Can Keir Starmer prevent Labour’s culture wars from splitting the party in two?
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer talking to students at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, Darlington, after they received their A-Level results. | PA Images
From Black Lives Matter to attitudes to immigration, British politics is increasingly seen through the lens of a ‘culture war’. Can Keir Starmer prevent Labour’s fragile electoral coalition from breaking in two?
What would you do if you were Keir Starmer? More specifically – what would you do if you were Keir Starmer and, every other day, you were put in a situation where every option felt like a potential mistake? Since the QC was elected leader of the Labour party earlier this year, culture wars have been dominating British politics. Generally started by the right – be that the Conservative party or the newspapers associated with them – then often stoked by the far left, debates over arguably minor issues keep dominating political discourse.
From the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol to whether Rule Britannia should feature in Last Night of the Proms, the deepening of the culture war has been relentless – and presents a dilemma for Labour.
After all, it is the party with the most to lose, and the line it must navigate is a fine one. If you were Keir Starmer, would you get involved and attack the Tories, which would comfort the membership but allow your critics to paint you as a left-wing lunatic? Would you side closer to the Tories in the hope of regaining some of their voters, but alienate the people who support you already as a result? Would you stay silent, and allow the press and the government to define you however they see fit?
“The problem is they’re laying traps for you and you wind up having to engage in that territory don’t you, because otherwise it looks like you haven’t come out and said anything,” a Labour MP complained. “It is a trap either way. You could very tritely say ‘well we have to set the agenda and not allow them to set it’ but things don’t really work like that when you’re in opposition.”
And so because he had to do something, Starmer said of Colston that “it shouldn’t have been done in that way, completely wrong to pull a statue down like that [...] That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put, I would say, in a museum.” On the Proms, a spokesperson declared that “enjoying patriotic songs does not – and should not – present a barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.” In short: not quite the full ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs, but not Jezza either.
The question is: is that enough? By only getting quietly involved, and never taking a strong position either way, Labour may end up displeasing both sides. But does it have a choice? The culture wars may seem futile, but they are not happening in a vacuum; a lot of bigger social issues – from Black Lives Matter and feminism to transgender issues and attitudes to immigration – have becoming incredibly polarised.
“It’s a difficult problem for Labour to solve because it’s structural,” said Rob Ford, academic and author of Brexitland. “The centre left is increasingly more reliant on voters from middle-class backgrounds, university graduates, all of whom tend to be pretty strongly and vocally liberal [on social issues]. It’s even more evident in the activist spaces of these parties, so they have this gravitational pull in this direction, but on the other hand these groups are just not big enough on their own to realistically deliver any kind of electoral victory.”
As Ford notes, the rest of the electorate does tend to be more to the right on these topics than Labour would hope. In June, analysis from the Party Member’s Project and British Election Study found that the Conservative party is currently more in touch with the public on social values.
Take the statement “young people do not have respect for traditional values”, which arguably is the backdrop to a number of culture war issues: 44% of Conservative MPs agreed with the statement, as well as 63% of the public – but only 17% of Labour voters did, and 9% of Labour MPs.
Does this mean Labour should simply take a sharp turn rightwards to improve its prospects, current voters be damned? Probably not. “Selling the moderate positions to the more activist liberals is hard because they’ll say, ‘well, no, you’re saying these voters are important but the voters who think like me are also important’ and they’re right,” argues Ford.
“Progressive parties by definition want to be in the vanguard of social justice. If you keep following rather than leading then people start wondering ‘what's the point of you?’”
Though political parties should aim to attract new voters, they should be wary of those claiming that, for example, the interests of white working-class men should be put above all else. After all, one person’s “obsession with identity politics” is another’s lived reality, as their race, gender or both will define their experiences.
“It’s also risky because progressive parties, by definition, want to be in the vanguard of social progress and social justice. So if you keep following rather than leading on that front then people start wondering ‘what’s the point of you?’”
