Labour will never win by snubbing the culture wars
It’s taken the action of those with far more political courage than the Labour leadership to prompt a reckoning on their “sit it out” culture war strategy.
Since he became LOTO, Keir Starmer has adopted a very specific strategy when it comes to the culture wars Boris Johnson and his government have been raging upon the young, minorities, and the poor: sit it out and hope it goes away. One way or another, the Labour leader has sought to neutralise the issue by talking about anything but those sort of issues, and by attempting to portray himself comfortable with various “patriotic” images (the armed forces, flags, etc etc) in a way Jeremy Corbyn was viewed as not being.
This position was always a fudge, we all knew it was a fudge, and the Labour leadership certainly knew it to be a fudge. As the months went on and the Tories managed to clean up through their divide and rule tactics, it was widely accepted in Labour circles (and centre-left circles more broadly) that something needed to be done about this, with the disagreement being about what exactly needed to be done to get back and track and find a winning culture war framing.
There’s no doubt, these issues put Labour in a tricky bind at times, but not nearly to the extent some fret about. It really is worth bearing in mind that Labour’s path to power can neither be through trumpeting socially conservative or patriotic images, nor can it be liberal politics devoid of economic concerns. Keir Starmer and his team seem to be living in a long gone political era, where the overwhelming majority of the public are socially conservative in outlook, and they only loose a tiny minority of uber-liberal activists if they abandon certain issues. This is absolute nonsense, and Labour needs to realise a massive chunk of their voters are having this culture war waged against THEM, and unless Labour stands up for them they’ll have no qualms about going elsewhere, and then just like that Labour’s vote share goes further down in 2023 and more seats fall.
Did Jeremy Corbyn actually do any better when it came to uniting Labour’s base and tackling these culture war issues? Well, yes and no. In 2017, Labour managed to unite a coalition of voters as diverse as liberal Remainers in cities who’d previously voted Liberal Democrat or Green, and socially conservative Leavers who’d voted UKIP at the last general election in post industrial heartland seats, pushing Labour’s vote share massively up in former Tory or Liberal areas and taking seats unthinkable for Labour by putting their tanks on the Tory shire lawn, as well as seeing the Labour vote shoot up massively in seats such as Hartlepool as voters disillusioned by New Labour came back home and overrode the post-Brexit Tory surge in the vote also occurring in these seats by seeing the Labour vote increase more than the Tory vote.
Corbyn managed this by uniting these voters around a concrete, radical economic programme that appealed to these voter’s material interests, as well as neutralising the Brexit issue by accepting the result and pushing for a Jobs First Brexit, as well as championing the values of accepting migrants and refugees, managing to straddle those two camps under the same banner. Keir Starmer’s approach has been very different from any attempt to recreate this coalition post-Brexit now we have “Got Brexit Done”.
Starmer has fudged the issue all the way, this is a mistake. On issues like trans rights, like Black Lives Matter, like really basic questions of values, if Labour is off the pitch it A: lets a reactionary government terrorise the most vulnerable in society without a peep from the opposition, and it B: tells Labour’s core vote it isn’t wanted and that the party is embarrassed of them. Sure, by championing progressive values some people will hate you, and they’ll be polarisation, but to be assemble a winning 43% bloc of the vote you might have to polarise the other 57%; that’s fine.
Going by PMQs yesterday, Labour is now suddenly comfortable speaking out on these boilerplate questions of values and taking the fight to the Tories on culture war terrain. It has taken the England team, individuals with far more moral and political courage than Keir Starmer and his assorted Blairite acolytes, to cut through and place the government’s approach out of step with wider public opinion. People always complain that the public side with the Tories on these divide and rule issues, we now see the truth is that that’s because no one was putting an alternative narrative out there for fear of it politically backfiring. Footballers have done the job of the opposition! And now that the risk is gone, Labour are happy to come out onto the pitch so to speak, like the morally and politically opportunistic cowards they are.
So yes, going forward, Labour needs to at least try and present an alternative narrative about England and about the UK than the Tories do, rather than swallowing theirs wholesale. This could work it it could go worse than terrible, but without it Labour will never govern. As we’ve seen here, when people show up the divide and rule tactics for what they are, suddenly the so called People’s Government is dramatically out of step with the public and on the wrong side of the culture wars. But this isn’t how Labour win, it’s just what needs to be there in the background; Labour can only win by cutting through and getting a hearing on bread and butter issues, uniting a coalition based upon material interests. This needs repeating, because Labour have totally abandoned that, and if they don’t champion a radical programme, there’s not even a hope of assembling a coalition; progressive values should underpin it, but people vote on cold economic calculations, and we need to fight on the terrain of bread and butter issues, not a clash of values.