Luke Tryl is Director of More in Common. He is a former Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and a former Special Adviser.
Wokeism is set to become the biggest dividing line in British politics, a report claimed last week . If that’s the case, it follows that to shore up the red wall, the Government would be wise to proceed full stream ahead with culture war politics.
But is that right?
The first question to ask is how real these ‘wars’ really are. Certainly, they get plenty of media air time. Research by King’s College London has found that mentions of ‘culture wars’ in the press have risen fourfold since 2016.
But dig deeper and all is not what it seems. More in Common’s research has found that the issues that motivate less engaged voters are very different from what inflames the base on both the left and right. Britain is not a nation of cultural warriors.
Take the issue of political correctness: a clear majority (72 per cent) agree that political correctness has gone too far. But ask whether ‘hate speech is a problem in this country’ and an equal sized majority of the public agree (73 per cent) with that too – not because they’re incoherent, but because they’re balancers.
Or on race, 60 per cent of the public say ‘most people nowadays are too sensitive about race’, but even more (77 per cent) agree that racism is a serious problem in the UK.
The Frank Luntz/Centre for Policy Studies behind the Times headline found that 40 per cent of the public believe that cancel culture enforces a ‘thought and speech police’ as compared to just 25 per cent who thought it was a good thing. But when we asked whether ‘it was fair for people to be at risk of losing their livelihood because of grossly offensive things they said’ Britons agreed it was, by a margin of 48 per cent to 35 per cent.
Time and time again, we find that across these debates Britons are reaching for balance and common ground. The picture of Britain as two tribes warring over woke might reflect Twitter, but it doesn’t reflect the country.
But even if culture wars don’t currently exist at the scale we’re led to believe, is there a political payoff for Conservatives in stoking them? There is no doubt that parties can win votes by tapping into anxieties about cultural change. There’s also no doubt that when it comes to issues of pride and national identity, some of the attitudes of “Progressive Activists”, who make up two thirds of Labour members, are out of line with the country as a whole. Potentially offering a wedge to be exploited.
But a few things should also give Conservatives pause for thought.
While those risks to the left have been well documented, the right can just as easily alienate voters through culture wars too. We can argue about whether the lost Tory votes in Chesham and Amersham or Spen valley were about cultural issues. But two population segments identified by More in Common’s analysis that are larger in areas like this are the “Established Liberals” and “Civic Pragmatists”. They are natural balancers, exhausted with divisiveness and at risk of turning away from the Conservatives. Masked by an overall increase in support for the Government, the Tory vote among both groups actually fell in the 2019 general election, reducing the national vote by two per cent compared to what it would have been otherwise.
Secondly, even in those areas where most people agree with the right on cultural issues there is a risk of overreach. In focus groups last month, voters from Stoke to Morpeth told us that far from being energised, they were more often frustrated at politicians injecting themselves into these spats, at the expense of ‘real’ issues such as Covid and the economy. These groups didn’t like the excesses of the progressive left, but they also didn’t want Government ministers taking their eye off the ball by playing culture politics either.
Third, the public’s views on cultural divides change, and they can change very quickly. Take Section 28 – even as late as the early 2000s a majority of the public supported the law restricting discussion of same-sex relationships in school – but, just a few years later, Tory support for the law had become a totemic example of the party’s failure to understand and connect with twenty-first century Britain.
More recently, several Cabinet Ministers criticised the England football team for taking the knee, and one MP went so far as to say they would boycott England’s matches in protest. Fast forward a few weeks with England enjoying Euros success, and those comments seemed oddly out of place with the wave of patriotism washing over the nation. The winning side of the culture war today can easily become the losing side tomorrow.
Fourth, there’s what I call the Labour manifesto effect. In 2019 polling of the individual policies in Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto often found majority public support. But read as a whole, the sheer number of high spending policies put people off what they saw as an unobtainable wishlist . The danger for conservatives is that while cutting foreign aid, holding refugees offshore or banning gender neutral toilets, may individually be popular, taken together they start to paint the picture of ‘a nasty party’ from which the public recoils – especially at a time when voters see politicians as the number one cause of division in the UK. As Tory modernisers from the 2000s will tell you, those perceptions are then hard to shift.
Finally, culture wars aren’t just risky from an electoral standpoint, they also make it hard to pursue meaningful policy. Take the Education Select committee report on underperformance among white working-class children. As a direct result of the briefing accompanying the report – blaming these disadvantages on the use of the concept of ‘white privilege’ – there was no nuanced discussion of the report’s important policy recommendations. Instead, we had a row over a single phrase. There are countless other examples and that’s why party’s big thinkers should be trying to keep the chilling effect of culture wars as far away as possible from priorities like levelling up or net zero.
Red wall seat voters – and the whole country – desperately want to see results not rhetoric. Three years of a Government led ‘war on woke’ would be either a sign of recklessness (we only have to look at the Batley and Spen by-election to see the consequences for social cohesion), or failure (abandoning the ambitions of the levelling up agenda for easy headlines). But even if that doesn’t stir you, even those single mindedly focused on a Conservative victory in 2024, should be on notice, the culture wars are an electoral gamble, fraught with risk.