**Alan Smith**considers the political spectrum

Much political discussion concentrates on where the participants are placed on the “Left-Right continuum”. Is Brown to the Left or the Right of Jones? Such a question can divert attention from the merits of the issue under consideration. But is the concept of the Left-Right continuum valid? If it is not then, not only does it distract us from the real issues, it is in fact a metaphor that is being asked to carry more weight than it can possibly bear.

Let us try to construct a model of the Left-Right continuum in which everyone with an opinion on politics is represented by a point on a line according to their views on a number of questions, each of which can be answered with a reply that is either Left of Right. Some questions such as public ownership or private ownership must be broken down into simpler questions: it is possible, for example, to be in favour of public ownership of the Royal Mail and in favour of the private ownership of car manufacturing.

Thus persons **A**, **B**, **C** … are represented on the line by points **a**, **b**, **c**, … If person **F** is to the Left of person **G**, then point **f** is to the left of point **g**. Having represented every person on the line according to their views on the questions, let us consider two adjacent points, **d** and **e**, **d **being to the left of **e**. This means that there is at least one question, say **Z**, on which person **D** takes the Left view and person **E** takes the Right view. It follows that not only does person **D** take the Left view on question **Z**, everyone represented by points to the left of point **d** takes the Left view on question **Z**, otherwise question **Z **could not be used to place person **D** to the Left of person **E**. Similarly, everyone represented by points to the right of point **e** takes the Right view on question **Z**. Therefore we may place point **z** between point **d** and point **e** to represent what we may call the watershed of question **Z**: every person represented by points to the left of point **z** takes the Left view of question **Z** and every person represented by points to the right of point **z** takes the Right view of question **Z**. It may be that several questions: **Z**, **Y**, **X**, … place person **D** to the Left of person **E** in which case they may be represented by coincident points **z**, **y**, **x** …

Now let us consider any two questions **S** and **T**, represented on the line by points **s** and **t**. There are three possibilities:

- Points
**s**and**t**are coincident, in which case everyone who takes the Left view on question**S**also takes the Left view on question**T**and everyone who takes the Right view on question**S**also takes the Right view on question**T.** - Point
**s**is to the left of point**t**, in which case everyone who takes the Left view on question**S**also takes the Left view on question**T**and everyone who takes the Right view on question**T**also takes the Right view on question**S**. - Point
**s**is to the right of point**t**, in which case everyone who takes the Right view on question**S**also takes the Right view on question**T**and everyone who takes the Left view on question**T**also takes the Left view on question**S**.

It would seem that there are two significant flaws to the concept of the Left-Right continuum. First it assumes that every question can take either a Left or a Right answer or can be deconstructed into questions that can take either a Left or a Right answer. Of course it would be possible to exclude from consideration questions that cannot be broken down in this way but if too many questions are omitted because they do not fit the model then we may wonder whether the model based on such questions that remain has any use in political analysis. Secondly I do not believe that every possible pair of questions can be related in one of the three ways described above.

Had we been able to construct an acceptable Left-Right continuum it would have been possible to use it to determine the fabled ‘centre ground’, the Holy Grail of political parties everywhere. From the continuum, discount the first 25% from the Left. Then discount the first 25% from the Right. Those who remain form the centre ground.

Regretfully one must abandon the hypotheses of the Left-Right continuum and, of course, the centre ground. These we must leave to children and those adults who have not put away childish things.