• What is Left in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of Survey Data on Left Self-Location

  • By Jukka Pietiläinen | 06 Mar 17 | Posted under: European Countries , The Left
  • What is the political left in Europe? Does left-wing orientation and its links with other socio-political questions exist as more or less one configuration found throughout all European countries, or are there differences which divide, rather than unite the left across the European Union? This article intends to point out the common features of the European left and define some national and regional differences.

    The data for this analysis has been collected from the International Social Survey and Eurobarometer in which people have been asked how they position themselves in terms of left and right on a scale of 1 to 10. In addition, Eurobarometer surveys also sometimes include a question on voting intentions in European or national elections. This data has been used here as well. The links between self-placement on the left and other socio- political issues has been analysed.

    The data applied includes the European Values Study (EVS)1 collected in 1990-1991 and 2008-2009, the Eurobarometer survey 71.3 collected in 2009, and the Eurobarometer survey 81.4 collected in May and June 2014. The data was downloaded from the archive of the German Social Science Infrastructure Services (GESIS) and analysed by using correlations and cross- tabulations.

    The results indicate that there are common elements of the left, but they do not exist in a completely similar combination in all the countries. However, there are some political issues such as government ownership of enterprises and the question of equality before freedom that are connected to left-wing self-positioning, although in some countries this connection does not exist. In general it can be said that in the northern Europe left self-location more clearly correlates to opinions on political issues while in eastern Europe and also in some southern European countries this relation is less clear or even disappears.

    Theoretical foundations and former research

    Europe’s left parties emerged from different traditions, and they are in very diverse phases of their development. The Scandinavian parties all have a strong ecological profile; other parties, like the Parti communiste français in France or the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, are still strongly Eurocommunist2 in character, and many parties are democratic- socialist parties, while some such as Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy in the Czech Republic have a strong traditional communist character.3 In many European countries left parties are small and without major popular support or are not represented in the national parliaments at all.

    The self-positioning on the left-right scale, usually measured from 1 to 10, is a continual question in international social surveys, and there is increasing research on that issue. It has been shown that the concept of left and right is a powerful predictor of mass attitude and political behaviour.4 However, more recent research has indicated that ‘the issues that explain left–right orientation may not be the same issues for all people, and that even if they are, their effects on individuals’ left–right orientation may vary’.5

    However, there are only a few studies that compare the impact of left-right placement in different countries. Earlier research has found ‘a high degree of stability in the willingness of the mass publics in Western Europe to place themselves on the left-right scale’, but there ‘is, however, a pronounced tendency for the mass publics to place themselves increasingly in the centre of the left-right scale’.6 Left-right orientation has been consistent, but in the Netherlands the supporters of different political parties have become closer to each other: the average supporters of right-wing parties have become more left while the average supporters of left-wing parties have moved to the right; in simple terms, the parties have tended to move towards the centre.7

    Aspelund, Lindeman, and Verkasalo have analysed the relationship between political conservatism and left–right orientation in Western European and Central and Eastern European countries and found out that both aspects of conservatism, resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, were positively related to right-wing orientation in Western countries. In the former communist countries, the relationships were positive, negative, and non-existent; they differed between the countries and varied between 2006 and 2008. The results indicate that conservatism can be related to left-wing or right-wing orientation depending on the cultural, political, and economic situation of the society in question. The results also show that despite the shared communist past, former communist Central and Eastern Europe is a diverse region that should be treated as such in research.8

    Furthermore, some personality factors such as openness to experience and altruism relate to the left-right scale; people who are more open to experience and more altruistic tend to place themselves on the left in Germany.9

    Also, relationship to left-right placement and opinion on European integration has changed over time. Initially, EU market integration mainly sparked left-wing opposition; after Maastricht the intensification of political integration additionally produced nationalist Euroscepticism among the political right, but the effect on the left was mixed.10

    The size of the left

    The citizens of the European Union are mostly right-wing or centrist while only less than one third can be considered supporters of the left. According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2014, 26% identify themselves as left (values 1-4 on a 10-point scale from left to right), while 37% position themselves in the centre and 20% on the right. As many as 17% did not reply to the question. Considering this, the left-wing group can be understood as stronger than the right-wing group, with a major section situated in the centre. The countries included were all EU countries and candidate countries (Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Iceland).

    The most left-wing countries were Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Cyprus, in which over 30% of all respondents placed themselves to the left. Also, in the eastern part of Germany over one-third of respondents located themselves on the left, but this was not the case in Germany as a whole.

