The Political Colour Wheel

It’s becoming almost cliché to say that the traditional left-right political scale is out of date, or that it doesn’t reflect reality, or that people don’t understand it. Attempts have been made to produce more sophisticated models, such as the ever-popular compass which takes the existing left-right economic axis and adds a vertical one for authoritarian-libertarian. Then you have the horseshoe, separating moderates from extremists.

Today I make my debut on the market with my invention (unless someone else has already done this, but I couldn’t find any examples online) based on the colour wheel (the subtractive one used in art rather than the additive one used in physics, since I know of few political parties that use cyan or magenta livery). The three primary colours represent the three largest political groupings in Western democracies – liberalism in yellow, conservatism in blue and socialism in red. Of course, there are other political subdivisions which can be perceived as hybrids between any two of the big three, and these are represented by the secondary colours.

Of course, despite my best efforts, this one still has major problems:

For one thing I’m not entirely sure that “Populism” is the right name for the purple section. Purple is, in this country, the colour of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is often described as populist and which drew support from disaffected traditionalist members of the Labour and Conservative parties who did not approve of the economically and socially liberal turns those parties had taken over recent decades. Much of present discourse identifies Liberalism and Populism as the main adversarial forces in worldwide political trends, which corresponds to yellow and purple being opposite on the wheel. Of course, populism can also be described as a style rather than a substance, and one which can be applied to any existing ideology, so some may dispute its appearance here as a discrete category.

Social Democracy is here coloured orange – the hybrid of yellow liberalism and red socialism. Older readers will remember that in the 1980s the Social Democrats were a group that split away from Labour (red) and eventually merged with the Liberals (yellow) to become the party now called the Liberal Democrats (rather than the name referring to the ideology of Liberal Democracy as you might otherwise assume). They have demonstrated some confusion over the years as to what their colour should be, with orange and yellow both in use, sometimes simultaneously. To make matters worse the “Orange Bookers” among the Liberal Democrats are, generally speaking, those on the right of the party who supported to coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, rather than the left who would have preferred to ally with Labour.

Finally the green section for Libertarianism is starkly contrasted with observed practice, where most Libertarians use the same yellow livery that Liberals do. As the names imply, Liberals and Libertarians have similar roots, but in the present day would regard themselves as distinct sects. Libertarians favour maximising personal freedom and minimising the power and influence of government in all aspects of life, often crudely characterised as left-wing on social issues but right-wing on economic ones. This placement on the wheel gives it green by default, but of course in real life that colour is strongly associated with environmentalism, and most parties calling themselves “The Green Party” aim to achieve their anti-pollution goals through highly socialistic economic means (often earning them the epithet “Watermelon“). This makes them the polar opposite of Libertarians on the wheel, and indeed Libertarians in real life tend to oppose most Green policies.

If I had access to a more sophisticated graphics package I might have done the colours on a gradient so that the middle was white and the outer rim black, or vice versa. Of course, those colours are not political opposites either – white normally representing pacifism and black the orthogonal anarchism (or fascism, also seen in brown, which tends to preclude both of these).

Back to the drawing board, I suppose.


5 thoughts on “The Political Colour Wheel

  1. sorry for bad english, i am an l2 speaker

    interesting concept. i can imagine there being 3 linear gradients layered on top of each other:
    – liberal/populist gradient (from yellow on the top to transparent on the bottom)
    – socialist/capitalist gradient (from red on the bottom left to transparent on the top right)
    – conservative/progressive gradient (from blue on the bottom right to transparent on the top left)
    the colour on the transparent end of a gradient would be determined by the other 2 colours overlapping (example: progressivism is orange because it’s made of yellow, red and no blue)

    that kind of gradient system could also help place individual ideologies on the wheel, e.g.
    – centrism is 50% liberal, 50% socialist and 50% conservative (grey)
    – laissez-faire is 67% liberal, 0% socialist and 67% conservative (deep green)

    that’s all i got to add from myself. i’ve been into political models lately, and i really like your idea 🙂


    • update: i wouldn’t really think of these as percentages, but more as ratios:
      – centrism is 1:1:1 (1 socialist point to 1 liberal point to 1 conservative point)
      – christian democracy is 3:2:3 (3 socialist point to 2 liberal points to 3 conservative points)


      • You are now this site’s most prolific comment-writer, excepting my own “pingbacks” of course.
        My intention was to map out broad political regions instead of positioning individuals that precisely but I think your model could work. I think the difficult part would be defining what the “centre” really is, given that any positional value is relative to the overall spread which itself varies by time and place so that there is no truly objective middle.

        Incidentally, have you posted a link to this page on Reddit? WordPress is telling me that two people have arrived here from there today but doesn’t tell me specifically what sent them here.


  2. Hello!

    You might be interested in the front cover of the booklet produced by the Liberal Democrat History Group, which is from a publication from 1948 (I don’t have this to hand or else I’d say what the publication was). This is basically the same thing that you have created, although it doesn’t use the terms in the overlap between the two (social democracy etc.); I’m not sure any of them had come into wide use by then.

    I believe this was an image produced by the Liberal Party, so it necessarily has their bias. To my eyes, it seeks to portray the other prevailing ideologies (standing in for the Conservatives and Labour) as similar to each other, albeit from different directions (“monopoly” and “sectional interests” are wielded as criticisms of both). I think it’s fairly obvious that this had some benefit for the Liberals in a system dominated by two parties of conservative and socialist roots: it suggested that their third party was equally important, and offered a genuinely alternative ideological framework. From today’s perspective it might also be said to suggest that other small parties don’t really deserve a look-in.

    I think these aspects mean the wheel model is less likely to be accepted as a framework by non-liberals. The thing I do particularly like about it is that it avoids the absolutism and potentially manichean worldview that a one-dimensional “left/right” spectrum diagram gives. In a wheel, nobody is right nor wrong, nor on the side of “good” (as opposed to “evil”). The wheel model also helps to explain why people (e.g. Mussolini, Putin, or Munira Murza), manage to switch from being on the extremes of right to left and vice versa – a single-dimension spectrum doesn’t account for this.

    Some of it looks a little dated, but I imagine many liberals would stand by it. Indeed, land value tax is still a live issue (at least in the UK) well over a hundred years since Progress and Poverty came out!

    You can see the image clearly here:



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