politics in a cardboard cutout sense

Having spent most of my life alternately bored stiff of or driven to despair by the one-dimensionality of conventional descriptions of political thinking, I am interested to find a website based on an explicitly two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional analysis: The Political Compass.  Their two dimensions and many interesting graphs are stretched between poles of “social authoritarianism/libertarianism” and “economic left/right (or communism/neoliberalism)”.  So, from uselessly simplistic to descriptively two dimensional.  Not much of an improvement, given the hugely polydimensional nature of politics and the underlying factors that produce it, but an improvement nonetheless.

(Though there is a curious echo here of The Thatcher Lie about the initial divisibility of economics and society.  I donʼt wholly reject these graphs, but I think it important to understand that social policies have economic implications, economic policies have social implications, and both have wider ecological implications.  These things arise mutually.)

I came across this in the context of a pro-Scottish-independence tweet earlier, asking habitual Labour voters whether they were really going to protect socialism by voting no.  The chart provided there of UK parties in 2010 shows Greens and Liberal Democrats as the only parties on the Libertarian half, and Greens, SNP and SSP as the only parties on the left side.  (Possibly this is what Selwyn-Gummer is on about...  Pause to clear the taste of hamburger...)  Meanwhile the Labour Party is in the authoritarian/right quadrant with the Tories, UKIP and BNP.

Actually the original version of this chart by The Political Compass (TPC) also has SDLP in the left/libertarian quadrant, and Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin and Respect in left/authoritarian, but the tweet was about Scotland.  I havenʼt checked, but I suspect that TPC only looked at GPEW for this chart, but I doubt averaging with the Scottish and Irish Green Parties would make a significant difference, so Iʼll ignore that.  Meanwhile one of their other charts shows the German Pirate Party as neutral in left/right terms, but almost as libertarian as ‘Green’ here.

And they also give you the opportunity to take a test to place yourself on the chart.  This should be fun?  Mmmaybe?  I score:

Economic Left/Right: -6.38
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.77

This places me significantly to the left and the libertarian side of ‘Green’ (at -4.0,-5.0) 2010.  Which would be odd, as Iʼve always thought of myself as pretty much middle-of-the-road in the Ecology Party/GPUK/SGP – and have had multiple verbal sparrings with attitudes and proposals which seem to be needlessly imported from either left or right.  Obviously, most people think theyʼre normal, but still...

2-dimensional chart of political positions

By this measure, other than 2D Green parties, my TPC cardboard cutout is closest to those of Gandhi, the UK Labour Party circa 1972, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela.  Not wholly bad company (though I think I could add a few questions that would tease out the difference between myself and Harold Wilson, and probably the others if I tried.)  But itʼs still not reliable, predominantly because of the lack of more realistic dimensionality.

This illustrates the danger of taking simple descriptions at face value.  They arenʼt actually faces, just snapshots in bad lighting.  One of the issues affecting all of the chart positions is simply that only one figure is given per dimension.  A better understanding could be given by adding variance.  Iʼm not clear whether the chart position is an arithmetical average of question responses, or something else.  But it should be possible to draw a chart with a variable-radius circle centred at the same position, representing spread of views.  This would have serious problems over and above legibility – for one, there should be a fair bit of overlap, but it won't be the same in all directions; really, I know there are people in the Labour party who would still occupy a left/libertarian position, and right/libertarians among the Tories.  Reality, if representing the actual range of views in any party, would be more similar to a series of organic blobs, with fuzzy edges.  Like so many slime moulds.  A scatter graph would be really representative.  Messier, but perhaps intelligible.

Still, a plain scatter graph would be impractical for the questions asked at TPC, because there were only four answer options (and none of them were “no opinion”, which can hardly avoid skewing the result).  So for something like fifty questions, on sixteen possible positions, youʼd need a strength indicator, probably a blob increment per response in that location.  Alternatively it might be possible to group questions meaningfully with a spread of dots resulting.  But even if greater granularity were achieved, the outcome is not wholly valid.  Neither of these dimensions really distinguishes the Euroskepticism issue, for example, which is still the big Conservative/UKIP division.  It doesnʼt tell you anything about why the SNP and Labour are so much at odds.  It doesnʼt tell you which parties are actually willing to take part in domination of other countries by force, and risk anything to keep a military-industrial establishment happy.  i.e. even the 2-d chart fails to distinguish some very large political divisions.  And critically, we still lack a dimension to describe greenness.

Why have Ecologists/Greens over decades failed to successfully describe this dimension?  Media disinterest?  Ex-government ministers trapped in the ideologies of the 1940s but with big mouths (...insufficiently filled with deregulated meat product)?  Itʼs not for the lack of some people trying; yet, frankly, we canʼt even persuade Green parties to recognise its usefulness, so we have an interminable debate around green socialism, and some green parties which explicitly position themselves as socialist.  No matter how left/libertarian TPC think me, this isnʼt what I joined for.  I joined because there are bigger issues than the merely left/right or authoritarian/libertarian debates.  Ecological issues.  And I would like them resolved by peaceful, democratic, and non-authoritarian means, before there is no such option remaining.  (If for no other reason than that the exercise of authoritarian power to achieve them stands a good chance of failure and corruption, in the same way as any other such exercise.)

Well, maybe as the economic cycle goes back to boom (which it always has so far), this time benefitting the UK Tories, the pretensions of socialism will fade again and there will be another opportunity to define what ecological politics is about – or at least, drive the point home a bit better, inside and out.  Or maybe the pretensions of socialism are just too useful a bogey to let die away, if youʼre a neoliberal in power.  Mr. Gummer seems to think so...