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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Fair v Selfish - the challenge for the Right

Where is the political ‘centre’ of the British electorate? Two new pieces of polling evidence suggest a serious long-term challenge for the Conservatives.

Exhibit 1, Last week I ran an open-ended question: “In your own words, please say what words you associate with the phrase ‘left wing’/ ‘right wing’”.  The most common answers are, as one might expect, the obvious labels: around 9% said (for left wing) ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’; another 4% said ‘communist’ or ‘communism’; 7% said ‘Labour’ or ‘Labour Party’, 2% ‘liberal’ or ‘liberalism’. For ‘right wing’ it was: 9% ‘Conservative/ism’, 4% ‘Faciscist/ism’, 2% BNP/EDL/NF, and 2% ‘Tory/Tories’.

The rest is a long tail of words which carry values. For ‘left wing’, these are about evenly split between positive and negative – the top thirty in order being: fair/fairness, equality/equal, unions, radical, caring, extreme, politics, red, strikes, unrealistic, working class, militant, working people, republican, workers, idealistic, soft, progressive, change, social, selfish, democratic, egalitarian, dogmatic, trade unions, green, anti-establishment, anti-monarchy, benefits, inclusive.

For ‘right wing’, however, people chose words around five-to-one negative – the top thirty in order: selfish, nationalist/ic, extreme, rich, traditional, greedy, capitalist/ism, uncaring, bigoted, intolerant, reactionary, elitist, arrogant, patriotic, posh, ignorant, unfair, narrow-minded, extremist, nasty, authoritarian, homophobic, politics, pompous, xenophobic, old-fashioned, prejudice/d, privatisation, idiots, low tax.

Exhibit 2, a detailed poll YouGov ran last October (and not published until now): first, we asked whether people had a positive or negative impression of the terms ‘left wing’ - 23% were positive v 31% negative - and ‘right wing’ - 20% were positive v 33% negative. This was surprisingly close: 'left' may be ‘nice’ and 'right' may be ‘nasty’, but neither is preferred.

We then went on to ask, of a whole string of policies or values, which ones people considered left wing or right wing: here are the scores...


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When considering the implications for the parties, the first thing that must be said is that we asked about ‘right wing’ and not ‘Conservatives’, ‘left-wing’ and not ‘Labour’. Both parties have long attempted to reject these terms and place themselves at ‘the centre’, and to some extent they have succeeded.
But the association remains significant: the word most commonly associated with ‘right wing’ was indeed ‘Conservative’. That’s not all bad news: the values ascribed to the term are ambivalent – and while they may be more harsh than kind, maybe that’s also how people privately feel, especially in tough times. One should also set these polling results against an illuminating article in the Guardian recently, ‘Why working class people vote conservative’, which explores the competing attractions of fairer distribution versus the ‘moral menu’ of the right.

Nevertheless the results of this survey surely present a profound long-term challenge for Conservatives: how to balance what one might call the ‘defensive’ values that serve best in a crisis versus people’s more generous instincts in better times?


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