How not to lose culture wars

This piece is part of a new book “Labour’s Reset: The Path Back to Power”. Click here to download it. The book looks at the barriers for voters in picking Labour, what the party can do in opposition to tackle these issues and the type of policy platform that would attract switchers to Labour at the election

by Rob Marchant

What is a culture war? From dictionary.com: it is ‘a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs, practices, etc.’

Culture wars are nothing new, but they are currently higher profile than ever, arguably because of (a) the political trend towards populism at home and abroad, and (b) the magnification of disagreement and polarised viewpoints via social media, providing the tools for instant public reaction. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that culture wars form a noticeable part of the current political Zeitgeist.

As a political party, you may not always get to win the culture war – sometimes, you may need to do the right thing in advance of public opinion, as Labour did in the 1980s on gay rights. However, it is useful not to lose them, and Labour seems to have been doing just that on some subjects.

Two major examples are antisemitism, where the new leadership has demonstrably taken the ‘right’ side but seems sluggish in following through to the end; and the vexed issue of trans rights, where the leadership has managed to stifle almost all debate and in doing so managed, seemingly oblivious, to alienate a large swathe of its female membership.

Not only have they surged with the proliferation of social media, but they have both used institutional capture as a way of determinedly promoting their agendas. Far-left entryists took over Labour for half of the last decade; and Stonewall’s worryingly driven zealots have spread themselves over large parts of Britain’s public and private sector, promoting equalities law not as it is, but as they would like it to be.

But there have been other examples over the last decade: ‘taking the knee’ may have been something that the public bought into around Euro 2020, but the linked association with the Black Lives Matter organisation ultimately turned out to be problematic. Being anti-austerity was justifiable, but the UK Cuts movement and the 2011 London demo were decidedly not; Ed Miliband was left with egg on his face. Labour’s association with such single-issue movements over the last decade has generally later turned out to look unwise.

So, here we set out a few thoughts for Labour on how not to lose the culture wars:

1.Think carefully before wading in and do not pick the stupid side. There are often issues around a ‘culture war’ position that need to be considered; for example, are we getting into one or more of the following?

  • Moral issue – are we advocating something morally wrong, or at least questionable (and that consequently loses us disproportionate support, i.e. ‘I’m not voting Labour because of X’)?
  • Practical issue – are we advocating something clearly impractical or unworkable?
  • Electoral issue – are we advocating something that the public not only will not wear now but will not wear any time soon?
  • Association issue – are we associating ourselves with crank individuals or organisations that have gone, or have the potential to go, rogue?

Labour’s current position on transgender self-ID, for example, arguably fails on all four counts: there is a moral issue that is losing us support (in this case, among women); our position is impractical (self-ID is clearly riddled with pitfalls in its implementation, not least protections against simple bad faith); most electors are against making it easier to change gender;[1] and finally, we are associating ourselves tacitly or otherwise with organisations like Stonewall, which currently look like they may well be heading for the rocks.

2. On the other hand, do not avoid tough decisions that require challenging your own party; take them quickly. A typical cop-out argument here is, ‘this is an issue no-one cares about’. While this may be true in some cases, that does not mean it will stay that way forever, and even if it does, there is often mileage to be had in having the fight anyway to demonstrate a return to sanity and show that the party has changed.

Tony Blair’s 1995 championing of Clause Four reform – the rewriting of one of the party’s key principles to remove the commitment to nationalising everything – was, on the face of it, precisely that: an abstruse issue that only party hacks cared about, and critics at the time said as much.

But would be hard to find a historian now who would argue that the move was anything other than a total success; while a few on the left of the party quit it in disgust, in the main it was revitalised, and membership kept on rising year on year well into the party’s first term in government. In other words, Blair calculated, correctly, that whoever was lost on the left of the party, their loss would be more than compensated by new joiners from the political centre.

If you want a measure of how successful it was, think about this: Jeremy Corbyn – clearly no Blair fan – happily led a general election campaign with ‘for the many, not the few’ as the strapline, having himself campaigned against that precise same wording change two decades previously. That is a culture war won.

As for timeliness: with antisemitism, the party’s slowness to deal with it has been demonstrably toxic – a poisonous drip-drip-drip in the public consciousness – and the effects are still being felt today, even after a change of leadership.

With the conflict between trans rights and women’s rights, the exact same problem looms: as the issue gets daily more public attention, so the risk of the party having chosen a disastrously wrong position increases.

3. Keep the conversation on your terrain, not theirs. This is pretty much an iron law of politics in any event, but truer than ever here. In this sense, incumbent governments have a natural disadvantage, in that they are mostly forced to come up with concrete policy, which may be necessary but not popular; oppositions can opt to merely criticise, rather than counter-propose, if circumstances are the right ones. That means you get to focus your attack ruthlessly where their policy is weak or unworkable.

Keeping your powder dry can certainly help. With politics in general, it is much better to keep your mouth shut on an issue than try and sustain a policy position that is untenable. However, in a culture war, at some point you will still need to stand up and be counted. The trick is not to be manoeuvred into defending the indefensible.

4. Plough your own furrow. In general, avoid aligning with single-issue or single-interest groups. They may have only been a short time in existence; they may not have effective methods for screening members, who may embarrass them later; they may have nutty positions on other issues. Miliband made the mistake of aligning with the 2011 austerity protesters, only to have to hurriedly row back from that support when the demonstration turned into a riot. What he should have done was made it clear what he supported but the dividing lines that divided Labour from the melange of different anti-austerity pressure groups.

We might also add the addition of celebrity endorsers. Where they are clearly long-standing members and uncontroversial supporters, yes. Where they are recent acquisitions to the cause, or non-members who see themselves controversial and ‘edgy’, be wary. Even at the time, Ed Miliband’s love-in with Russell Brand just before the 2015 election looked a little desperate and surely did not attract the voters he needed to win.

The lesson to be learned here is to never give unqualified support to people or organisations that you do not already have close and long-standing links to (e.g. an affiliate), and quite possibly not even then.

5. Be wise to the possibility of institutional capture. This does not always happen, but it can, and where it does, it can take years to undo. The damage of the antisemitism and other extremist views – for example, tolerance towards abhorrent regimes such as those in Syria, Cuba or Venezuela – which infused the party during the Corbyn years, whose root cause was blindness to the possibility of entryism, are still not eradicated.

The best mitigation to this risk is to never allow it to happen in the first place. As they say, the price of peace is eternal vigilance. However, where it has happened, as Labour learned in the 1980s with Militant, there needs to be a clear line drawn under it through a ruthless ‘de-Baathification strategy’[2] to remove the extremists. Not only is Labour visibly not at that point yet, but it has seemingly not learned its lesson yet, which presumably leaves it vulnerable to further institutional capture.

***

In a piece earlier this year, columnist and former party adviser John McTernan argued[3] that the Tories have already lost the culture wars. While he may be right about the unexpected success of professional footballers over government politicians in raising the issue of resurgent racism, on the whole it would seem a little early to claim victory.

Listening to front bench output over the last 18 months, there have been plenty of other issues on which Labour has made poor position statements, and it now risks paying a heavy price for these in the future. And the Tories under Johnson, while often directionless, incompetent or even corrupt, still undoubtedly retain some talent in one area: the populist soundbite.

In short, we have two to three years left to the next general election. Putting on one side for a moment the strong moral arguments to change some of our current positions in any event, between now and then, Labour clearly needs to avoid creating any further hostages to fortune. Indeed, we need to be identifying and fixing such ‘risky’ positions now, while there is still time.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

[1] “Where does the British public stand on transgender rights?”, YouGov, 16 Jul 2020 https://web.archive.org/web/20210702030840if_/https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/07/16/where-does-british-public-stand-transgender-rights.

[2] After the process to move out Saddam’s people from the Iraqi public sector, following his removal from office.

[3] ‘The Tories have already lost the culture wars’, John McTernan, The New European, 23 Jul 2021 https://web.archive.org/web/20210723065800if_/ https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/brexit-news/westminster-news/a-history-of-culture-wars-8153014.


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16 Responses to “How not to lose culture wars”

  1. The current culture war started with Labour thinking traditional working-class people who lost everything under thatcher

    wouldn’t dare vote Tory
    labour took their vote fior granted ,and after they did vote Tory

    Labour decided that those people weren’t working class after all if they had a pension and it was Metropolitan liberals who rent their houses are the new working class,

    labour will never win
    it will never be enough votes to assume it can win with just student middle-class liberals and so-called religious votes

  2. Lee Carney says:

    “oppositions can opt to merely criticise, rather than counter-propose,”

    EXACTLY why Labour should have been campaiging on wage stagnation for a decade, no I am not talking about occasional mentions of the minimum wage, but instead should have been laser focused on an almost single issue negative campaign of flatlining wages

    If there is one thing ppl like its pay increases, but in a decade of Tory rule where the profit share kept increasing, house prices kept increasing, locking an entire generation out of the property market & asset prices & shares kept increasing, locking in perpetual growing inequality, wages flatlined and Labour were silent, now they find themselves in the terrible position of opposing Johnson talking about the need to get pay rising. Yes the Johnsonian way with no productivity increases, but just mismanaged Brexit forcing up pay in certain key sectors may will lead to higher inflation and yes there are economic arguments to be made that this is a bad thing, but after a decade of flat wages ppl are more than happy to say “yeah, it might be bad, but hell, I just want a pay rise”

    This is why it was so tragic Labour left this terrain open for the Tory’s when it should have been their main focus of attack for the last 5-7 years of opposition at least

  3. A,J, says:

    The so-called ‘Conservative Party’ is being talked up in ‘The Guardian’ today (7th October), not least by Owen Jones, a journalist who can, when on form, produce a classy article: maybe not telling us much we don’t already know – or have at least guessed – but doing it well just the same.
    Odd, because some polling – Tafia will probably pick up on this – suggests a public warming to Starmer because of that one speech.
    Was Johnson as hopeless as media reports suggest?
    Back to Owen Jones… he acknowledges that the ‘Tories’ are more than capable of shape-shifting in order to fit any given narrative. Well, they’ve been at it a long time. Johnson is simply aping previous leaders – not Margaret Thatcher – in dancing round slightly awkward policy themes in order to build or rebuild an election winning coalition. Bit of a ‘Supermac’ figure perhaps. Jones knows Labour is largely incapable of doing this, or at least sustaining it.

  4. Tafia says:

    If you go against the beliefs and desires of what would be termed ‘Bliue Labour’ or Blue Collar Labour’, then you don’t need to worry about it – you’ll lose again. There is no such thing as the Labour Party if it isn’t carrying the working class with it – it becomes a lie, lying to the people and lying to itself.

    The ordinary working class of this country are very proud of their flag, very proud of their history, think BLM are a bag of spanners and weirdos, think the trans /self ID iissue is middle class Guardian readers rubbish. They support the Armed Forces and believe the witch hunts against them are an utter disgrace perpetrated by traitors, they support tougher policing, harsher prisons, longer sentences and clamping down on drugs etc etc. They support nuclear weapons and they love the Queen. Taking the knee is seen as laughable – and it’s still common place for cluns to play artificially cheering over ground PA systems to drown out the boos, as a result the latest tactic is to turn their backs on the players while they kneel, which forces the cameras to turn away from the fans. Even a lot of the bog players are now expressing annoyance with it and openly saying they are only doing it because their clubs make them.

    Navel-gazing metropolitan liberals and the stuff they are pushing are just regarded as morons and any politician that endorses them as a disgrace to the country.

    Example. A primary school round here renamed it’s school houses from famous people in British history to colours because the children didn’t know who the figures were (which is actually a reflection of garbage teaching but hey-ho). The young middle class parents thought it was wonderful idea, British history something they were not proud of. The working class parents thought it was an utter disgrace and spitting iin the face of the Queen and flag.

    In the USA every classroom has the Stars & Stripes on display and every class sings the national anthem 9Star Spangled Banner) at the start of every day. Every sports event at all levels – professional, amatuer, school etc sings ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ before the game starts and everyone stands – if you don’t stand then the crowds – even if it’s only parents at a school event, start pointing at you and booing you. It is something to see in real life – as I have many times. A lot of the time at half time they will also sing ‘America The Beautiful’

    Germany – where I have also lived they are immensely proud of their flag – which is displayed everywhere, and sing their national anthem. They routinely refer to their country as Der Vaterland’

    France, again immensely proud of their flag and history (even Napoleon is regarded as a national hero beyond reproach – which again is displayed everywhere and everyone knows La Marseillaise, which is sung everywhere.

    Italy where I have also lived again immensely proud of their flag, histiry and stand and sing the national anthem “Il Canto degli Italiani”. It’s very entertaining watching the Bersegliari perform it.

    Canada – again immensely proud, always stand, always sing, flag on display everywhere.

    It’s about time our children were brought up the same way – proud of the flag and display it everywhere, proud to be British, proud of their history, sing the anthem and stand for it. If you have no pride in your country, your flag, your history and your culture then you are nothing of any consequence and deserve no respect.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhH14iYox5w

  5. A.J. says:

    Labour, of course, is not about to win any ‘culture wars’. How can it? Everything about it under Starmer screams ‘spineless liberal default position’ even more than under Corbyn.
    Meanwhile, the ‘woke’ ‘Guardian’ tries telling us no such animal exists, it’s merely nice people trying to be nicer.
    Pull the other one.
    Fix the Jewish problem, Starmer.
    If you can.

  6. Tafia says:

    Philip Collins, the man who drafted Sir Keir’s epic 90-minute address at Labour Conference last week, has admitted the speech “absolutely” went on too long – and even claimed the sections on policy were “a little bit baggy” and “boring“.

    Despite attacking the government for pushing back the due date of companies’ gender pay gap reports following the pandemic (to condemnation by Labour), Labour have somehow managed to miss the deadline for their own review – even after benefitting from a whole six month delay.

    And Lloyd Russel-Moyle – Labour Co-Op MP for Brighton Kemptown, is on the verge of having the Whip withdrawn following his outspoken support for Corbyn etc at the conference and slagging Starmer in a speech saying “not a politician for the Labour Party”. The Whips office says it is “giving serious consideration” to his suspension.

  7. Tafia says:

    The Polish Supreme Court (absolute in it’s Rulings), by a majority of 12-2, has ruled that all EU Treaties are incompatable with the Polish Constitution, and that Polish laws automatically have primacy over EU ones, in all matters, inside Poland.

    The EU Commission says the ruling threatens to destabilise the entire EU, and places Poland on unavoidable course for POLEXIT by default.

    The Polish Government welcomes the Ruling.

  8. Imran Khan says:

    I think the conflict is much wider than the two examples you give and in the main one Labour is on the losing side. I refer to the multi faceted BLM/Slavery/Critical Race Theory et al. The underlying but not by much basis of this is that all white people are guilty of slavery and must apologise and pay reparations.

  9. A.J. says:

    So the public are finally catching on to the inevitability of tax rises. Well, well, well. Didn’t Diane Abbott have something to the point to say before the last election (or perhaps the one before?). Yes, thank you very much, I’ll have something for nothing… What? You mean there’s a reckoning?
    Years back – years – Kenneth Clarke said it was the Conservative Party’s ‘instinct’ to cut taxes. Their ‘instinct’. That was all.
    And the public imagine a Labour government would suddenly abandon tax and spend?

  10. In 1998 Trevor Philips said Labour’s institutionally racist it automatically assumed people of colour vote labour

    Looking back I wasn’t happy with region doing this by trying to find foreign sounding surnames sending letters saying vote labour we’ve had the McPherson report or the Tories had the Monday Club, Enoch Smethwick, are you thinking what we’re thinking dog whistle quotes,

    but when we wanted a full 2nd term and William Hague had his specs “I want my Country back, let me take you to a foreign land, Asylum seekers are bogus “
    I just shrugged off labour assuming this tackiness wasn’t offensive or would work
    And by the BNP winning in 2004 for the next 3 years maybe trying to get the vote our same as trying to get POC non voters in Council estates
    to vote for Ken Livingstone back in as mayor ( by 2008/2012/2016 the labour London strategy was get middle class votes for the mayor these people don’t vote)

    So I just tolerated labour trying patronisingly to assume it could send a letter to a minority ethnic founding person they’d vote labour
    But by 2009 when minority ethnic people
    We’re saying they’d sooner have the bNP than labour it showed something
    And ever since I’ve waged when labour says with 3rd generation People of Colour leaving the cities for the Shires, as they’re BAME, they’ll vote labour
    Buy now after labour having lost traditional working class votes for holding them in contempt, it assumes that young metropolitan renters are the bee working class
    And also working class flight of 2nd generation Black snd Asian people moving to the suburbs will be enough to suddenly win labour voted out of the Cities

    It never will be..

  11. A.J. says:

    A bit of finger-wagging at Rosie Duffield.
    A man might well have a cervix – and, presumably, a clitoris (if only he looks hard enough).
    The next James Bond ought to be a woman. Why not trans?
    I want a pick Stetson, just like Boris.

  12. steve says:

    Goodness – the Labour Right are obsessed with achieving factional advantage over the Labour Left!

    Where are the he election-winning policies? Where is the imaginative, attention-grabbing presentation? Where are the compelling political personalities capable of conveying complex proposals in an accessible way?

    Never mind the hard miles of winning elections, the Right appear to have no ambition beyond defeating the Left.

  13. Anne says:

    The flu season is with us. The influenza virus circulates year round, but most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, although activity can last as late as May. Influenza can cause mild to severe illness and, sometimes, can lead to death. Flu kills about 11000 people on average every winter in England, but during the last flu winter of 2017 – 18 the toll was more than double this. Flu usually comes on suddenly. The good news is that most people who get flu recover in a few days or less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications such as pneumonia. Unfortunately those who are most likely to develop complications are thos who are already sick. For example those who have Covid. This is the first winter that flu and Covid have circulated fully at the same time. Research shows those infected with both viruses are more than twice as likely to die as someone with Covid alone. More than 40 million people across the UK are being offered the flu jab this year making it the biggest flu vaccination campaign so far. This includes, for the first time, all secondary children up to the age of 16. However, it has been trickier to gauge which strains to cover in this year’s vaccine because cases were so low last year. Prevention is the best way forward. Anyone over the age of 50 is being offered a flu jab and covid booster. Appointments can be booked at pharmacies, and GPS will contact patients eligible for the free NHS flu vaccine.

  14. wg says:

    The lessons are not being learned – and if the Tories are losing the culture war, then Labour are hardly winning it.
    I see that John McTernan is raised, and our John is still playing the percentages game

    Like Nicola Sturgeon, McTernan’s whole gambit is based on demographic change – the Labour Party is waiting for old, white people to die.

    But be warned.

    Members of the BAME community are every bit as aspirational as their white counterparts: they won’t be willing to occupy their place in Labour’s victimhood box.

    Also, one of Labour’s largest BAME sections are very conservative – I would normally say small ‘c’ but this demographic is conservative with a very large ‘C’.
    Where will Rob pin his flag when Labour’s identity politics comes up against religious authoritarianism?
    We have already seen the signs in Batley and Spen and Tower Hamlets.

    If the Labour Party’s future depends upon such ideas (and, as I’ve pointed out above, success can’t be assumed) we can only mourn the passing of the party that was a big part of my young life.
    A party that treated everybody equally and didn’t pit one section of society against another.

    Mr Marchant seems well versed in the modern progressive (‘progressive’ – wot dat?) dictionary – anybody who doesn’t agree with the current orthodoxy is a ‘populist’ (usually said with a curled lip and a bit of spittle running down ones chin)

    If being progressive means destroying my identity and history, and handing myself over to a bunch of crooks in Brussels (we have enough crooks here, thank you) or reorganising our brains to such an extent that a female Labour MP doesn’t know whether or not men have cervices, then the culture war is long lost for Labour.

  15. Tafia says:

    AJ

    I bet taxes are going up now more than they actually have to, in order that they can be cut back a bit in the run-up to a General Election in 3 years time. That will leave Labour campaigning for massive increases to fund green matters etc etc, while the Tories offer a cut. Clear blue water.

    As for Starmer’s speech, since he made it there have been three opinion polls and all show the Tory lead increasing again. In the latest, they are 8% ahead.

  16. Anne says:

    Cannabis (also known as marijuana, weed, pot, dope or grass) is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. There are calls for cannabis to be seen more of a health issue, rather than one of a criminal issue, achieving a change in culture.
    The singer Justin Bieber is promoting pre-rolled cannabis joints that he calls ‘peaches’ which is also the name of a song from his latest album. He is making this stance in collaboration with a Los Angeles based company (Palm Partners) which specialises in selling seven joint packs in California and Nevada. Bieber says he is supporting Palms and what they are doing for ‘the people who find it helpful for their mental health.’
    There are many studies that show that cannabis use carries an increased risk of later developing schizophrenic like psychosis.
    Could this lobbying for legalisation of cannabis be related to the possibility that business see a way of making money out of it. About 3 million people take illicit drugs in England and Wales, of whom about 2.5 million consume cannabis, some 10 per cent on a daily basis, according to the Review of Drugs report by Dame Carol Black. Most of the violence provoked by drugs is between the gangs who control the heroin and crack cocaine markets that are worth about £5 billion a year.
    The legalisation of cannabis will send a message that taking cannabis is a safe activity which does not harm anyone. This is far from the truth.

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