Left - Right / Open - Closed


James Kirkup over at the Telegraph has an article on how the Left-Right divide no longer seems to apply to the UK’s political parties. We should expect Left-wingers to be hostile to free markets and big business, he argues, and Right-wingers to embrace them. However, reality is far less clear-cut. UKIP is increasingly honing an anti-corporate edge, criticizing both the European Commission and the Labour party for being in bed with large, multinational firms with little regard for 'the national interest'. UKIP are simultaneously daubed ‘more Thatcherite than Thatcher ’ – and indeed, plays up to this when useful – yet considered left of the Conservatives by voters.

Kirkup also notes that whilst Labour, UKIP and parts of the Conservative leadership are busy immigrant-bashing, a ‘curious band of political actors’ are fighting the immigrant’s corner, including ‘nasty party’ London Mayor BoJo, the ‘old lefty’ Vince Cable, and (apparently, shock horror!) the ASI.

Libertarians have long claimed that the Left/Right distinction is largely redundant, arguing that the Nolan chart – which plots support for economic & political freedom across two axis – yields far clearer understanding of political ideology. Today, variations of such political quizzes and graphs abound, including the somewhat absurdist 5-axis offering.

Kirkup's analysis is simpler; that politics is no longer about Left or Right, but whether we should be an open or closed nation.

This certainly makes some sense in the current political climate. UKIP isn’t really left or right, but ‘closed’ – looking inwards for a sense of ‘Britishness’ and for British values we may or may not have ever possesed. The distinction can be broken down further, with individual policies analyzed the same way. Conservatives are, for example, typically open to business, but closed to immigration. You could widen the definition of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ out, too – for example, the Lib Dems are open to the issue of prison and drug law reform, whereas the Tories are far more closed. They're open to things like NHS and schools reform, though – whilst Labour tend to be closed to such possibilities.

It might then be a useful strategy not to consider whether a party is Left or Right wing, but whether individual policies are broadly open or closed. Disregarding the left/right stigma could help individuals focus upon what it is they actually care about. Clearly, this dichotomy doesn’t work for everything – monetary policy, for example, or attitudes towards the EU – although you could argue that openness generally correlates with a preference for smaller government.

Certainly, openness is a defining characteristic of the ASI. We favour openness in terms of international trade, the movement of people, competition, experimentation in the public sector, and social attitudes.

In this context, open policies reflect the freedom of individuals to make their own choices without unnecessary restriction. They encourage new ideas and welcome change. In contrast, closed policies seek to restrict potentially disruptive activity and unwanted influence, in an attempt to maintain some status quo or protect particular interests. This tendency cuts right across the political spectrum, but, as a think tank, is one that we endeavour to avoid.