Patrick O'Flynn

Labour is the culture war’s greatest victim

Labour is the culture war's greatest victim
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How damaging is the 'culture war' to the Labour party’s hopes of one day regaining power? On the left there is a fragile consensus in place that it doesn’t matter very much. The Times columnist David Aaronovitch set this out recently, using some opinion research from King’s College, London.

According to the study most voters don't fully understand terms such as 'cancel culture' or 'identity politics'. For many younger people, the term 'woke' denotes something positive about appreciating the hurdles others may have to overcome. Only among the over-55s is 'woke' seen overwhelmingly as a negative thing, with just 13 per cent of people thinking it a compliment to be so described.

Recent rows such as the one about the National Trust 'decolonising' its collection pass most normal people by and are an obsession of elites of both right and left, Aaronovitch argues.

This take is in sympathy with the view of another leftish commentator, Rafael Behr, who argued that Sir Keir Starmer had developed a deft strategy for dealing with the culture war — just avoid it. 'The Labour leader is not volunteering to be the soft target his enemies want him to be,' argued Behr, adding, 'it is easy to list the obstacles and traps in Starmer’s path, but at least he seems to know where they are and how not to blunder into them'. At the time he wrote the article (last August) this was deemed to have silenced the 'Tory attack machine'.

This analysis seems like wishful thinking from the left. Simply avoiding the culture war is worse than useless for Labour, because in the eyes of many voters — especially their lost red wallers — the party is now simply assumed to support zealous wokery. This is particularly the case since Starmer’s decision to put out a photograph of him taking a knee in support of BLM and later to take the side of Harry and Meghan in the royal race row. So just keeping schtum is no electoral antidote at all.

The authority of King’s, London as an objective assessor of the question has in any event taken a knock following the furore surrounding its apology to staff for emailing out a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh, a longstanding patron of the institution, to commemorate his passing.

The email was held to be a micro-aggression that had caused 'harm' to some staff members because of the Duke’s history of making remarks felt to be outrageously sexist and racist by many in academic circles. So a study from King’s indicating that the culture war is largely a media construct and a term that mainly denotes friction surrounding the ongoing replacement of the reactionary views of oldies with the more enlightened thoughts of younger cohorts hardly comes as a surprise.

Plenty of clues have emerged that point in the other direction, not least Labour’s ongoing very poor electoral performance. Immediately after Labour’s abject showing on 6 May, the party’s best-ever reader of the public mood intervened in the debate. In an article for the New Statesman, Tony Blair noted that: 

People are suspicious that behind the agenda of many of the culture warriors on the left lies an ideology they find alien and extreme… People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. People like common sense, proportion and reason.

More cuttingly still, Blair concluded of Starmer: 'He lacks a compelling economic message and the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the "woke" left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the right.'

In a follow-up to that, Blair was interviewed by his old spin doctor Alastair Campbell on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast programme and said: 'I’m afraid I am of an age where I am now terrified if I talk about any of these subjects that I am going to say something that I should not say.'

Blair is clearly well within the problematic over-55s category identified by King’s. But really, when someone so steeped in progressive political thinking as he ends up feeling bewildered and defensive perhaps left intellectuals ought to acknowledge they have a problem.

All eyes must now turn to the Batley and Spen by-election. The Tories arguably did no more than Labour to support the teacher at the heart of the recent furore over showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed at Batley Grammar School.

But my instinct — and I suspect Tony Blair’s instinct too — is that they will be rewarded and Labour will be blamed by a local electorate that, so far, has kept its collective unease quiet. And remember, it is the over-55s who vote in the greatest numbers.

Written byPatrick O'Flynn

Patrick O’Flynn is a political commentator. He was a Member of the European Parliament from 2014-19, representing first Ukip and then the Social Democratic party. He is a former political editor of the Daily Express

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