Will chasing the same narrow economically left but culturally right constituent pay off for Labour? Or will those who are pushed too far, take their vote to a smaller party jostling for space in the straightjacket of the two-party system, or just not vote at all?
Tory poll ratings are still tanking, in spite of some modest improvements of late. That, together with a robust, albeit unremarkable, performance from Labour, has created a sense that Team Starmer is ‘here to win.’ The latest polling by YouGov, shows Labour has opened up a 40 percentage-point lead over the Tories in London, the party’s highest lead since the polling company started tracking voting intention in the capital in 2010.
While towering levels of support might seem invincible now, election victory under our first past the post electoral system is far from guaranteed. For Labour to win a majority, appealing to the ‘socially conservative’ – that is left-leaning on the economy and right on social issues – will be vital. Apparently.
In 2019, it was Workington Man, the archetypical white, working-class Brexiter swing voter, who the Tories successfully targeted and who left the Red Wall in ruins. Today, it’s all about ‘Stevenage Woman,’ the latest incarnation of the typification of an imaged voter. This fortysomething ‘socially conservative’, full-time working mum is living in suburban commuter land. She is struggling to get by with stagnant wages and has become disillusioned with politics.
According to the think-tank Labour Together, which was formed during Starmer’s 2020 leadership campaign, courting the ‘Stevenage Woman,’ will be essential if Labour is to secure a strong victory at the next general election.
The group’s Red Shift report contends that these voters believe Britain should be proud of its past, that we should not increase immigration numbers, and that ‘young people do not respect British values.’
The report shares a similar message to an earlier study by the right-leaning think-tank Onward, which claims that even a relatively small right-ward shift on cultural values could deliver sufficient additional votes to bring a Labour landslide, on a par with 1997. Onward argues that to properly secure its advantage, Starmer’s party needs to appeal to the so-called ‘left authoritarians’ – those with left-wing values on economics but more conservative on social issues, many of whom voted for Boris Johnson in 2019. These represent 61 percent of all voters, and 78 percent of potential switchers to Labour, the report says.
Labour’s ‘five missions’
In February, Starmer announced ‘five bold missions for a better Britain.’ Growth, clean energy, the NHS, fighting crime and education, would form the backbone for the party’s next general election manifesto – and the “pillars of the next Labour government.”
After Liz Truss’s disastrous 49 days in No 10, which prompted turmoil in the financial markets, and mortgage rates to soar, it is no surprise that Starmer made the economy one of his first missions.
In what seems to be a rerun of Blair’s position on the economy – that is ‘partnership with business’, encourage small businesses, and no increase in personal taxation including the rejection of a wealth tax – Starmer’s plans for the economy are likely to be well received among many on the centre ground. Or so it is believed by right-wing commentators. As Iain Mansfield, director of research at the Policy Exchange, notes in his evaluation of Starmer’s five missions: “They [the tone and language of the missions] speak to the aspirational centre-ground, not the radical left, and suggest a party that is proud of Britain and wants what normal people want.”
‘Normal’ people, we assume are those like Stevenage Woman, whose stagnant wages amid the soaring cost of living is a leading concern.
What was notably absent from the ‘five missions’ were two of the country’s biggest challenges – housing and immigration, the latter of which has been labelled another primary anxiety of the imagined socially conservative voter.
On immigration, Labour have denounced the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, but have signalled they will ‘control’ immigration through a points based system. Speaking to the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) in November, Starmer’s key message was about reducing the UK’s dependency on migrant labour.
This position is markedly different from when Starmer was running for the Labour leadership to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, and said: “We have to make the case for freedom of movement.”
While it may appeal to the ‘socially conservative’ voter, who craves for less immigration, Labour’s tough line on immigration is not for everyone, and has not been without criticism. Author Maya Goodfellow, says it is not enough for Labour just to be against the punitive Rwanda policy, and they must be ready to change the script on migration. ‘Starmer doesn’t have to follow the Tories on immigration to win – a human approach could still lead him to No 10,” she writes . Aubrey Allegretti, political correspondent at the Guardian, says Starmer is ‘walking a fine line’ in shifting Labour’s stance on immigration.
