar.  But this is exactly the life being lead by American's Neoaristocracy- the CEOs and captains of the industry who pull down tens of millions (or more) a year, every year, for decades or lifetimes.  Those people literally don't live on the same planet socially as the rest of us.

Now that they've gotten over the horizon to most of us, this opens the way up for some clever social manipulation.  Read the book "What's the Matter with Kansas?"  What the Republicans have done is that they took the leftist populism of the 1920's and 1930's and turned it around.  Instead of focusing the anger at the plutocrats and neoaristocracy (where, IMHO, it belongs), they instead focused it on the people a couple of economic rungs down- the moderate-liberal upper middle class.  The latte liberals.  They also changed the focus from economic and labor reforms to social issues- god, guns, and gays.

So that's the Republican party currently- it's the party of the neoaristocracy, which is harnessing the power and votes of the lower class populists by the world's largest con job.

The Democrats, by comparison, aren't so much a party as a loose coalition.  Although even that's too strong- it's the junk drawer of politics.  It's currently lead by a group who explicitly want to turn it into a mirror of the Republicans- the party of the neoaristocracy harnesing populism for votes, but with a slightly different patter.  These are the DLC types.  They keep claiming that that want to "move the party to the center", but when you look at what they actually do, it's a legislative agenda to help the  plutocrats, or at least the wannabe-plutocrats.  And, instead of a reasonably coherent collection of foot soldiers, they have a mishmash of the burnt-out remains of the labor unions, environmental movements, civil rights movements, true fiscal conservatives, and everyone else who isn't a plutocrat or theocrat.

Needless to say, since this ecological niche in the political sphere has already been filled by the Republicans, this strategy has not been very successfull for the Democrats.

The true heirs of New Deal Populism still exist (hint: we call ourselves "anti-corporatists" these days).  The problem is that there really isn't a lower class or middle class party in America today- both have been usurped by Corporatists/Plutocratic/Neoaristocratic tendancies.  We're working on it, however.

by bhurtaw 2005-04-19 06:34AM | 0 recs
I already responded to this, and we even had a little back & forth, and then it gets wiped out and we're back with a blank slate?


I guess you just can't take the heat, eh?

Well, I've never been a fan of "going through all these things twice," so I'll just point out that the best way to understand British politics is to put both British and US politics into a larger framework, so that you can understand them both.

A good place to start on that is The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Gøsta Esping-Anderson.  His three worlds are conservative, social democratic and liberal (in the European, 19th-century sense), each predominantly motivated by a different orientation, and falling into a distinct cluster as identified by a number of important statistical measures.

Conservative welfare states are motivated by solidifying the social order.  Bismark's institution of universal health care in order to undermine the growing power of the Social Democrats was a classic example of this. But it was a strategic move. Esping-Anderson is talking about something deeper--the way the very structure of the welfare state reflects such an agenda. Such state tend, for example, to have a strong component for state workers. Social democratic welfare states are motivated by empowering the working class.  They tend to have the most universal programs with the highest benefit levels. Liberal welfare states are motivated by preserving the free market--i.e. taking care of market failures.  The US is actually an outlier of the liberal type, most of which are Britain and it's former colonies.

While Ben is stressing the differences between British and US politics, it should be realized that they are far more similar to each other than they are different, at least in comparison to the broad range of alternatives in the industrial world as a whole.

by Paul Rosenberg 2005-04-19 07:01AM | 0 recs
Re: WTF????
Read my second update. I accidentally erased the diary when I was trying to update it, in the process erasing the comments that had been posted up until that point, also.

Ben P

by Ben P 2005-04-19 10:50AM | 0 recs
Re: WTF????
As to your point about class in America, I agree - it certainly does exist. My point is rather that class does not and hasn't for most (if not all) of US history served as a major party's ideological and institutional base.
by Ben P 2005-04-19 10:54AM | 0 recs
This is because we don't have a monarchy...
...or traditions (such as a House of Lords...or Lords of any type) that are all that similiar.

It's interesting-right now, the Democratic party is no longer the party of the poor or the working man (in voting patterns, that is-they still advocate policies that fight for them).  No, poor people (except blacks and some other minorities) tend to vote for Republicans now.  So do rich and upper middle class business people.  Rich and upper middle class people who are not businessmen (college professors, scientists, actors/musicians/artists of all types, etc.) vote for Democrats.  This split is not even an old money/new money thing-self made businessmen tend to go Republican, old money businessmen tend to go Republican.  Now, just to confuse things, super-rich George Soros/Warren Buffett/Bill Gates business types tend to lean Democratic, because there becomes a point where you have a thousand times as much money as you can possibly spend, so high taxes don't matter to you any more.

But there definitely isn't a party split along party lines.  Maybe there was prior to Reagan.  But not any more.

by Geotpf 2005-04-19 06:12PM | 0 recs
I got very similiar results; that is, very left wing in the first axis, centrist on the second one-which sounds right-I'm a lefty, but I have libertarian tendencies, and the second one is mainly based on economics.
by Geotpf 2005-04-19 08:32AM | 0 recs
by hpvv 2005-12-19 09:52PM | 0 recs


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