    On the other hand, low levels of left-wing orientation were found in the Central Eastern European (CEE) countries (especially Poland, Estonia, and Hungary) and Ireland, Finland, and Greece in which below 20% of the respondents positioned themselves on the left. We should bear in mind, however, that in Eastern Europe the understanding of what is left might be different from what it is in Western Europe. In CEE the countries with the largest share of left-wing people were Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

    In general, thus, there are more left-wing people in Western Europe than in the East. In general, it appears that the presence of a major radical left party or even a large socialist party can have a positive impact on how many people position themselves on the left, but, conversely, a major left-wing party can only exist if there are people who position themselves to the left.

    Countries in which the number of non-responses was highest were all in Central Eastern or Southern Europe, with the highest values being recorded in Slovenia and Malta (38%), Cyprus, Lithuania, Romania, Italy, Portugal, Poland, and Bulgaria. In northern and north-western Europe the number of non-responses was smaller, the smallest being in Sweden and the Netherlands. In CEE the lowest non-response was in the Czech Republic.

    The high level of non-response can usually be interpreted as poor understanding of the question or the issue itself. Still, we can conclude that in many countries of eastern and southern Europe the left-right scale is not so well understood. It seems that in countries with traditional class- based parties (such as countries in northern and north-western Europe) the understanding of the left-right division is better than in countries in which political parties are based on other issues (often simply around personalities) and in which the political system and party structure has been in turmoil for the last 30 years. And ideology-based major parties (radical left, socialists and social democrats, and conservatives and Christian democrats) tend to make left-right division come through more clearly. However, the countries with high non-response include Portugal, which has a rather clear political party structure (although Portuguese social democrats, for example, are more right-centre than left-centre).

    Between 1990 and 2004 the number of left people increased significantly in Austria (from 17% to 26%), in Denmark from 22 to 32%, in Sweden from 25% to 36%, but it decreased in Italy (from 31% to 21%). The decrease in the amount of people positioning themselves to the left can most often be explained by the increase of the share of those who did not reply, for example in Italy where the share of those answering ‘no’ or ‘difficult to say’ did increase from 25% to 40%. In other countries the changes were smaller.

    Common aspects and national left differences

    The results indicate that there are very few issues which divide the left and the right on the European level. The issues vary from country to country, and high correlations (due to the high number of respondents even marginal correlations are statistically significant) between left-right positioning and opinion on political issues are not easy to find on a Europe-wide level.

    The common Europe-wide tendency of left-wing orientation is visible around those issues which have usually been seen as left-right issues: The values most widely supported by the left were the preference for equalising incomes rather than increasing incentives for individual effort, the belief in social welfare, support for government ownership of enterprises, and also the putting of equality above freedom (EVS 1990-1991). This connection could be observed in similar way also in EVS 2008-2009.

    Specifically, on equality versus incentives for individual effort, a majority of left-wing people, 54% in 1990-91, 62% in 2008-2009,11  favoured promoting income equalisation rather than incentives for individual effort, while amongst right-wing and centrist respondents two-thirds preferred incentives for individual effort. The correlation between left-wing self- positioning and support for income equalisiation was highest in northern European countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), while this connection was low in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Portugal, Slovenia, and Ireland. In this respect, there was no clear distinction between East and West, but the North clearly formed a group of its own.

    It is left-wing people, more than others, who also support a strong government role in the economy. In 1990-91 one-third of left respondents preferred government ownership while amongst right-wing and centrist respondents only 20% did. In 2008-2009 the connection was less close but still visible; 43% of self-identified leftists preferred government ownership while just 33% of centrist and right-wing people did. However, this connection could not be found or was very weak in Portugal, Ireland, Hungary, or Poland in 1990-1991 and in Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Slovenia in 2008-2009, while it was strongest in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and also in Spain, France, and the Czech Republic.

    The question on social welfare had different manifestations in different European countries. In general, people on the left do not believe as often as the right-wing respondents do that their welfare systems are too expensive; nevertheless, on the European level as many as 53% of left-wing respondents think this of their welfare systems, while as many as 64% of right-wing people think so. Especially in CEE, people on the left have doubts about the cost of the welfare system, while in some countries such as Sweden and Finland, even a majority of centrist and right-wing people do not believe the welfare system is too expensive. In general, in most countries the difference between leftists and rightists is clear and predictable. However, in Spain it is the centrists who most strongly support the statement that the welfare system is too expensive, while disagreement with this statement is strongest among the right wing.

    The question of freedom versus equality in EVS 1990-91 brought out some differences in how people positioned themselves on the right or left; the majority of the right-wing and centrists prioritised freedom (57% vs. 33%), while those on the left were almost equally divided between both alternatives. In 2008-2009 the difference was approximately the same – 37% of right-wing people cared more about equality with 49% of the left feeling the same.

