How Labour can overcome culture wars
Labour Together's editorials on the pressing issues of the day are based on the politics of Labour's Covenant. In this editorial we explore culture wars and common ground with new research from Global Future.
The American historian Christopher Lasch gave an early warning about the culture wars in the United States. Labour can learn a lot from his work. In The Culture of Narcissism (1980) and The Revolt of the Elites (1996) Lasch provides a prescient analysis of the political and cultural predicament we find ourselves in today.
Take The Revolt of The Elites. Here Lasch strongly critiques the emergence of an aristocracy of talent. It is dressed up as meritocracy but, in his view, it is little different from the aristocracy of old (without the claim to noblesse oblige). Furthermore, Lasch argues that this new globalised aristocracy, ensconced in the cities and working in the knowledge economy, is not only far too removed from the views and values of their fellow citizens, but has more in common with each other.
Lasch’s analysis bears a striking resemblance to the more contemporary analysis of Jonathan Haidt, Dani Rodrik, Thomas Piketty, David Goodhart and the World Values Survey. However, there is something more one can take from Lasch, which is the eerie precision of his analysis. Take this quote from The Revolt of the Elites which forewarned of the populist revolt against the EU. The referenda on European unification have revealed ‘a deep and widening gap between the political classes and more humble members of society’. They ‘fear that the European Economic Community will be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity or allegiance’. Lasch understood that ‘a Europe governed from Brussels, in their view, will be less and less amenable to popular control.’
He understood the cultural and political reaction to this kind of populist revolt. The reassertion of ethnic particularism in Europe and the decline of the nation state, ‘weakens the only authority capable of holding ethnic rivalries in check. The revival of tribalism, in turn, reinforces a reactive cosmopolitanism among elites’. It all sounds very familiar.
Labour Together is committed to the politics of bridge-building and the common good and Lasch confirms this approach. He cautions against the view that cultural divides in the United States are purely binary. There is complexity and paradox. While this claim may seem less true than it was thirty years ago, it has striking resonance with much of the ‘culture war’ debates in Britain.
New research by Global Future with YouGov finds that there is much more complexity on issues of culture than popular narratives would have us think. Two findings are clear: there are huge areas of consensus and where there are areas of division they are more nuanced than popular narratives suggest.
Take areas of consensus. When asked if it was ‘important to be attentive to issues of racial inequality and social justice’, four in five respondents agreed. This strong majority was shared across all demographic groups and across party affiliation. When asked whether sexual harassment poses a risk to women, a strong majority agreed – including more than half of men. When asked about whether Britain needed change to become a fairer society, without overhauling our current system, 68% of us agreed to some extent. This majority for social change included the majority of Conservative and Leave voters.
Nonetheless, there are also areas of consensus which one would regard as conservative or traditionalist too. 77% of us express pride in our history, believing that we have been a positive force in the world. This patriotism does not translate into denialism about Britain’s past as 68% also believe that Britain has done damage in the world. This traditionalism is also demonstrated in support for the monarchy, with 68% of us wanting to keep the monarchy – a majority opinion across left and right. On immigration, 60% of us do not favour weakening restrictions and 77% believe that there should be immigration but with some kind of restrictions.
This is not to say that divisions do not exist. In particular, how people voted in the EU referendum still remains the biggest predictor of their views on these issues. Indeed, this finding shows that issues of culture and identity remain salient in British politics. One can see stark similarities to Lasch’s description of elite cosmopolitanism in response to tribalism. However, even these divisions contain a nuance and complexity which confounds the strictures and stereotypes borne of culture war narratives on both left and right.
For example, the research found that 74% of Leavers agree that it is important to be attentive to issues of race and social justice but 40% of Remainers favour current or more restrictions on immigration. Only 8% of Leave voters favour a complete halt to immigration and just 4% of Remain voters favour open borders.
This nuance exists regarding party affiliation too. Some 74% of Conservative voters believe that Britain has done damage in the past and 61% believe that most or a fair amount of white people have unconscious racial bias. However, just 6% of all people believe that most or all white people are racist and just 27% believe that most white people have unconscious racial bias. Meanwhile, 65% of Labour voters believe that Britain has had a positive impact on the world and 57% of Labour voters want to keep the monarchy.
On immigration 60% percent of us do not favour weakening restrictions, but 48% of us believe that we ought to take more Ukrainian refugees - with just twelve percent thinking we should take fewer. This includes 30% of Conservative voters. Here we see a great deal of heterodoxy and nuance which confounds commonplace prejudices and myths.
This research demonstrates that there are clear areas of common ground which is both progressive and traditional in disposition. Voters on the right favour social justice, acknowledge discrimination, accept flaws in Britain’s past and want change to create a fairer society. Voters on the left support the monarchy, have pride in British history, do not favour revolution and oppose open borders. This presents Labour with an opportunity to speak to this common ground, be its voice, and with this unity, build a broad national coalition around a plan for national reconstruction.