Why some Conservatives are nervous about making the next election a culture war

Some Tory MPs fear that waging a culture war would deepen rather than ease the party's problems.

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Should the Conservatives be talking about cultural issues more? Over at the i, Katy Balls, one of the most plugged-in Tory watchers at Westminster, reveals a new intra-Conservative divide: between MPs who want the party to be much louder and more proactive on cultural fissures, and those who are nervous.

Both schools of thought are represented in Downing Street. The political challenge they are grappling with is that the “levelling up” policy, which looked tricky to implement before the pandemic, now seems considerably harder, and the government is struggling to get a grip on Covid-19.

[see also: How mask-wearing became a new culture war]

On the other hand, talking about how important it is that we still sing “Land of Hope and Glory” on the Last Night of the Proms is free and easy. But Conservative critics of this course of action have two concerns. The first is that it is a lot easier to call for a culture war than it is to successfully prosecute one. An electorally successful culture war has three components: 1) voters have to care about it 2) it has to be obvious why voting for you solves the problem 3) it has to force your opponent into a politically painful position.

The central feature of many of the UK's “culture war” issues is that those components are not in place. The median British voter – regardless of age, ethnicity or political orientation – thinks that it is right that the slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was taken down, thinks it was wrong that it was taken down by protesters and not through democratic channels, and, crucially, doesn’t really care all that much. There is not a great deal of politically lucrative real estate available here. To successfully fight a culture war on Colston, you need one political party willing to occupy a politically unpopular position, to stand either with those who believed the statue should stand in perpetuity or those who thought it should have been taken down by crowd action.  

[see also: The destruction of Edward Colston’s statue is an act of living history]

The reason why Brexit was a nightmare politically for both main parties is that the margin of victory was so close, and people cared about it a great deal. You can’t really get away with alienating 52 per cent or 48 per cent of the country, and doing so meant making a lot of hard political choices about which other bits of your agenda you were willing to give up on. For the Conservatives, getting Brexit done meant a manifesto that abandoned longstanding party policy on a variety of issues. For Labour, taking either side on Brexit meant splitting its coalition in a way that was incompatible with maintaining a left-wing economic programme.  

But most culturally divisive issues do not split in that way: they are 70-30 propositions, not 52-48 ones, and equally importantly, voters don’t care about them all that much. The risk of becoming a party that drones on about “Land of Hope and Glory” is that while you are on the side of the 70 per cent, so is Labour. And because neither the 70 per cent nor the 30 per cent much care, there is a heavy downside risk that when they hear a party wanging on about it they will not be divided, but united in wondering why they are hearing so much noise about the issue.

[see also: Why Keir Starmer can afford to disappoint Labour’s left over Colston’s statue]

That speaks to the second concern Conservative MPs have: are they a credible vehicle for a culture war? The reason why “Get Brexit Done” made sense as a rallying cry is that there was a pretty clear reason why the Conservatives had failed to achieve this from 2017-19: they had no parliamentary majority. With an 86-seat majority, if a culture war is raging by 2024 then shouldn’t the Conservative Party have, you know, won it by then? It’s far from clear that “vote Tory: we can’t get a grip on coronavirus or on what they sing at the Proms” is the genius pivot the party needs for 2024.

But the third concern with a culture war comes back to the central problem: the reason why some Conservative MPs are tempted by it is they are unconvinced they can show progress on any other front. That reality is partly about the pandemic and partly about the operational weaknesses of the Downing Street team. But it is also a consequence of the impossible policy promises they had to make to keep their electoral coalition  which is coherent on cultural issues but shaky on economic questions  together.

Some Conservatives believe the the party needs to get back to the economy, because if parties fight elections on economic issues they create more swing voters and therefore more political flexibility for themselves. Voters may change their mind about economic conservatism when they become owner-occupiers with steady jobs, but they are less likely to change their minds about cultural issues, regardless of whether they become better off or suddenly impoverished. This has played out in the United States, where there are far fewer swing voters than ten years ago, let alone 20 or 30. Culture wars might get you elected, but they make actually doing something once you are much more difficult.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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