    Interestingly, in comparing how the left views some of these issues in different countries some important disparities come to light. Equality was supported most clearly among left-wing people in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and also in Eastern European countries, while in some Western European countries such as Finland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, and Great Britain left-wing people rated freedom over equality. However, in these countries too left-wing people were in general more inclined to favour equality than right-wing people did, while in some Southern European countries (Portugal, Slovenia), right-wingers and centrists more often favoured equality over freedom.

    People on the left believe that things in their own country are heading in the wrong direction. Among leftists as many as 49% believe this of their own country (compared with 43% among right-wing respondents), and 41% believe that things are going in a wrong direction in the EU. However, this was valid only in some countries, especially in those countries hit by economic or political crises (Spain, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary) but also in countries such as Sweden, Britain, Estonia, France, and the Netherlands.

    In some other countries such as Italy, Austria, Romania, France, and Malta leftists felt more often than did right-wingers and centrists that things were going in the right direction, and in some countries there is no real left- right difference of opinion on how things are going.

    However, in 1990-91 only few leftists (8% in total) regarded revolutionary changes as necessary in their own societies, while 80% favoured gradual reforms. However, the contrast with the right was manifest: among right wing people only 5% were for revolutionary changes, and as many as 23% opposed any change.

    In 2014, leftists had a slightly more positive opinion of the European Union than right-wing people. Around 40% of leftists saw the EU in a more positive light, while 26% had mainly a negative attitude. However, national differences are important. In many large countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Poland leftists see the EU more positively than right-wing people do, while in countries that have suffered from neoliberal policies, such as Spain, Portugal, Greece, but also Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Finland, right-wing people have more positive opinions of the EU than do leftists.

    There is a small left-right difference in terms of voter turnout. People who located themselves on the right tended to vote more in European elections, but the most passive voters are those who place themselves in the middle on the left-right scale and those who are not able to position themselves on the left-right scale (only 12% of them voted). In this respect, consciousness of the left-right dimension is strongly linked to voting, at least where European elections are concerned.

    Left-right positioning is related to support of left political parties but not exclusively. In many countries various green and ecologist parties, as well as regionalist parties, have strong left-wing profiles. Amongst socialist and social democratic parties only those in Belgium, Italy, France, Finland, and Sweden get more support from the left than from the centre. In Spain, one-third of Green Party supporters located themselves on the left, and one- fourth of Green Party supporters did the same in Sweden, Great Britain, and Finland.

    Voting for radical left parties (parties belonging to the European Parliament’s GUE/NGL group) does not always clearly follow left-right self-positioning. Most of the supporters of the Party of the European Left (EL) locate themselves on the left (86%), yet the EL only gets 15% of the votes among even the most left-wing people (those responding 1 or 2 on the ten-point left-right scale). However, if only those who vote in elections are counted, the left-wing parties get around 25% of their votes from the most left-wing respondents (responses 1-2 on the 10-point scale) and 16% of all left voters. Only in Cyprus, Greece, and the Czech Republic do left-wing parties get a majority of votes among those who position themselves on the extreme left. The largest share of left voters usually corresponded to social democratic parties with more left profiles rather than resulting in stronger support for a radical left party. However, these figures concern the European Parliament elections of 2009, and the situation may have changed after that, especially in Greece and Spain. On the other hand, for example, Ireland’s Sinn Féin party is one of the least left-wing parties among those belonging to the GUE/NGL, and it also has centrist and right wing supporters, as only about half of Sinn Féin voters position themselves on the left.

    Only some political issues, such as support for social equality and a government role in the economy, are linked to left-wing votes. Other values may be linked to left-wing voting in some countries, but the differences are striking. For example, in France economic growth is positively linked to left-wing voting, while in Western Germany, Finland, and Sweden the opposite is true. Therefore, the links between left-wing voting and some issues are not always very strong on the European level even if they can be strong on the national level.

    The results indicate that many opinions on social issues are related to left-right self-positioning and that this relationship is similar in almost all countries. The issues which are most clearly linked to the left are lack of trust in the church, NATO, large corporations, and the armed forces but also trust in trade unions as well as a critical attitude towards private ownership. Post-materialist values also have support among left people.

    These are the most important political opinions tied to left-wing self- positioning in the EVS conducted in 1990-1991 in 24 European countries and in the EVS conducted in 2008-2009 in 45 countries.

