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Monday, February 07, 2005
Are left and right still alright?

Tomorrow Professor Paul Whiteley is giving Essex's Government Departmental Lecture on prospects of the Lib Dems becoming the main opposition party of British politics. If - as is likely - the lecture is interesting enough, and if I have time, I will blog the lecture here.

What above all else has always made me doubt that this can occur is what Whiteley's colleague Anthony King said - to the vocal agreement of, I think, Andrew Marr - the night of the Hartlepool by-election: there is simply no room on the political spectrum for another left-of-centre party. Whatever modernisation Labour may have undergone in the last decade, it remains a party of expanding the size and role of the state and of recognisably left-of-centre stances on everything from asylum to Zimbabwe. If Prof. Whiteley's conclusion is affirmative, it will interesting to see how he answers this point. And if he concludes that the Liberals are not approaching the status of main opposition party, it will be interesting to see how much this argument features.

Anyway, one thing pondering the lecture did get me thinking about was the way in which the case was entirely contingent on the same left-right spectrum that is so regularly and fashionably denounced and ignored.

Yet from all I see and read from this country's leading politics department, talk of left and right seems universal and constant. One of my lecturers is doing a PhD in the exact numerically measurable (hopefully) degree to which European parties have moved left and right in response to each other. Anthony King's remarks above are entirely typical.

So can anyone tell me - perhaps Manchester University's Norm Geras or Nottingham University's Phil Cowley are reading this - is there any significant academic constituency for the view one constantly hears these days that left and right are part of a bye-gone era, that they have little relevance, or that they fail to capture too much that is important?

I realise that I'm not usually one to defer to intellectual elites, but I am asking here for Politics professors' views on elections, not on how to run a country. I don't think a university professor necessarily (or even probably) has any more sensible views on taxation or law and order than a taxi driver, but I do think that if his area of expertise is the study of elections, he is likely to be well worth listening to on these sorts of questions. In this case I am satisified that if academics have a strong consensus in favour of understanding the way votes and elections are won and lost in terms of left-right, then it is very likely that this consensus exists because elections really are very often won and lost in terms of left-right.

So can the view that left and right no longer matter, if they ever did, claim academic support and psephological evidence? Or is it merely the received wisdom of libertarian bloggers who don't like to admit how much they have in common with gay marriage-banning drug warriors, and Liberal Democrats who don't want to alert voters in Tory-held marginals to the fact that they are now to the left of Labour?

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