A Culture War Won’t Save the Conservatives

Gary Ellis
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The majority of the UK electorate refuse to believe in a ‘culture war’. Source: OpenDemocracy

What, if anything, can save the UK’s ruling Conservative Party from certain defeat ahead of the next general election? After a series of electoral losses in key constituencies and continuously poor performances in opinion polls, commentators suggest that imminent defeat is all but certain. Observers and politicians from both sides further add that after 13 years in power, the Conservatives are starting to look like an opposition party in waiting. But a struggle for survival can lead to acts of desperation, as exemplified by the Conservatives’ adoption of a US-style so-called ‘culture war’.

On October 19th, The Conservatives, colloquially known as the Tories, lost two local by-elections both held on the same day following the resignations of the Conservative Members of Parliament. This comes following the previous loss of two out of three by-elections in July. The constituencies of Tamworth, previously held by Nadine Dorries, and Mid Bedfordshire, which faced a by-election following the resignation of disgraced Chris Pincher, were held with significant majorities by the Tories following the 2019 General Election which saw an important overall majority for the Tories.

In 2019, many constituencies across the country that were previously strongholds of the main opposition, the Labour Party, voted Conservative for the first time. But constituencies returning to Labour or voting against the Conservative Party for the first time in decades, which leader Sir Keir Starmer described as “history in the making”, may reflect grander consequences to come for the Tories. The loss of the two constituencies places the ruling party in a difficult position in the context of a general election expected to take place next year, although Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader, Rishi Sunak, can call an election anytime between now and January 2025. 

Previous Conservative MPs Chris Pincher and Nadine Dorries. Source: The Express

Alongside the electoral losses, Labour are ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls by 20%. What’s more, the Tories also lost the constituencies of Selby in the north of England and Somerset and Fromerton in the south following by-elections held in July this year, where the party previously held significant majorities following the 2019 general elections. However, the Conservative Party managed to hold on to the Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency made vacant after Boris Johnson stepped down after an investigation into the Partygate scandal concluded he had deliberately misled and lied to the House of Commons.

With pollsters expecting defeats for the ruling party across all three by-elections in July, the Tories received a slim majority in the West London seat after voters took a protest vote against the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) announced by the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. From the electoral win in Uxbridge, the Sunak administration saw a potential strategic opportunity by focusing on drivers. Sunak then went on to announce a number of moves with car-centric justifications, including plans to delay bans on petrol cars and the scrapping of the northern leg of HS2, the controversial high-speed rail project with a new price tag of £57 billion in 2019 prices.

The plan for HS2 before Sunak announced the changes, the line will now stop at Birmingham. Source: The BBC

Accompanying the proposals was an announcement that the government intended to roll back on its Net Zero goals, a move that commentators suggest is an attempt to create divisions amongst the electorate by driving a “green wedge” between voters and utilising a ‘culture war’, the schismatic social concept generally associated with the US, to split the support for Labour ahead of the next general election.

Through this approach, the Conservative’s are using social issues, such as trans and gender rights, in an attempt to divide the electorate. In fact, six cabinet members are focusing on such topics in their speeches during this year’s Conservative annual conference. However, some Conservative members spoke out against the culture war approach. Andrew Boff, a Conservative London Assembly member, was ejected from the speech of the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman after shouting “there’s no such thing as gender ideology” after Braverman denounced “gender ideology” as “woke”. 

Before being removed as Home Secretary for the second time, Conservative MP Suella Braverman was accused of stoking culture war flames in a bid to place herself in a position for leader of the party should the Tories lose the next general election. The Home Secretary had previously caused outrage by claiming that she intended to put into place a law which would prevent charities from selling tents to homeless people. Braverman then took to X, the platform formally known as Twitter, claiming that “people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice” and occupying rows of tents. 

On the remembrance weekend, London saw a pro-Palestinian march of 800,000 attendants, an event which Braverman repeatedly described as a “hate march”, to which critics and commentators accused Braverman of using populist tactics in pandering to the far-right. In an opinion article published in The Times, Braverman described attendants at the march as “hate marchers”, “Islamists” and “mobs”. 

In the same piece, Braverman criticised the London Metropolitan Police Service by claiming that the force had a bias toward left-wing groups, such as the pro-Palestinian marches, versus demonstrations typically associated with the right, the anti-lockdown protestors for example. Braverman’s rhetoric led to Sunak removing her as Home Secretary whilst bringing back former Prime Minister David Cameron as the new Foreign Secretary.

Suella Braverman at this years Conservative Party Conference. Source: Politico

What’s more, Braverman’s popularity in the Conservative Party is concentrated amongst a group known as the New Conservatives, a populist collection on the right of the party brought in between Brexit and the 2019 election of Boris Johnson. Along with Braverman, the group represents the section of the party most in favour of utilising culture wars. 

Whilst culture wars may be a feature of social and political discourse in the US, a recent IPSOS poll shows that such issues are not a priority for the electorate in the UK. According to the poll, voters believe that the Conservative Party is using the notion of a culture war for political purposes. Indeed, more than six in ten respondents agree that the party invents or exaggerates divisions in social attitudes and that such exploitation poses a serious problem. Instead, voters put the National Health Service (NHS) and the economy as the top priorities but feel that the Tories are using culture wars to distract voters from such concerns.

The Tories are further displaying their culture war position ahead of the next general election through networking and events. The Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC), a right-wing international network focused on social and cultural issues, hosted a gathering in London with prominent Conservative MPs in attendance.

The event saw a mixture of Conservative Cabinet ministers, such as Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch, members of Australia’s Liberal Party and figures from the right of the US Republican party, such as the newly elected House Speaker, Mike Johnson, who defends the electoral fraud claims of former President Donald Trump. With some commentators calling it the “anti-woke Davos”, the ARC’s London meeting predominantly discussed socially conservative talking points, such as family values, a critique of ESG-led capitalism and the role of religion. Johnson stated that people ought to improve the world by using “the best of” classical liberalism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

Meanwhile, such a cultural approach is finding its way into government legislation. On the 7th of November, King Charles III delivered his first speech outlining the Conservative Party mandate between now and the next general election. The speech included a total of 21 bills, 15 new and 6 continuations from the previous parliamentary session. Some of the new bills, including a push on oil and gas extraction in the North Sea and a Renters Reform Bill, demonstrate the divisive electoral tactics of the party. Of particular notice was the fact that the Conservatives failed to include a promised ban on LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, a proposal with noticeable opposition from those on the right in the party. 

But the extent to which the Tories can push through 21 bills between now and the general election, remains a challenge, especially considering the disillusionment amongst the electorate. With the majority of the voters rejecting the idea of a culture war and instead prioritising matters such as the economy and healthcare, perhaps the Conservatives should attempt damage control before causing a potential electoral wipeout. 

Questions: 

  1. Does the claim of a culture war in the UK hold legitimacy?
  2. As the ruling party, what should the Conservatives prioritize to avoid further electoral losses?
  3. Considering the focus of culture is amongst the populist right of the party, what does such an occurrence say about the direction of the Conservative Party?

Suggested further reading:

https://www.politico.eu/article/every-bill-in-the-kings-speech-reviewed-and-rated/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/sep/24/why-tories-are-using-cars-as-a-political-dividing-line-in-the-uk

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/aug/20/sorry-tories-but-conjuring-up-ever-more-culture-wars-is-bound-to-backfire

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/culture-wars-tory-conference-election-trans-rights-b2423198.html

https://www.wired.com/story/uk-net-zero-climate-pledges-weakened-rishi-sunak/

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A Culture War Won’t…

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