Tough on crime
Then there’s the issue of crime, another of Starmer’s key missions. ‘Tough on crime, tough on causes of crime,’ remains one of Tony Blair’s most memorable slogans. Throughout Johnson’s premiership, a being ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric was also used as a pillar of the government’s populist appeal. Violent crime under the Tories has still more than doubled since 2015, a failing that Labour has been keen to expose.
The socially conservative voter typically has a thirst for a tough position on crime, which may explain Labour’s unveiling of a campaign poster highlighting the Conservatives’ ‘abject failure’ on law and order.
The online poster claiming the prime minister does not believe in jailing child abusers attracted criticism from the left and the right, with a number of senior party figures distancing themselves from it. The campaign team though were apparently happy with the reaction. Campaigning wisdom supposedly holds that any such material that is still talked about after 30 days is doing its job. ‘Stevenage women’, it seems will register that it is the Tories not Labour who are ‘soft’ on crime.
Proceed with care though as ‘negative’, smear-style campaigning does not always pay off. In Sweden, for example, commentators have argued that the left’s US-style smear campaign suggesting that all conservatives condone fascism, helped the right win.
You cannot help but feel that Labour, in pursuing the socially conservative imaged Stevenage Woman voter, assumes that the rest of us will just hold our noses and vote for them anyway. The tactic could be said to be centred on what the late Nigel Lawson dismissed as focus group politics, whereby somebody sits down with a few dozen people, gathers their opinions and the party comes up with policies accordingly. The problem is what you get this way is a snapshot in a particular moment of time whereas grown up politics is more like a film – it unfolds over time. Significantly, Labour won after long periods in the wilderness by appealing to the whole electorate via holding out the image of a better future – 1945 ‘Victory in Peace’, 1964 – The white heat of technology, 1997 – Education, Education, Education. Subsequent governments might not have lived up to the slogan but for a time their campaigning was aspirational on both a social and individual level.
This ultimately begs the question, whether those who are pushed too far – like young people or the Cobynite left, which shun the ‘socially conservative’ model that favours traditional values and social institutions, such as family structures, gender roles and national patriotism – will take their vote to a smaller party jostling for space in the straightjacket of the two-party system. Or just not vote at all.
Chasing the same breed of voter
The other issue arising from putting so much energy in appealing to the social conservative voter is that the Tories are fighting for the same breed of constituent.
The Tory strategy is to push a hard line on immigration and culture war issues in order to win back some socially conservative voters, whose defection from Labour in 2019 were crucial in the Tory landslide. As deputy chairman, Lee Anderson said, without ‘great ingredients’ like Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit, the party should fight the election on ‘culture wars and trans debate.’
New Social Covenant Unit
Within this climate, a new strand of Toryism is emerging, which seems to be straight from the US Heritage Foundation/Republican playbook. Leading the charge is Miriam Cates, a Sheffield MP who was one of the 2019 intake. Cates was a founder of the New Social Covenant Unit (NSCU), a group established in 2021.
The MP is a committed social conservative and evangelical Christian who believes that schoolchildren are being exposed to “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders.” On its website, the NSCU says it wants to work with individuals or organisations, “whether they are on the Left or Right of politics or reject that binary distinction altogether.”
Cates’ worries about ‘inappropriate’ sex education in schools appears to be shared by Rishi Sunak, who assured Cates he ‘shared’ her concerns, when they were raised at PMQs in March. And of course, pledges to rebuke ‘woke nonsense’ and crackdown on ‘inappropriate material,’ were key components of Sunak’s unsuccessful 2022 leadership bid.
This particular moral panic is not of course a standalone issue and is part of a wider cultural attack on transgender people, drag queens, hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community, and more.
Sharing every one of these prejudices, the NSCU is considered, unsurprisingly, to be extremely socially conservative. Conservative Home, deputy editor Henry Hill talks about the NSCU and the alleged renaissance of social conservatism, which was defined somewhat crudely by Britain Remade’s head of campaigns Jeremy Driver, as ‘love our NHS; hang the paedos,’ and whether it represents the future of Tory, and indeed British politics.
Analysis on public attitudes on social issues from May 2022 showed that an overwhelming majority of people in the UK hold the ‘woke’ belief that it is important to be alive to issues of race and social justice. With this in mind, pushing to attract those with ‘extremely’ socially conservative values could do more harm than good, and Hill could well be right when he argues the key test for social conservatives is whether they can overcome the right’s current, actively self-harming culture-warrior playbook.
Over Easter, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham issued a warning about entering the culture war fray. He warned politicians from all sides against divisive and inflammatory culture war rhetoric ahead of the next general election, saying it could take the country to “an even darker and more dysfunctional place.”
As analysis of public attitudes show, voting habits are less polarised than culture wars might suggest. In this sense, it could be argued that the socially conservative right-wing views of the NSCU don’t necessarily reflect the same values of the imagined fortysomething struggling mum, who is fed up with politics and living in apparently disillusioned suburban towns. In Stevenage itself, some voters are not so happy with the stereotype. Bakery owner Iza Stuchlik, 40, described the characterisation as ‘inaccurate, offensive and patronising.’ “Stevenage is very varied. You can’t say ‘this is the type of woman that lives here’. That’s very unfair,” she said.
In chasing the same narrow economically left but culturally right constituent, concerns have been raised that the rest of us are being ignored.
Guardian columnist Rafael Behr is one such thinker. Behr describes the tendency for politics in Britain to be bent out of shape to accommodate a narrow set of views clustered to one side of a partisan divide as ‘coalition politics.’ In this sense, whichever party wins the next election, the country will be governed by some sort of coalition.
The author cites Starmer’s director of strategy Deborah Mattinson’s labelling of voters who swing directly from Tory to Labour as ‘hero voters,’ because they effectively have double the impact of anyone who moves from a third party. These ‘hero voters’ are typically older, but not retired, support Brexit, are financially precarious, white, don’t live in big cities, and are, crucially, socially conservative.
So once again, the socially conservative voter, albeit under a slightly reworked personification, is being dubbed as the make-or-break electorate.
The path to Downing Street is by no means clear cut, and the seats Labour needs to win do not fit into easy stereotypes. Apart from the slicing and dicing of voters like this being a bit crude, and often disillusioned, I can’t help but worry that being guided by focus groups and fighting over the same group who apparently uphold right-leaning social values, while essentially ignoring everyone else, and assuming the alienated will just hold their noses and vote for them anyway, may not necessarily pay off for Labour.
Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press ramp up attack on ‘hard left’ being behind the doctors’ strikes
The right-wing media’s coverage of the junior doctor strikes has lived up to expectations.
Rather than focusing on the reason why thousands of junior doctors have been out on picket lines across the country all week – that is to achieve full pay restoration to reverse the steep decline in pay they have faced since 2008/09 – the Tory press have seized the opportunity to attack, without too much evidence, in actual fact no evidence, the ‘hard left,’ while preserving their love of NHS bashing.
In classic Mail style – that is making grand, pontificating claims without any evidence to back them up – this article insists that the union leader behind the ‘most disruptive NHS strike in history’ is on the ‘hard left.’ The authors don’t even bother to provide any reasoning for labelling Dr Robert Laurenson, leader of the British Medical Association (BMA), ‘hard left’ and a ‘militant’ union leader, other than he is championing the strikes, and has called on junior doctors to show their ‘willingness to fight’ on the picket lines. This, according to the report, is verification that Dr Robert Laurenson “could be mistaken for an old-school socialist baron.”
He’s the leader of the trade union and professional body for doctors and medical students in the UK, who are fighting for an increase in pay after it has been cut by more than a quarter over the last 15 years for goodness’ sake. What did they expect him to say: “Don’t do it guys?”
Attempting to whip up readers’ contempt towards the union leader, who is a GP trainee himself, further, the article whinges about the timing of Laurenson’s holiday. The BMA leader booked time off to attend a family friend’s wedding so won’t lose any pay, the authors write, insinuating a deliberate ‘sod you as I’m OK,’ attitude, as he will continue to be paid while striking colleagues who do not show up for work will lose out.
