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THE Tory right are trying to launch a “culture war.” But it keeps stuttering.
One reason it’s not breaking through is that the left already fought some gritty, grassroots battles that are stopping the culture warriors from seizing territory.
A “culture war” is a US description of a backlash politics that shifts the argument from economics onto issues of “traditional” culture. It means trying to bind voters to the right through arguments about family values, patriotism, law-and-order and race.
A “culture war” tries to picture the right as friend of the “man in the street” — and his “wife” — by saying they share the “ordinary” Sunday-roast-dinner values, and picture the “left” as a “liberal elite.”
By focusing on “cultural issues” not economic ones, the cultural warrior hopes to shift the terrain so that the Conservative Party, funded by bankers and stuffed with public schoolboys, looks like the party of the “common man.”
The Labour Party, funded by the unions, are caricatured as weirdo metropolitan snobs.
Culture war has worked in the US. It was Richard Nixon’s strategy to eat into Democrat blue-collar votes, and worked for Trump.
There was a “culture war” aspect to a lot of Tory politics, under Thatcher or Michael Howard.
But while British “culture wars” can cause damage in the short term, they are a shadow of the US version.
Partly this is about the landscape. It’s easier to play on racism in the US, and easier to make the Democrats, who have weaker union links, look more “elite.”
But much of this is about how the left in Britain has won previous culture war battles, by showing that the fight for equal rights isn’t a “top down elitist” thing, it’s a fight from the people in the street.
The reason the Tory culture war is stuttering now is because of previous down-to-earth campaigns fought hard on “culture war” issues then — and won.
The point of a culture war
is to hide the fundamental economic inequality addressed by socialism.
One Labour response to culture war is to try and adapt to it, to duck or absorb “socially conservative” views. This is the Blue Labour approach. It is cowardly, and doesn’t work.
The left should always try to emphasise the bread-and-butter issues – because the point of a culture war is to hide the fundamental economic inequality addressed by socialism.
But just adopting or avoiding conservative social arguments is wrong in principle and fails in practice.
Blair used to try and throw bits of “right wing” social meat to the Daily Mail crowd – seasoning a supposedly “liberal” government with attacks on “single mums on benefits” or “bogus asylum-seekers.”
It just encouraged the right and demoralised our side.
Culture warriors need a “common sense” individual to be the “voice of the ordinary man” – a Tebbit figure, if you like.
However, if Labour are in a position where they are closer to the low paid, the zero hours worker, the renter – and this means letting these people speak, not just speaking for them – then the Tory culture warriors are more likely to look like the authoritarian boss or reactionary lord-of-the-manor than man-in-the street.
The left also has to bring together the equality battles and the justice battles with the struggle of the everyday people – something in fact the left has done quite well over past decades.
Take Ben Bradley MP. Recently promoted to one of the Tory vice-chair posts, Bradley is trying to stir up feeling by complaining about “white blokes” and “straight white men” not getting a fair deal from people worried about “equalities.”
But the same Ben Bradley recently had to apologise for writing, in his University Blog, that the police should have been tougher on the 2011 urban rioters.
Bradley said “We need to come down hard on these morons before somebody gets killed!” and that the police should “play splat the chav” with water cannon and even that “for once I think police brutality should be encouraged.”
Bradley was apologising for — and retreating from — what would have once been central to Tory “culture war”: enthusiasm for physical violence was once essential to Tory moral rearmament.
The Tory culture warriors were the “hang ‘em flog ‘em” brigade. They believed in bringing back the rope and the birch. They believed in the “clip around the ear” from the police for “yobboes,” and a lot more “stick” for rioters.
The Tory culture warriors were people like Rhodes Boyson, calling to keep the cane in schools and push any “gay“ talk out of schools with Section 28.
But all these positions now look like something from an older, ridiculous age. Something to be ashamed of.
Bradley made a rookie mistake for a culture warrior by talking about “chavs” — making himself look like a snob. But there are much deeper reasons why he can’t articulate the more physical side of the old “culture war.”
Because grassroots campaigns undermined all that hang ‘em flog ‘em stuff. The National Union of Schools Students and the STOPP campaign ended the cane in schools.
The successful justice campaigns like the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Tottenham Three and Cardiff Three not only got men and women out of prison.
They also stopped all agitation for the return of capital punishment.
The many grassroots campaigns about how the police treated “rioters” – from the Blair Peach Campaign to the Orgreave campaign to the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign – have shifted the balance on how confrontations with the police are viewed.
All these campaigns fought specific injustices – often in the face of tabloid fury – over long periods of time. They were dogged and – not easily, not without cost – often successful.
They also fought in a grassroots way, they showed that equality and justice are the interests of the common woman and man.
They put ordinary families first, and sought trade union support, and showed they were gritty and real and down-to-earth.
Similarly, the struggle for gay rights – the one Ben Bradley is trying to roll back – won by showing that ordinary gay and straight people could stand together: memorably, actual solidarity between gay and lesbian activists and miners was stronger than “cultural solidarity” between the anti-gay Sun and the miners.
This is how the “culture war” is beaten – by being willing to fight back against the right on social issues, and in the process show that, despite their pretences, it is the Tories who are the narrow, elitist representatives of the rich, while those fighting for justice and minority rights are the down-to-earth, regular people.
Solomon Hughes writes every Friday for the Morning Star. You can follow him on Twitter on @SolHughesWriter.
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