Skip to main content

The labour movement must not fall into the Tory ‘culture war’ trap

There is cunning in what some Tories are doing but there are also profound weaknesses – the left needs to be wise to this, says KEVIN OVENDEN

THE term “culture war” is an unwelcome US import. The American culture warriors of the right had a lot going for them 30 years ago.

Whether it was gun worship or banning abortion, they could rely on vast networks, secular and religious. A big section of society had never reconciled to the changes driven by the upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s.

The parallel British effort in the years of John Major’s governments was feeble by comparison. 

That did not stop an avalanche of right-wing media stories and urban myths about “political correctness.” 

Those in turn played some role in seeding the ground for an advance by the fascist British National Party.

But in big social and political terms, the Tory culture war of then descended into the fiasco of Major’s “Back to Basics” effort to channel narrow-minded, supposed “common sense.” Then a nation nearly died laughing at his “cones hotline,” if you remember that.

Despite winning the 1992 general election and the apparent global triumph of capitalism over communism, the Tory problem was that British society was in fact moving in a more tolerant and liberal direction. 

It left the right looking out of touch with the country they thought of themselves as born to rule.

So they could cling on to the anti-gay Section 28 while in schools and across society more people came out, others were persuaded that there was nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian and attitudes softened even among those who did think so.

I raise all that because it is abundantly clear that Boris Johnson’s Tories are today using the techniques of culture war — that is trying to find “hot button” issues around which to attract those who would not otherwise give their political support.

The latest instance was this week with Tory MPs on the education select committee outrageously trying to claim that poor white kids are suffering because of efforts to fight racism. They used artful language, but that is what they meant.

Today’s right-wing push is not as potent as in the US three decades ago, or approaching Donald Trump’s success in 2016. 

But unless the labour movement responds effectively, it can go a lot further than the hapless John Major was able to.

There is cunning in what some Tories are doing but there are also profound weaknesses.

First the weaknesses. On every single measure of social attitudes Britain is today a much more tolerant and liberal place than in the early 1990s, with a common sense that might be called broadly progressive. 

On some questions it is quite socialist: there’s one law for the rich and another for the poor. 

Or support for the principles underpinning the NHS. Despite an embarrassingly co-ordinated effort to boost support for the monarchy there remains a strong republican sentiment. 

When the current queen is out of the equation it rises considerably.

Of course there are reactionary attitudes. Powerfully backed media and political forces try to utilise them. There is polarisation. A general acceptance of, say, people being gay — the view of about two thirds of the population — can go hand in hand with a minority that is highly bigoted.

But it is still the case that those pushing right-wing culture-war lines face a very different social reality from 30 or 50 years ago.

A second weakness is that despite all the Thatcherite and then Blairite and then Cameronite hype about opportunity for those who aspire, Britain remains fantastically class divided. 

The pandemic has reinforced that divide. All sorts of media-driven efforts to redefine that fundamental reality under other terms cannot hide it. 

How many “millennial” young people have a well-off “boomer” gran?

This week we learned that the percentage of children so poor that they are eligible for free school meals rose from 17 to nearly 20 per cent in England between January and October last year, and that that talentless Tory George Osborne has been appointed chairman of the British Museum.

This is class Britain just as much as when Karl Marx was poring over economic almanacs in the British Museum’s reading room. 

There is an exploitative chain of connection between hundreds of thousands of kids being plunged into poverty and the assumptive 18th Baronet Osborne being handed another sinecure.

More and more people recognise it. The British Social Attitudes survey finds an increase in the proportion of those regarding the distribution of wealth as unfair or very unfair. 

More than half of people want to see more taxation to fund social spending.

Hence the weaknesses for the Tories — most people are not that right wing and have a “them and us” good, class sense. From that flows the Tory cunning.

If a three-card trickster tried to scam you like this on the street you’d be insulted.

What the Tories are trying to do is worse. You throw large numbers of white kids into poverty and then say it is liberals or Marxists or what have you who are to blame because they talk about racism. 

Now, they cannot put it that crudely. Everyone has to claim to be anti-racist. 

Even most fascists pretend that all they are doing is standing up for “white identity” — or “white rights” as the thugs of the BNP said in the 1990s.

Instead they erect a straw man, go to theatrical lengths to knock it down and try to divert the rest of us into defending things that we never put forward in the first place.

So — “white privilege.” For most (of the few) who use the term it is another way of recognising racism. 

Black and Asian people in Britain experience racial discrimination. There is no such discrimination on the basis of “being white.” Thus, white privilege. 

But surely a privilege is something that is in some way unearned or unfair? Don’t we want to end privilege, so that someone like George Osborne is rewarded according to his contribution to society not according to his birthright? 

Is “not being discriminated against” a privilege? Isn’t it better a right?

There’s nothing privileged about being the working-class lad from a white family who is not as likely to be stopped and searched by the police or excluded from school as your black friend but is still right under the heel of a brutal state and heartless society.

Is this just playing with words? You say white privilege, I say racism. Well, we have a perfectly good word — racism — for understanding this. 

More importantly, we have a grand history of struggle and analysis arising upon it that connects anti-racism and opposition to capitalism. 

That approach of uniting black and white workers — or women and men — has sometimes been a minority in the labour movement. It is not today. 

The danger is that we are made to look like we are a weird minority on account of falling into this Tory government’s trap. 

And that is to get us to fight over fetishised symbols, not the social reality. And so, in a monumental scam, we allow the right to parade as dealing with real problems.

The trade union and labour movement should say bluntly: not on our watch. The National Education Union and its joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted gave a master class this week in how we should respond to this trickery. 

They pointed out the Tories’ responsibility for the class divide that remains the biggest single determinant of educational outcome. 

Calmly, and marshalling the facts that are all on our side, they dismantled the falsehood that white kids are doing badly on account of opposition to racism. 

They did this without once mentioning the term “white privilege” — a hare that Tories had set running (and relying upon ideas more common among human resources managers than your average union branch committee). 

There is a lesson there. Speak to the reality, not to some squabble about terminology that our opponents set up for us. 

It was good to see Labour MPs on the education committee this week strike right at the issue. 

Up against Tory rogues we should play the man and not the ball. We need to do similarly across the piece — from fighting for women’s rights to opposing anti-LGBT discrimination. 

It ought to be easy to crush this Tory gambit. But we have to put our socialist approach centrally. 

That means taking our arguments to the mass of working-class people, as today’s People’s Assembly demonstration aims to do. 

It is only when the left fails to do that and sinks into a silo that the party of 18th Baronet Osborne can dare claim to represent working-class people of any skin colour or ethnicity in Britain. 


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 8,011
We need:£ 9,989
15 Days remaining
Donate today