20 December 2019

What does shifting right on culture actually mean?

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There’s been a lot of discussion since the election of the voters lost by Labour, after its vote collapsed in many of its traditional heartlands in the rust belt. Much of it has centred around habitual Labour voters who voted Leave and tend to be more socially conservative.

Psephologists had already been watching this group with interest. Early in 2019, I (among others) flagged it as the gap in the political market. These voters are to the left of the Conservatives on economics and to the right of Labour on culture. Most of them are traditional Labour voters who voted Leave, but whose loyalty to Labour has become frayed.

It would be easier, the thinking went, for the Conservatives to move left of economics to gain them than for Labour to move right on culture to hold onto them. But what does shifting right on culture actually mean?

Well, firstly this is not a US-style culture war where there are policy issues like abortion and gun control at stake. It’s more subtle, and for that reason harder to articulate. There are some things relevant to policy, like Brexit and immigration, but at least as much of Labour’s problem has been the signals it’s managed to send out.

Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy a bigot in 2010 for wanting to discuss immigration, Emily Thornberry’s infamous white van man tweet and numerous other incidents may not have been particularly consequential in the short run or in isolation, but they’re part of the drip-drip that can influence overall impressions.

Note also that besides non-EU immigration, none of these had anything to do with policy, and none of it was due to awkward trade-offs – these were simply unforced errors. It’s not hard to see how Labour has become associated with a culture war against the sort of voters that have deserted it since 2005.

It’s rare that a single tweet sheds so much light on a party’s problems. Twitter, of course, is not Britain, being far more engaged and more left-wing that the population, but for those same reasons, it’s a good way to connect with Labour activists. And the response of many of them to a passage I tweeted this week from a piece entitled “The working classes are sick of being told what to think” by former Labour MP Natascha Engel (whose Red Wall seat went blue in 2017) was telling.

Engel’s piece made an important point – that it’s not even that voters necessarily disagree with the progressive position on many culturally divisive issues – it’s that they don’t share the liberal obsessions of the metropolitan bubble. Voters are the boss, so you might want to talk a bit about their priorities, in between yours. You need to listen, which is precisely what Labour hasn’t been doing recently.

Cue a torrent of replies along the lines of “so we have to be racist transphobes and trash the environment to win votes?” and one painting me as metropolitan elite because of a reference to Alsace wine in my Twitter bio.

Two themes came up repeatedly. Firstly that the voters are wrong, or racist, or expendable (good luck if you think that) and secondly that the campaign wasn’t about the woke stuff so it’s irrelevant (irrelevant to policy doesn’t mean irrelevant to whether voters think you share their values and priorities).

Prioritisation can mean emphasising the abstract over the day-to-day, and where it reinforces an existing weakness, such as patriotism in Labour’s case, it can be particularly damaging.

A focus group and doorstep response of which I’ve heard numerous reports refers to the sea of Palestinian flags seen at Labour’s conference. One variation I heard from a Labour candidate was “you’ve got more Palestinian flags than union jacks”. Which isn’t to say that Palestine isn’t important, just that many voters will be more concerned with putting food on the table.

I’m increasingly of the view that Twitter is becoming more of a liability than an asset for the left, not just because of the false consensus effect, where people think that their own views are more prevalent than they really are, but because of the more fringe positions seeming normal.

Though sections of the press will blow both the culture war itself and Labour’s involvement in it out of proportion, this just highlights the dangers of, for example, getting into public rows over things like cultural appropriation (which even many liberals view as excessive political correctness).

There may be lessons for Labour to learn from the so-called loony left councils of the 1980s. There was little evidence that any children were actually asked to sing “Baa baa white sheep”, for example, but it stuck because it chimed with people’s perceptions.

Even where the bubble and the wider public disagree, quite often there’s far more nuance than some accept. On attitudes to equality, for example, there is very broad consensus in modern Britain that people should be treated equally regardless of race, gender and other identities.

But on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.

A big part of “moving to the right on culture” is accepting that nuance – and avoiding damaging unforced errors.

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Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics