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  • Gabriel Armstrong

Culture wars: election decider or white noise?

By Gabriel Armstrong

With May being the month of local elections, the question of what the results might mean for the impending general election should be asked. The electorate undoubtedly see Britain as in need of rescuing, with signs pointing to Labour as the preferred prospective rescuer. The intricacies of the outcome however are far from clear. How both the Conservatives and Labour fight their cases, according to polling conducted by More in Common, will be critical in deciding the specific contours of the election results. Culture wars, they reassuringly claim, are not the route to go down for either party, and instead practically addressing localised every-day issues tips the balance for the average voter. But will this alone be enough for either party?

They conclude, and that the reason why culture war tactics are unpopular is because they make politicians seem weak and inauthentic to the general public.

The report, commissioned by 38 Degrees, presents its case against culture wars resoundingly, according to a varied set of extensive field research. Voters want their every-day issues to be addressed by party campaigns, they conclude, and that the reason why culture war tactics are unpopular is because they make politicians seem weak and inauthentic to the general public. Specifically, they find that voters “tune out” of culture war debates, being much more likely to engage more with plans to address the NHS or the cost of living than the “woke blob” or the legacy of colonialism. Proposals to rename local streets associated with a troubled colonial history, or to “protect” children from drag queens, were particularly unpopular, whereas efforts to create jobs, address antisocial behaviour, and protect the High Street, were comparatively the most important.

More in Common goes on to emphasise that this directly translates to voter intention. Running randomised control trials, they find that among swing voters for both parties, there is a significant decrease in intention to vote for parties which emphasise culture war issues compared to more practical problems of NHS waiting times or the economy. The margins, they argue, are significant enough to impact a large chunk of seats, with 44 being held by a margin of 2 percentage points or less.

Readers who are sick to death of parties weaponizing important cultural debates in an underhanded way might be comforted by these findings, especially since they are broadly robust across political ideologies. However, they are not altogether surprising. There is extensive polling, which the report itself even draws on, that the five most important issues for British voters are the cost of living, the NHS, immigration, climate change, and housing. The fact that voters care much more about issues directly affecting their day-to-day lives than more abstract, smaller-scale ideological issues is surely not new information.

A critical omission from the report is also culture war style questions on immigration. Given the relative importance voters place on the issue, it may well be that voters do not tune out but dial in to these topics, even when addressed in a polarising way. There is thus a lack of clarity as to whether it is the issues themselves, or the manner by which the issues are tackled, that are truly the problem for voters. Without such a clarification, the report merely re-emphasises the point that voters care about issues relating to the big 5 policy areas. The actual use this has for strategists from both sides is therefore limited.

What is more, the public’s perception of the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s ability to tackle these key issues is not favourable. According to a 2023 YouGov / The Times survey, for every major policy issue over 50% of the public had either not very much confidence in Labour, or none at all. Coupled with 15-20% answering “don’t know”, an unenthusiastic, unoptimistic picture is painted. However, 60 – 80% of respondents reported having little or no confidence in the Conservative Party’s ability to address key issues, which makes support for Labour seem comparatively enthusiastic. As has been commonly concluded - and with good reason - Keir Starmer’s Labour will drift into power on the back of the weakness of the Tories, not the strength of their campaign.

Where the report is undoubtedly correct is in the assessment that a lack of trust and the image of inauthenticity are serious drivers for the electorate to refrain from voting for a party. Culture wars alone do not lead to this, however. The constant backsliding and flip-flopping of Keir Starmer has driven his “untrustworthiness” rating up from 35% to 43% in 18 months, according to YouGov. Clarity on practical policy would of course be welcomed by those who are uninterested in another Conservative term, but remain unconvinced by Labour’s answers, but a more deep rooted issue is that even if such clarity was to be given, people just do not believe Starmer will follow through.

Still, the overall conclusion that engaging in culture wars is a losing battle may in the end explain the extent to which Labour secures a majority. For although the public's perception of Starmer most probably will remain flat, the exhaustion of the Tories may be more or less exacerbated by how much Sunak doubles down on culture war tactics in the face of electoral wipeout. If a move to the right is all that is deemed feasible to salvage seats from potential Reform UK voters, there is a real chance that according to the report’s findings this tactic will seriously backfire. For now, all we can do is wait and see how Sunak positions his party.

Image: Flickr



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