Why Labour shouldn’t be afraid of the Culture War

Shortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, David Cameron declared “Twitter is not Britain”. It was meant as an admonishment to those who thought that the widespread support for Corbyn on social media channels was representative of wider public opinion. These days it could equally be directed at a right-wing commentariat which believes its own preoccupations with cultural symbols are representative of the general conversation in Britain.

We have heard endlessly about how the “culture wars” have crossed the Atlantic and are now entrenched in Britain. It is true that in recent years views on moral and cultural questions have become much more important in determining voting behaviour. The Conservative victory in 2019 depended on winning a substantial number of votes from people who held economically left-wing views (for example agreeing that the government should intervene more to redistribute income) but who also held socially conservative views on issues such as immigration, crime and patriotism, and who had disproportionately voted to Leave. Yet as the Covid crisis pushed Brexit out of the headlines, the Tories have been looking for other issues around which they can consolidate their vote. Hence, we have seen rows over whether Rule Britannia should be sung at the Last Night of the Proms, which speakers should be invited to universities and the arguments about whether England players should take the knee before games.

Yet several recent pieces of research, including the Rebuilding Labour and the Nation report just issued by Progressive Britain, have shown that these issues have little resonance with the public. Only one member of a focus group of soft Tory voters interviewed for the report mentioned culture war issues, and further polling exercises confirmed this lack of interest. Not only this, but despite claiming to represent “the people” against the “liberal elite” the right-wing culture warriors can often find themselves strangely isolated. The debate over taking the knee is a perfect illustration – polling showed that many more people supported the England players than disapproved, and the gap increased as the Euros progressed. By the end of the tournament, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel were left looking ridiculous. Having initially condoned booing the England team, they scrambled (unconvincingly) to demonstrate their support for the players who had put England in the final of the European Championships.

As the Progressive Britain report notes, culture war issue still have the potential to trip Labour up and make the party appear out of touch. Under Keir Starmer the party has handled most of these pitfalls relatively well. Starmer was in line with overall public opinion over both supporting England players taking the knee and in arguing that statues of slave-traders should be removed, but in a lawful way. On the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, Starmer was able to draw attention to the government’s prioritisation of the culture war over real people’s lives, by pointing to the ludicrous situation where attacking an inanimate statue can now lead to a longer sentence than raping or sexually assaulting a woman. Yet avoiding mistakes on these issues is not enough – Labour still struggles with socially conservative voters, evidenced by the devastating loss of the Hartlepool by-election and a reduced majority in Batley & Spen.

The leadership is all too aware of this, and particularly that Labour is seen as unpatriotic and negative about Britain. Trying to remedy this impression merely by sitting in front of a Union Flag, will be no more successful than pinning a poppy on Jeremy Corbyn’s lapel and getting him to sing the National Anthem. Voters want to know why Labour believes in Britain, beyond the obvious “because some focus groups told you to”.

Yet there is a convincing story that Labour can tell. In contrast to the gloomy views expressed by some on the liberal left, that post-Brexit Britain is an inherently racist and intolerant country and that the situation is getting worse, all the evidence points the other way. For example, in 1987 64% of people thought gay sex was “always wrong”. Today, 75% support gay marriage. In the last ten years, the percentage of people who “strongly agree” they’d be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group has increased from 41% to 70%. The median Briton now believes that immigration has overall made a positive contribution both to the economy and to the country’s cultural life – these attitudes have actually become more positive since the EU referendum. Liberal attitudes are strongly linked to levels of education and given that every year more graduates enter the electorate, the trend toward more tolerant views will inevitably continue.

This is not to argue that racism and intolerance are not still rife in Britain (something that the government-sponsored Sewell Report glossed over). If evidence were needed, then the abuse that black England players received after the Euros defeat provided it. Yet, while one person defaced the Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of others gathered to leave messages of support. As England Manager Gareth Southgate wrote in his “Dear England” essay “Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour [i.e. racism], I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”

This is the Britain that Labour can authentically and enthusiastically embrace as reflecting our own values. As a recent report for More in Common noted: “the majority of people are proud that British society has become fairer and more tolerant in recent years”. Labour is better placed to represent this majority than the right-wing culture warriors obsessing over debates which are only important inside the bubble of social media, journalism and academia. The Southgate essay provided a perfect template for this kind of “progressive patriotism”; it made clear that the English should be proud both of our history, traditions and of the fact we are an increasingly diverse and tolerant society.

One of Boris Johnson’s few genuine talents is for conveying irrepressible optimism about our country, and Labour is therefore often urged to be more positive about Britain. Of course, an opposition party can hardly agree that everything is brilliant, otherwise there would be no need to get rid of the current government. Ethnic minorities still face substantial discrimination in terms of jobs, housing and in their experiences of the criminal justice system, and they are disproportionately likely to face abuse on social media platforms. Labour must continue to be the party which explicitly fights for equality for all groups who face discrimination.

But Labour can find inspiration in the enduring popularity of the England anthem Three Lions. This is a song which famously begins by describing years of despair but which ends with a message of hope – and of expectation – that the country which is the home of football will eventually win a major Championship again. Similarly, Labour should argue that Britain’s destiny is as a diverse, tolerant and successful country. Tory governments (like bad England managers) can obstruct this process, adding even more years of hurt to the total, but electing a Labour government brings that destiny much closer.