Left wing and right wing were terms that gradually came into use after the French revolution of 1789. Members of the National Assembly divided into two groups, monarchists to the right, supporters of the revolution to the left. The National Assembly was replaced in 1791 but the divisions continued with the moderates from both wings choosing to sit in the centre. The French made various attempts to break up the groupings and suspend party groups without success.
Left and right were not terms used to describe political ideology until later in the nineteenth century when left wing became associated with the ‘reds’ and right wing with conservatives.
In Britain the term left wing and right wing passed in to common use around the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In Britain today left wing is generally associated with the Labour party and right wing with the Conservative party, other parties are viewed as belonging to one of the wings with the Liberal Democrats forming the centre.
This view of politics that started after the French revolution now seems to be hard wired into our thinking; political commentators are compelled to classify any movement along this spectrum. Any attempt at representing the working class that does not fall under the Labour party seems almost immediately labelled ‘extreme’, extreme left such the Socialist Workers and extreme right in the case of the British National Party (the BNP). I make the observation here that it is possible to avoid being labelled as extreme if you instead use the prefix of Scottish or Welsh before the word nationalist rather than the word British, apparently because this is ‘civic nationalism’ (whatever that means).
Our elite media would have you think that people who voted to leave the EU are however guilty of nativism or populism. You see we all get labels, some get nice ones and some get nasty ones, to get a nice label you have to sit within a very narrow part of the spectrum. Our political class and the elite media reinforce this mind set by allocating needless adjectives like extreme or far or controversial to anyone who does not conform to their world view of what is liberal. Yet it is all baloney when you think about. There are just people and different people think different ways and that is all there is to it.
I am not a political scientist so I cannot really say whether the terms right wing and left wing ever made any actual sense but I would argue the notion of left wing and right wing is no longer useful. Indeed I would go further, the whole concept of ideology needs to be dispensed with. I feel like screaming every time I hear the phrase left (or right) wing intellectual, I mean, really? Someone incapable of defining his or herself is an intellectual?
If I examine my own beliefs I am anti death penalty but unsettled by abortion, a mild Republican that likes the monarchy. I would ban private medical care and private education but I would lower taxes for the real job creators. I care deeply about the environment but I despair of a Green Party that persists with frivolous social policies when hard nosed arguments need to be made i.e. there are too many human beings and we need to reduce our population over the coming century – but no we get policies on three adult families.
About a decade ago I realised that there is no political party that represents my views, if you really think about there is not one that represents yours, I doubt even the hardest bitten party activist is completely sold on every policy in a private conversation. Yet we persist on voting for parties that do not represent our views because we allow ourselves to be convinced by ideology. Party based politics is in my view divisive and corrosive, the need for money to fund the party machine means donors are able to exert influence over Parliament – I cannot believe that someone gives a political party £50,000 without wanting something. For a while I used to ponder as to why more effort has not been made to control how political parties raise money. Over the years I am increasingly convinced that this is because the rich and powerful want it this way. They want a system that allows them to buy our politicians. This does not make for a healthy democracy.
What is worse is that two of our main parties are able to control most of the funding, Labour with their built in tithe from the Trades Unions and the Conservatives with their links with big business and wealthy donors, this puts all the other parties at a disadvantage.
So what is my suggestion? Well in the short term a very simple change. Political parties sole source of income should be from their members i.e. the membership fees. There should be no other source, not from donations, not from fund raising and not even more innocent activities like selling merchandise such as tee shirts since any mechanism that allows parties to raise funds from external sources will inevitably become corrupted.
In the long term I think we need to stop voting for political parties and instead vote for people that will go to Parliament and do their best for their constituency, people that are free of party whips and donors interests. People that go to Parliament with no fixed views on the world but instead make the best decisions they can based on what is believed to be true at the time. People that are free from dogma and ideology.
Once our Parliament is made up of politicians like this democracy can progress. The word democracy comes from the Greek works demos meaning common people and kratos meaning power. People power. A democracy for the 21st century would be about real people power, a system where independent politicians framed legislation and the people voted by direct democracy to grant them the mandate to carry it out.
The coming century will see technology alter the way we live and work quite radically, we have to accept this. If we are to manage this change successfully it is difficult to see how we can adapt and evolve whilst still looking backwards to 18th Century ideas of how politics, democracy and leadership should work.