Why the Conservative culture war is falling flat

The strategy isn’t stupid, but the execution is.

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Something you may have noticed if you spend a lot of time on the Internet or looking at the Conservative Party’s messaging is that culture war is this year’s must-have accessory. (“Only the Tory Party will guarantee free speech on university campuses”, that style of thing.)

As I wrote in my column a few weeks back, there is an argument that is increasing its pull in Conservative circles that the “Cameron 2015, Remain 2016, Labour 2017” voter has been lost by the need to implement Brexit, which, for the most part, will either cause the group to lose out economically or simply repulse them for cultural reasons. To get a parliamentary majority back, or even to maintain their current fragile hold on power, the party should instead seek to win over the “Labour 2015, Leave 2016, Labour 2017” voter, which could tip the balance in seats like Ashfield, Bishop Auckland, Darlington and Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The thing about this strategy is that it isn’t entirely stupid. It’s not what I would advise the Conservative Party to do, which is to drop into the EEA or Efta, elect someone on the party’s left like Damian Hinds or Rory Stewart as leader, ringfence the schools budget and gradually increase NHS spending increases to its post-war average so that at the next election, social liberals don’t feel embattled and the average person doesn’t notice the continuing cuts. However, dropping into the EEA would split the party, they are not going to elect someone from the party’s left, and while Philip Hammond is Chancellor they are not going to turn on the spending taps in health and education either. That means that they are essentially left hoping that a hard Brexit will lose its electoral sting, and have probably ruled out winning back social liberals and parents, the crucial demographics that, along with affluent ethnic minorities, cost them their parliamentary majority in June 2017.

So, at that point, you have to ask yourself: what is the viable path to remaining in office? Which is when the Bishop Auckland route becomes more attractive, because, if nothing else, it’s the last thing left.

Well, not quite. The absolute last thing is just hoping that when push comes to shove, the third of Labour voters who are unsure about whether they want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister either stay at home or vote Conservative next time. This isn’t a bad Plan C. But it bets the government’s fate on Labour failing to improve their leader’s ratings or simply to change their leader, both of which are not risk-free. In any case, the joy of being the government is that you can shape events and set the terms of the next election, rather than simply hoping the Opposition will not fix its problems.

That aside, the Conservatives are where they are, which is trying to increase the salience of cultural issues in order to do better next time. As I say, this isn’t necessarily the worst idea in the world, but the difficulty is that cultural issues tend to fall into three groups. The first group are what we’ll call the “citizens of nowhere” box: culturally conservative voters don’t give a flying one about these issues, but they really annoy socially liberal ones. At the election, Theresa May spent most of her time in this box, which is why everything went wrong. Then there is the second box, which we’ll call the “snowflake millennials” box: issues which no-one cares about other than paid-up members of political parties. Into this box we can dump “some young people on Twitter saying that Sean Connery’s James Bond is a bit nasty, anything a students union does or says” and so forth. And the third box, which is where the Conservatives need to be: issues which are painful to Labour as far as their position and that of swing voters goes, but are also relevant to swing voters.

The good news for the Tories is that since the election they have, for the most part, left Box One. The problem is that they are largely in Box Two and don’t seem to have fully grasped the point of Box Three, which is that a) voters have to care about it and b) they have to divide the Conservatives from Labour.  Take today’s row, the details of which are almost too tedious to relate: Young Labour’s disabled, ethnic minority, LGBT+ and female members will elect their disabled, minority, LGBT and women’s members separately (if I have understood their constitution correctly, only members with disabilities will be able to elect the disabled officer, only LGBT members the LGBT+ member, and so on). The Conservatives are accusing Labour of racist against straight white men, as they cannot vote in these contests. There are a couple of problems here: the first is that no-one cares, which of course is a vital prerequisite to any effective attack line. The second is that it is flatly wrong: some straight white men have disabilities. But the third is that the Conservatives also organise women-only events through Women2Win, their very successful ginger group that trains women and helps them run for ofice. Labour may be on the wrong side of public opinion – it seems likely to me but I cannot find any polling on the subject – but so, too, are the Tories.

If the Conservatives actually want to do this culture war stuff effectively, they need to find Box Three and stick to it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.