Then there is the fact that socially conservative voters are easily caricatured by those desperate to win them over, or cynically using them as a convenient excuse to push parties towards their preferred positions. Britain may have imported a number of talking points from the United States, but that does not mean that red wall voters are the new southern Republicans.
According to DeltaPoll pollster Joe Twyman: “The idea that it’s along the lines of the ‘gays, guns and God’ distinction that you see in America is simply not correct – and the people that promote that are the ones with a vested interest to make it that. Saying that northern red wall voters are all rabid racists is not accurate, and while they may be more socially conservative on aggregate than the more metropolitan areas of London, I imagine you could find areas of London that were more socially conservative. It is more complicated than it might appear in some of the coverage.”
Still this does not change the findings of the BES study, or the fact that Labour’s “Hull and Hampstead” coalition has been gradually becoming more and more untenable. Debates over whether songs are racist, or whether statues should be thrown into a dock, may seem like flashes in the pan but they are emblematic of bigger splits.
Not having an emphatic position to take is also no excuse not to get involved, as Ed Miliband found out the hard way when he was leader. Not quite knowing how to approach the issue of immigration in 2014, Labour famously urged its activists to “move the conversation on” if voters brought it up. It was a valiant effort, with disastrous results.
By shying away from social issues, Starmer’s Labour could well suffer a similar fate. But perhaps a middle ground can be reached. It may be worth trying to focus on the issues Labour’s current and potential voters have in common, rather than the ones that divide them.
As journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan argues, “people have been so keen to talk about what went wrong in 2019 that there’s not been much discussion about what went right in 2017”. “The coalition of voters that Labour managed to unite in that election was basically young people working precariously and more traditional Labour voters, who I suppose we now call red wall voters,” she says.
“And the way it did that was not by taking reactionary positions on cultural issues, but by focusing overwhelmingly on an economically transformative programme that was clearly explained and felt possible. Labour’s voting coalition is very divided over cultural issues, but it can be knitted together through a vision of bold economic transformation. Keir Starmer’s role is to rebuild that coalition, and then expand it, which I think he’s well-placed to do as the electable haircut guy.”
On which note – Labour’s current dilemma is similar to the one facing other centre-left parties in many other countries, but it’s also unique in that it is haunted by the ghosts of culture warriors past. Because Jeremy Corbyn’s views on social issues were especially unpopular among voters, Starmer has some overcorrecting to do if he wants to have a shot at winning over new voters. It is not just about not letting his party get defined by his opponents, but also about ensuring that he is not seen as a facsimile of his unpopular predecessor.
“We’ve still got the Labour baggage of not being seen as patriotic, and so on,” one Labour MP says. “That’s one of the reasons why we have to engage with it because, if not, people will fill in the blanks themselves.” In short: it is probably better to bite the bullet now than regret it in four years.
Or is it? The reason why no one could agree on what the way forward should be for Starmer is fairly obvious: there is no easy answer. As Corbyn found, indulging your base will make them energised and motivated enough to become a powerful campaigning force, but it will not take an opposition party into government. As Miliband found before that, pandering to voters you do not agree with in order to make them switch sides will not work if it is obvious your heart is not in it; the electorate isn’t dim. As both of them found, with immigration and Brexit, you can only play the cards you’re dealt; just because you would rather ignore a topic does not mean it will go away.
Still, there are some silver linings for Starmer and his team. Firstly, they can now learn from the mistakes of previous leaders; these are not uncharted waters. Secondly, there is still some time for them to find their feet; four years always was a long time in politics, but given the times we live in, 2024 feels like another world altogether. Finally, they shouldn’t forget that all wars must end at some point, even cultural ones.
“Older, more socially conservative parts of the electorate are often aware of the fact that they are gradually losing the argument and that makes them more keen to make the change stop”, Ford said. “One of the things that has been the heart of a lot of radical right movements in many places is this perception that the tide is turning on social change and if they don’t move soon, they’re going to run out of time because they’ll be outnumbered by all those awful libs. They’ve got to take their stand now.”
To sum up: the end is near, but the stakes are higher than ever. Best of luck to the electable haircut guy, then.