‘Labour must get stuck into culture wars by healing divides, not ignoring them’

Sunder Katwala
Shutterstock / Lightspring
Shutterstock / Lightspring

How do you call off a culture war? Most of us can easily think of some political and media voices we would be happy to hear a lot less from.

Conservative vice-chair Lee Anderson telling asylum seekers to “f*** off back to France” undoubtedly went too far. It is certainly legitimate to challenge political opponents who cross the line. But that will be much more credible when leaders and parties take responsibility for the contribution that their own tribe makes to our political culture.

Whether this election year leaves our society more divided will depend on the choices that political leaders make. They can try to amplify, to avoid or to bridge the divides in our society.

The risks and rewards of amplifying “culture war” politics are debated as potential electoral tactics. Could they help to reanimate some of the Brexit dividing lines which helped the Conservatives to win in 2019 – or might that look too cynical once economic pressures are firmly top of mind?

Ducking identity debates is popular for many on the centre-left

Clearly, Keir Starmer’s Labour party wants to reach across political divides, and reach across the geographic, generational and class divides illuminated by Brexit.

It has an opportunity to try to unfreeze the Scottish political realignment which has seen the SNP dominate politics north of the border after losing the independence referendum of 2014.

That helps to explain why ducking identity debates – trying to change the subject to safer and more “serious” topics – is a popular option for many on the centre-left. When public services risk literally crumbling from out-of-date concrete, there is a lot of sense in focusing on the public’s top priorities.

Meanwhile, the electoral coalition that the centre-left wants to construct agrees on economic issues, but is far more divided on identity issues.

A party seeking to govern needs an agenda on big identity issues

But avoidance has its limits. Trying not to answer a question is usually an incentive to the media to keep asking it. Issues of identity will matter too. Labour politicians would be sensible not to dive into every passing twitterstorm.

However, a party seeking to govern the Britain of the 2020s will need an agenda on big identity issues – such as the future of race equality, how to fix the asylum system, and how it can be inclusive of trans people while recognising when public policy should recognise the difference between sex and gender.

A third choice is to make a proactive effort to bridge identity divides. My new report Culture Clash sets out what a principled approach to bridging identity divides could look like for Labour and the centre-left – and how it might be applied.

The report argues that Labour should make a principled as well as an electoral case for bridging identity divides. If Labour is to govern, it will need to win a coalition of voters with a range of views on social and cultural issues.

Culture war can threaten to be too deep for democracy to resolve

The case for bridging should be just as much about the health of our democracy and the type of society that we want to be. A bridging approach would take our cultural divides seriously without talking ourselves into a culture war.

Britain is much more anxious, fragmented and polarised than any of us would want, though not quite as divided as we sometimes tell ourselves.

If we take the idea of a “culture war” seriously, it is the peacetime equivalent of a civil war: a sustained identity clash that can threaten to be too deep for democracy to resolve, because it feels too existential to be the sort of issue that people can agree to disagree about.

America’s election debate revolving around Donald Trump’s mugshot shows how a political system locks in a dynamic of ever-increasing mutual polarisation, questions of competence and delivery can cease to matter.

If Britain does not quite have culture wars – not yet – by American standards, we do have significant cultural clashes.

Bridging divides does not mean sacrificing progressive change

So an effective strategy to defuse cultural conflict depends on engaging with the most substantive issues, in ways that can both make constructive progress possible, and to reduce the temperature by defusing the kind of unconstructive polarisation that can derail it.

One reason for the growing public salience of climate and the environment is that politicians and campaigners have found arguments that reach across cultural divides.

So a centre-left bridging strategy does not sacrifice an agenda to seek progressive change, in the way that a strategy of avoidance might. Serious engagement with even the most hotly contested questions of culture and identity, such as patriotism, race, migration, gender identity and free speech generates opportunities to build bridges across social divides if we are prepared to put the work in.

Elections divide, but leaders have a choice too

Elections divide. That is part of how democracy works.

Citizens make choices – between continuity and change, competing leaders and parties, and their manifestos for the future.

But leadership should involve choosing which kinds of “dividing lines” parties do not want to pursue too – such as punching the bruises of Britain’s polarising identity clashes rather than trying to reach across and heal divides.

The choices that leaders, political parties and their supporters make will influence their chances of winning power at the election – but also shape the type of society they want to lead and govern too.

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