Compass Counterpoint

11 June 2017

The UK Election and The Political Compass

The 2017 UK General Election perfectly demonstrates the point that The Political Compass has been making since we first went online sixteen years ago: that right and left relate only to economics, and that the addition of a social scale is necessary to provide a meaningful account of the political position of a person or party.

In the case of the recent French election, we pointed out that the media’s persistent and inaccurate description of the Front National as ‘extreme right’ made no sense, given the fact that its economics were to the left of the present Socialist Party. Marine Le Pen’s undoubted extremism was in her social policies; not her economics. Conversely, Macron’s neoliberal economics were well to the right of Le Pen, while his social policies were far less authoritarian. As long as people continue to describe social authoritarians as ‘extreme right wing’, the logical assumption is that all extreme left wingers are automatically the antithesis of authoritarianism. Stalin? Pol Pot? Kim Jong-un? Give us a break!

The UK voting pattern in this election indicates the transcendence of social [identity] politics over the old economic/class considerations. Analyses have already amply revealed that Labour fared better among voters with degrees — not just young voters, but also those in the over-50 group. It should have been no surprise though – at least to Labour tacticians – that a considerable share of the crumbling UKIP support would go to their party, not just to the Conservatives. After all, that’s where many of them had come from. Conversely, the more socially authoritarian Conservative Party made gains in some Labour strongholds and the over-65 age group, where security, harsher sentencing and immigration took priority over healthcare funding and other welfare provisions. [Was Theresa May’s preference for red outfits thoughout the campaign purely a fashion statement?] This same phenomenon of voting against personal interests has long prevailed in the US, where poorer people, particularly in the south, may express more concern about prayers in schools and gun owning rights than healthcare and a decent living wage.

The reality is that a significant number of UK voters, particularly those without higher education, are socially conservative in a UKIPish sort of way. Many were Brexit voters, 52 percent of whom want to see the return of capital punishment. Such Labour voters are often distrustful of the social liberals of the intellectual left, although their economic values remain largely the same. Jeremy Corbyn straddled the internal authoritarian-liberal divide more effectively than most of his predecessors. He grew remarkably in stature and support as the campaign continued, despite the disgracefully hostile majority press. This raises the question of whether the mainstream media has the same clout these days in shaping public opinion.

UK voters were offered a greater contrast of beliefs and policies in this election than at any other time in the last 35 years. When the clash of visions is greatest, the voter turnout is correspondingly highest. But that’s also when the smaller parties are largely squeezed out of the fray. It was an election where local popularity appeared to play a greater role than usual. The enormous increase in Caroline Lucas’ personal vote, for example, was not reflected in the Greens’ dismal national support.

Had the short campaign been one or two weeks longer and Labour’s fortunes continued to rise as they did throughout, it seems likely that Jeremy Corbyn would have been handed the keys to 10 Downing Street. Theresa May’s tenancy might be decidedly short-term. Those tediously repeated slick alliterative phrases — ‘Strong and Stable’ and – directed at her opposition – ‘Coalition of Chaos’ were probably weapons crafted by her Australian-born strategist Lynton Crosby. He should have recognised their potential to become boomerangs, which look set to inflict political wounds for quite some time.