For the Mail, the badly-timed family event is the ideal chance to snipe at a union leader and use it as bait, alongside his private education and involvement in successful family businesses, to hint that Dr Laurenson is some kind of champagne-sipping socialist hypocrite.
The wedding story was picked up other more liberal news outlets, which provided a more considered and sympathetic report. The Independent, for example, cited junior doctors defending Dr Laurenson for being on holiday during the strike.
But the Mail’s aggressive, personal attack on a union leader is expected from the right-wing media and comes as no surprise. Back in January, the Telegraph was droning on about a ‘secretive hard-Left group driving the NHS junior doctors’ strike.’
The article even targeted one of the newspaper’s most regular victims – Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, according to author Andrew Gilligan, former transport advisor to Boris Johnson who has also served as head of the Capital City Foundation at, wait for it, Policy Exchange, substantial parts of the BMA have been taken over by a group of young, self-declared ‘entryists’ in a planned campaign ‘similar to that in Labour at the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.’
Amid the painful and unsubstantiated sermonising of the ‘hard left’ being behind the strikes and general NHS bashing, news that the majority of the British public support the junior doctors strikes, was conveniently missing from the pages of the right-wing press this week.
Now why isn’t that surprising?
Woke-bashing of the week – Tory press denounce ‘woke’ King Charles for supporting research into monarchy’s slavery ties
The Telegraph is ramping up its attack on ‘woke’ King Charles. The King is becoming so woke, he is in danger of abolishing himself, writes commentator Petronella Wyatt. The author continues that His Majesty would “do better to please monarchists and the nation as a whole, not to bend to every prevailing fad and foible.”
The principal ‘foible’ behind the rambling rant is Charles’ support of a study into the monarchy’s historic links to slavery and failure to rule out any reparations. The King’s signalling of his approval for research into the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery comes after the Guardian presented evidence of an extensive history of successive British monarchs’ involvement and investment in the enslavement of African people. Buckingham Palace did not comment on a document showing the 1689 transfer of £1,000 of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company to King William III, from Edward Colston, the company’s deputy governor, but it has supported the research project into the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade.
King Charles has previously expressed public regret at the suffering that slavery inflicted. In November 2018, he described it as an “appalling atrocity” when on a visit to the former slaving fort in Ghana. In Rwanda last June during a speech to Commonwealth Nations, Charles said ways must be found to “acknowledge our past,” including slavery.
But according to the column in the Telegraph, Charles’ support of the study, is a ‘dangerous door to open,’ and risks alienating the King’s ‘natural supporters.’
“We do not want a monarchy that looks and acts like a branch of the civil service,” writes Wyatt.
The author takes exception to the study being conducted by what she describes as an ‘eager PhD student’ called Camilla de Koning, rather than an ‘established British expert.” Of course there is no allusion to the fact that PhD students often ‘break new ground’ and make a huge contribution to research. Nor is there a mention that the research is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and co-supervised by the HRP and Dr Edmond Smith, of Manchester University, who has previously been awarded two major grants to explore how Britain’s economy developed between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Wyatt attempts to argue that a wealthy and privileged king taking on divisive issues like climate change won’t win over the support of the so-called Red Wall. This argument conflicts with evidence that points to Charles’ growing popularity. A poll, taken ten weeks after he became Monarch, showed that over a third of people of all ages and social categories feel more positive about the King. Charles’ growing popularity undermines the theory that the new head of state, by supposedly aligning with the metropolitan elite, with its entrenched progressive views and preaching – the horror – traditional values of tolerance and compassion, is somehow deserting the values of his subjects.
But no, the Tory press, obviously peeved that Buckingham Palace has given its explicit support for research into the monarchy’s slavery ties, are still insisting that the royals will only thrive if they are anti-woke.
If standing up for progressive, compassionate, and green ideas while belying the evils of slavery is ‘woke,’ then perhaps the British Royal Family has ‘gone woke.’ And I, for one, believe they are all the better for it.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch
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