After a few months of everything being dominated by covid-19, talk of culture wars is back. Laurence Fox has announced plans for a new “reclaim” party, while Katy Balls reports in the i that a number of Conservative MPs want to fight the next election on a similar basis.
It’s not hard to grasp this train of thought, either ideologically or strategically. Britain’s institutions, whether cultural, corporate, governmental or academic, project a set of values around identity issues that are vastly more socially liberal and politically correct than those held by the average adult.
And in recent years, these institutions have been focussed on the sorts of underrepresented groups that social liberals like to prioritise, while saying little or nothing about working class people, non-graduates, older people, those living outside the M25, and so on.
Whether this is because they are generally younger, more urban, and staffed with more graduates than the country as a whole, or they are influenced by outside forces such as the (potential) wrath of the Twitter bubble, or something else, is a discussion for another time.
The fact is that this so-called “awokening” is major bugbear of politicians and activists on the cultural right. The broadcast media a prime example, highlighted – as Katy Balls points out – by Boris Johnson’s reported plans for BBC and Ofcom appointments.
Public opinion in this area deserves to be studied in detail, but on the specific issue of political correctness on television, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to its continued advance.
Polling last month by Number Cruncher asked whether the balance between maintaining traditions and avoiding offence was tilted too much towards the former, the latter, or that broadcasters had got the balance about right. Fifty-four percent of UK adults think broadcasters are too worried about offending people and not concerned enough about maintaining traditions, 12% thought the reverse, with 18% saying the balance was about right and 16% unsure. Though there was variation between different groups, even pluralities of Labour voters and 18-24 year olds thought the pendulum had swung too far in favour of avoiding offence.
Strategically, culture war politics also holds attractions to Conservatives in the sense that – as Brexit demonstrated – it largely divides the left, and unites right. Labour doing disproportionately well among more socially liberal demographics also hurts the efficiency of its vote, by concentrating its support in seats it already holds (and often by wide margins) while underperforming in marginals.
But the problem for the Tories in seeing waging a culture war as a strategy in and of itself, is that while the public is closer to their thinking on these sorts of issues, the topics themselves aren’t individually salient. Not many votes are going to change as a direct result of someone saying the right or wrong thing about colonial statues, Proms songs, alleged sexism in marketing, and so on. The effect is much more of a cumulative “drip drip” over time.
It was easier for the Conservatives to weaponise when Labour was firing on all cylinders, or as one of my open text poll respondents put it, being “the party of pronouns and Palestine” under Corbyn. The same could be said of the so-called loony left councils in the 1980s.
The lesson of this for Labour was clear (that seeming obsessed with low salience issues and taking unpopular positions on them was not a vote winner) but the lesson for the Conservatives isn’t necessarily to do the precise opposite. Starmer’s repeated refusal to take the bait takes away a lot of the low-hanging fruit.
None of this is to suggest that the cultural divide – and the post-Brexit realignment of electoral politics around it – is not real and significant, or that the Conservatives wouldn’t benefit from expressing the values that a majority of the public holds. And in the long run, the cultural gap between the public and institutions doesn’t feel sustainable.
Instead, the point is that the benefit to the Tories would probably be incremental and uneven in the short term. Ultimately the dam may break (as it did with Brexit) but predicting when that happens isn’t straightforward.
It can be part of a (long-term) strategy, but making it central to winning a particular election is questionable. At its core, a strategy needs to be based around things people care about. General elections are generally decided on economics and leadership, and both of these areas have become a lot harder for the Conservatives over the past six months.
So the Tories can rail against the unpopular excesses of identity politics and political correctness if they want to, but the takeaway is clear: winning against a competent opposition is going to require more.
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