When a ‘culture war’ issue comes to the fore, Labour’s reaction is often to ignore it. Such battles make many politicians on the left uncomfortable. They squirm in interviews, worried that any position taken will either anger the base or repel voters whose support their party is trying to claw back. Instead of taking a side, they usually seek to downplay the row. This is not what voters care about, they assert hopefully: the public would actually prefer to know about the government’s latest failing. But that story isn’t as sexy for the media, so the culture war dominates. Labour’s stance pleases nobody because it has barely been expressed and the fear emanating from the politicians means anyone who does care about the argument assumes Labour is on the other side of it.
Keir Starmer did not go down this route yesterday: instead, he spied an opportunity and leapt on it. Boris Johnson’s comments on the racist abuse suffered by England players after the final “ring hollow”, the Labour leader said. “I’m afraid the Prime Minister has failed the test of leadership because, whatever he says today about racism, he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee.” I wish he’d use fewer words to make the point, but I think Starmer was bang on here. Calling out the hypocrisy looks even more like the right decision after England’s Tyrone Mings posted a perfectly crafted tweet about the flip-flopping of Priti Patel, who is now “disgusted” by the anti-Black racism but only last month dismissed taking the knee as “gesture politics”.
On LabourList, Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop has written about the answer to Labour’s culture wars problem. He says “the goal cannot be to win each culture war but to end them”, but also that the aim should be “having a better conversation of our own” rather than “ignoring the values conversation”. The Fabians have released a new report, Counter Culture, on how inclusive, progressive patriotism – the kind embraced by the England team – is central to the best way Labour can respond.
In other culture war news, the House of Commons saw the higher education (freedom of speech) bill approved at second reading last night. This is the legislation that ministers say will protect free speech on university campuses, but that Labour says is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and one that risks protecting Holocaust deniers. The bill passed easily. There will be a more difficult vote among MPs for the government today, however, as Conservative rebels prepare to vote down Rishi Sunak’s plan to cut the foreign aid spending target. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.