    Leftists also felt that homosexuality should be accepted as well as abortion, divorce, soft drugs, sex under the legal age, and battling the police. However, for example, in Germany the use of soft drugs was not approved more often by left wing people than others, and in the Czech Republic leftists did not approve of homosexuality or abortion more than right-wing people did. The last two items, sex under the legal age and battling the police, were supported more often by left wing people in most of the Western European countries while in northern and especially in Eastern Europe the correlation was close to zero; there was thus no connection between left-right positioning and approval of these issues. On the other hand, correlations with the left-right scale and approval of tax evasion, littering in public place, and lying in one’s own interest was very close to zero. In general, on those questions which are clearly not related to politics, the left-right scale does not apply, while in questions related to politics, it is usually discernible. Interestingly, leftists tended less often to be proud to be citizens of their home countries.

    The critical view of the church exists both in Catholic and Protestant countries, and on this score there is not much difference between countries with much or little religiosity. Similarly, opposition to NATO could be observed both in NATO member countries and in militarily non-aligned countries.

    Interest in political participation, especially in terms of forms of participation going beyond voting is in general linked to the political left. Leftists do participate in occupations of buildings, lawful demonstrations, boycotts, and unofficial strikes more often than right-wing people do (according to the EVS 1990-1991). Of those who located themselves on the left 38% have already participated in legal demonstrations, 15% have already participated in boycotts, while another 38% might be willing to participate in them; 10% have participated in unofficial strikes, while 30% might do so. Especially regarding unofficial strikes the left clearly differed from centrist or right-wing people, two-thirds of whom would never participate in an unofficial strike. However, in willingness to sign a petition, there was no major difference on the left-right scale.

    Leftists also more often approved of the antinuclear, disarmament movement, women’s, and anti-apartheid movements, and also, though with less of a clear difference, the human-rights and ecological movements.

    Since the European Union is conducting and financing the Eurobarometer surveys, one of the key topics has been the European Union itself. One of the most frequent questions has regarded satisfaction with the functioning of the European Union.

    Left-wing self-positioning is linked to dissatisfaction with the state of democracy in the European Union: a majority (51%) of left-wing people are not very or not at all satisfied with the state of democracy in the European Union, while amongst right-wing respondents only around 40% are unsatisfied.

    In many countries the left connection to this issue is not visible or is close to zero, but at least a 0.10 correlation12 can be observed in southern European countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus), northern European countries (Finland and Sweden), as well as in eastern European countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, and Bulgaria). On the other hand, in Hungary and Malta left-wing people are satisfied with democracy in the European Union more often than are right- wing people. In Hungary, the explanatory factor might be the difference between the state of democracy in their own country and in the European Union; there leftists feel that in relation to the problems of democracy in their own country the European Union is comparatively less undemocratic.

    In an earlier 1999 EVS a critical attitude towards the European Union can be observed among left people in Denmark, Finland, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain, but in countries such as Britain, Germany, and France the correlation was non-existent, and in Malta a left-wing attitude was positively connected to trust in the EU.

    EU-membership of their home country was seen as positive by a majority of leftists in 2014, but among the right wing this majority is a bit stronger. Those leftists who feel that EU membership is a good thing are quite naturally more satisfied with democracy in the EU; still, one-third of them remains unsatisfied. Also those left-wing people who had neutral opinions on the benefits of the EU were mostly critical of the state of democracy in the EU.


    The result of survey data analysis indicates that there are some common elements shared among left-wing people in different European countries. On the other hand, it can also be said that the left-right axis is situated differently in different European countries depending on local political issues and political history. This is also visible in the lack of left parties in some European countries, even though a significant number of people there may position themselves on the left. The existence of a major left-wing party is not necessarily connected with the popularity of leftist positions in a country, although left-wing self-positioning is the clearest indicator of support for a leftist political party. Certainly, these reinforce each other.

    In northern Europe the left orientation is more visible in many economy- related issues, such as government ownership, while countries in Central Europe are more divided among themselves. On some issues a clear difference between Germany and France could be observed and on many issues there is a divide between eastern and western Europe.

    In many countries, especially in CEE, left parties are weak or non- existent, and people with left orientation may also vote for populist and even right-wing parties.

    Left politics exhibits certain common traits in Europe, but national differences are also clear. Long political traditions, which have shaped left parties and have had influence on general thinking in terms of the place of the left in society and in the value structure may have some impact. In this respect, the CEE countries occupy a completely different position in many respects.


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    11. In1990-91atotalof24Europeancountrieswereincluded(Canadaand theUSAwerealsopartofthissurveybutarenotincludedhere),whilein2008-2009thenumberofcountrieshad increasedto47toincludethecountriesofformerYugoslavia and mostrepublicsoftheformerSovietUnion.

    12. Correlationvariesbetween-1and 1,zeroindicatingthatthereisnoconnectionbetweentwovariables.Insocial research,usuallythehighestcorrelationsareonthelevel of0.3or0.4,soa0.1correlationisingeneralverylow,althoughsignificantbecause ofthehighnumberofrespondents.


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