The quintessential divide in politics, that of the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, can trace its origins back to the French Revolution. In the National Assembly, supporters of the king would sit on the right of the chamber, whilst supporters of the revolution would sit on the left.
Nowadays, this divide is based more on economics. The left generally supports redistributive policies in an attempt to achieve equality, whereas the right champions capitalism and private property.
The ideology behind the left-right divide has shifted over the years, and it may be shifting again.
The idea that politics is moving away from the economic left-right argument is not entirely new. Since 2007, Tony Blair has explored the idea that the defining divide is moving to one of ‘open-closed’.
He argues that left-wing populism and right-wing populism meet each other at isolationism, leaving the centre to fight for a globalist perspective. There are certainly indications of this across the Western world.
Perhaps most obvious is the Five Star Movement in Italy which does not neatly fit within the left-right divide. It advocates right-wing stances, such as anti-immigration, and left-wing stances, such as universal basic income, suggesting it sits ideologically where right and left meet, at ‘closed’.
This isolationist, anti-immigration meeting point can also be seen in ruling governments of the left and right, for example, Trump’s administration, and Spanish coalition partners, Unidas Podemos.
Here in the UK, the most obvious symptom of a shift in the political divide was Brexit, and the distinction of ‘Remain-Leave’ maps quite nicely onto the idea of ‘open-closed’.
According to research carried out on the 2017 election, Labour Leavers were more aligned with Conservative Leavers when it came to social values, and similarly, Labour Remainers were closer to Conservative Remainers, showing the split within the parties lay not in economics, but instead in broader societal values.
The Brexit vote is also much more easily understood through an open-closed axis, rather than an economic left-right one, as arguments about sovereignty and national freedom were stronger than claims we would be better off outside the Single Market.
Those on the right of the Conservative Party, the ERG, and those on the left of the Labour Party, Frank Field and Kate Hoey (and arguably Corbyn himself), met each other at this argument.
This divide was strengthened in the electoral politics of the UK from 2016 to 2019. After the 2019 European Elections, polls saw victories in the popular vote for the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party.
These two parties signified the new division of globalism versus isolationism and socially liberal versus socially conservative. Traditional economics no longer seemed as important.
However, the Conservatives won the 2019 General Election by a substantial margin, and Labour did place second. But this does not prove that the primary debate shifted back to left-right economics.
Perhaps it instead shows that the Conservatives were savvy enough to understand what mattered most now to the electorate.
By running an electoral campaign focused solely on Brexit, an issue along the open-closed axis, and with a manifesto which barely mentions concrete right-wing economic policies (instead filling it with nationalist and patriotic slogans such as ‘Unleash Britain’s potential’), the Conservatives managed to win their greatest majority since the 1980s.
There are many reasons why Labour saw their worst defeat since 1935, but if this idea of a shift holds, then it could be said that Labour’s failure to identify the correct divisions within the electorate, focusing instead on issues like re-nationalisation and a Green Industrial Revolution, could have helped cost them the election.
If the importance of the economic left-right divide was already on the decline, Coronavirus may have just hit the accelerator. The initial 2020 Budget, delivered before Coronavirus had become as big of a crisis as it now is, was already described by the Resolution Foundation as ‘far from fiscally conservative’, drawing comparisons to the Blair era.
This already showed that a ‘closed’ Conservative government did not necessarily need to be fiscally conservative. Then the Chancellor announced the stimulus package to fight Coronavirus, which was more economically left-wing than anything seen under New Labour, even during the financial crisis.
Although these are of course unprecedented times and therefore this should not be taken as an indication of travel, it does show how far this government is willing to push, and potentially how little stock they put in the importance of rigid right-wing economics.
The Coronavirus is also helping to solidify economics as just a part of the wider open-closed dimension, through the impact on globalisation.
With global trade disrupted due to the pandemic, people are beginning to advocate for re-shoring in an attempt to bring certainty back to production lines. A policy which is likely popular with people already advocating isolation from a social perspective, for example, Brexiteers.
Elections are already being positioned along these lines. The Financial Times recently described Biden as the ‘last, best hope for globalists’, who will stand in stark contrast to the isolationist attitude of the Trump administration (which has recently taken a step towards the left-wing policy of UBI with their stimulus cheques).
This could perhaps help to explain Sanders’ defeat in the primaries, as Biden is a more fundamental opponent to Trumpian ideology than Sanders, who also criticises globalisation.
If this does come to fruition it spells trouble for parties such as Labour, who will not be able to hold on to its fragile coalition of economically left-wing but socially conservative working-class support (closed-isolationists), and its metropolitan liberal support (open-globalists).
Perhaps its new leader realises this, hence why arch-Remainer Starmer has created a centre-left (or open-globalist) shadow cabinet.
The divide in politics will always be between the ‘left’ and ‘right’, but as it has changed its meaning in the past it may change its meaning again.
It is therefore important to pay attention to the upcoming election campaigns, such as Trump versus Biden, to see what it truly is that set these opponents apart ideologically.