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Whats the difference between left and right wing?

A quick explanation of what's left wing, what's right wing and which political parties represent what

Submitted 8/30/2006 By kleo7036 Views 100285 Comments 3 Updated 9/13/2006

A quick disclaimer: this is an “opinion piece”. I’m happy for someone to pick this article up and turn it into an Issue or something larger. Also, I’ve submitted this as an opinion piece because I don’t have the time at present to do full scale internet research for links and evidence. Again, feel free to make comments and turn this article into something larger because I think its important for people to have a grasp of this distinction.

So, what’s the difference between left and right wing?

To explain this I’ll compare and contrast the positions taken by the far left and the far right. Be aware that many people’s political beliefs are on a continuum between left and right.

1. Role of the individual and government

My friend used to have this analogy = left wingers believe that the state is more important than the individual, right wingers believe that the individual is more important than the state.

That analogy is semi-true. Left wingers believe that governments are a force for social justice and change, and so should intervene in individual’s lives to ensure social justice is achieved. Right wingers believe that governments are big and unwieldy and so should not interfere with people’s lives at all. They believe that government interference contravenes an individual’s right to liberty.

For this reason left wingers have traditionally favoured ‘big’ government while right wingers favoured ‘small’ government.

2. Formal versus substantial equality

Right wingers believe in formal equality. They believe that everyone should be treated equally under the law and should be treated equally by government. Examples of right wing formal equality include equal pay for equal work and civil and political rights.

Left wingers believe in substantial equality. They argue that not every individual is the same and so government policy should be aimed to create substantial rather than just formal equality. Examples of left wing substantial equality include affirmative action and social and cultural rights.

Just a quick note: human rights are valuable to both left and right wingers. Right wingers would emphasise that human rights should be available to all peoples equally, while left wingers would emphasise that human rights are necessary for societies to achieve social justice.

3. Markets and the economy

Right wingers favour laissez-faire, free market economic policies. This is in line with individuals controlling their own lives, deciding their own version of the good life, and emphasises the role of individual initiative. Examples of right wing economic policy is Voluntary Student Unionism, emphasising a pay as you go approach so that students who want services should pay for them, and Work Choices legislation, which removes regulation and promotes the use of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). AWAs are designed to allow employers and employees to bargain with each other as individuals.

Left wingers favour interventionist, regulated market economic policies. In the past they have favoured publicisation of industries, of which extreme example is the command economy of the former USSR. Left wingers emphasise the importance of regulation, initiatives that allow employers and employees to bargain equally, and the dangers of free market exploitation. Examples of left wing economic policy would be supporting the role of unions in collective and enterprise bargaining, as this recognises the power employers have over employees in the bargaining process, and consumer protection legislation such as the Trade Practices Act.

A quick note: publicisation was favoured by the left because of its change of emphasis from for profit, which benefits owners of companies, into for society, because government enterprises were run for the benefit of communities rather than to make money. A good example of this battle regards Telstra. Right wingers are for the sale of Telstra because of the savings and service delivery improvements that can be generated by for profit companies. Left wingers are against the sale of Telstra because they recognise consumers without bargaining power, such as regional and rural consumers, will be unattractive to Telstra’s profit motive and so will lose services.


Right wingers are libertarians. They believe in liberty for the individual as the most important fundamental principle society should be based on. This libertarianism has morphed into neo-liberalism, which emphasises individual initiative for all interactions with government. For example, Work for the Dole is neo-libertarian as it is trying to get people off the dole (which is funded by government acquisition of individual’s wealth (taxes)) and into work where they can work for themselves.

An example of right wing principles are freedom of the individual, choice and free trade:

Left wingers are socialists. They believe that government should be doing things to help the entire society. This focus has lead them to focus on the disadvantaged peoples in our society as these peoples are often treated the worst. Socialists emphasise the ability of collective action in achieving outcomes in relation to equality and social justice. For example, universal education is a socialist objective because it would provide all people, irregardless of how much money they have, the opportunity to get an education and thus improve their lives.

An example of left wing principles are freedom, justice and solidarity:

And finally: As you can see, left and right wing doesn't encompass progressive or conservative. You can have conservative left wingers and progressive right wingers. Both major political parties in Australia, the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia, have progressive and conservative elements within them.

A really good article explaining how the old distinction between left and right wing politics is waning, and the possible future direction for political discussion is by David McKnight at:

Examples of parties

Left / Environmental: Australian Greens

Centre-left: Australian Labor Party

Centre: Australian Democrats

Right: Liberal Party of Australia

Right: The Nationals

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Kev - Lives - Here 25-Apr-2007

That's a great point funnelweb. Have you heard of the "political compass"? Its somewhere in google and tries to emphasise how the left right distinction is no longer relevant, or at the least, more "axis" - es? axii? need to be added to our understanding of the left / right wing spectrum.

Then there's the "third way" (free marketeer that believes in human rights)..!



funnelweb 22-Apr-2007

Good content but sometimes there is confusion between economic wings or social wings. You might be a free market right wing economic rationalist but socially a "left winger", ie a human rights, environmentalist or climate change activist. Or alternatively a socialist with strong anti-abortion anti-immigration views. We're in a society that generalises people, but there are always exceptions to the rule. People are free to explore the issues and make up their own mind.



Josie 04-Sep-2006

Thanks for your piece Kev - you've explained the differences between the left and right of the political spectrum really well. I'm sure it wasn't easy to maintain such a neutral stance!! And the examples are great too.