Understanding the political spectrum
Are you left or right?
You may have heard the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ before - a politician might be accused of being ‘too left wing’, or a newspaper might be known as a ‘right-wing publication’. Both of these terms refer to the political spectrum. It’s something you’ll come across fairly often, so this guide will help you to understand what it is and why it matters.
In a nutshell
Think of the political spectrum as a scale with two opposite ends - the left and the right. Each end represents a group of principles, and those on the left tend to oppose those on the right. Most of these principles are about the best way to organise society in order for people to thrive.
Why does it matter?
It’s useful to understand the political spectrum for three reasons:
- It can help you to spot bias. If a newspaper, news channel, or news site is known as having a left-wing or right-wing bias, it’s useful to keep that in mind when reading or watching their reports, as it might affect how they present certain people and events.
- It can help you to reflect on your own bias. As you read through this guide, think about whether you lean more towards the left or right, and how this might impact your own views and interpretation of events.
- It can help you to understand why a new policy or law is made. Very often, political parties will suggest policies that align with their place on the spectrum (for example, the Labour party in the UK will often suggest left-wing policies). These policies can then become law.
A tiny bit of history…
The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ were first used in a political context during the French Revolution, when the people overthrew the French monarchy and took control of the government. Those on the left supported the revolution, whilst those on the right supported the monarchy. This idea of the left supporting change and the right supporting the status quo continues today, and it is a key part of their philosophies.
Right, ready to dive in? Here’s a snapshot of some key principles, laws, political parties, and media outlets that are associated with the left and the right.
1. Government power vs individual liberty
- Those on the left strive for an equal society and believe that the government should play a large part in people’s lives to help achieve this. This approach is sometimes referred to as big government.
- Those on the left tend to support higher taxes on the rich, welfare for the poor, and government regulation (control) of business. This can also mean taking an interventionist approach towards economics, where the government will step in to prevent a recession (a period of economic decline). They can do this by taxing people highly during ‘boom’ times (when the economy is doing well) and then spending this money when the economy needs it.
- Those on the right strive to protect individual freedom and believe that the government should play a limited role in people’s lives.
- They tend to support lower taxes, and less business regulation, and believe that private sector competition leads to better services (for example, private healthcare firms competing with each other for patients, rather than public healthcare provided by the government).
2. Progressive vs conservative
- Those on the left tend to adopt a progressive view, meaning they often favour social change or reform. A typical example is supporting same-sex marriage.
- Those on the right tend to uphold more traditional views. A typical example is being in favour of the monarchy.
National Health Service Act, 1946, UK
- Made healthcare free on the basis of citizenship and need, rather than the payment of fees or insurance premiums.
- Implemented by: The Labour Party
- Principles: equal society, government intervention
Parental Leave Act, 1974, Sweden
- Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce parental leave that could be split between two parents of a child.
- Implemented by: The Social Democratic Party
- Principles: progressive politics, social change
Tax allowance for married couples, 2014, UK
- Married couples get tax benefits such as reduced income tax, and the ability to pass money on to a spouse without incurring inheritance tax.
- Implemented by: The Conservative party
- Principles: tradition
Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, 2017, US
- Reduced tax rates for businesses from 35% to 21%
- Implemented by: The Republican party
- Principles: laissez-faire economics, individual liberty
The Labour party (UK), Green party (UK), Democratic party (US) and Socialist party (France) are often described as being left-wing.
Right-wing parties include The Conservative party (UK), UKIP (UK), Republican party (US) and Law and Justice (Poland).
It’s worth keeping in mind that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are often used loosely and aren’t always accurate. For example, many of the UK Labour party’s policies place it in the centre of the political spectrum, or even slightly right of centre. The same is true in the US, where both the Democratic party and Republican party could be considered right wing. Likewise, a political party might become more left or right wing depending on its leader at the time. It’s always worth checking out the party’s actual manifesto before deciding who to vote for.
The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Daily Mirror, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post are often described as being left-wing.
Right-wing outlets include The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The New York Post and Fox News.
Some famous quotes
“From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.” - Karl Marx
“Man is not free unless government is limited.” - Ronald Regan
It’s not all black and white…
Not all principles, laws, political parties, or media outlets can be neatly classified as left or right wing, as most will use elements of both. Likewise, individual people, even those who describe themselves as being left-wing or right-wing, will often support one or two principles from the other end of the spectrum. This is a good thing - by avoiding strict labels and remaining open-minded, we can avoid having an over-simplified outlook and judge policies on their own merit.
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