The “culture wars” affect how people vote—but not in the way you might think

New research suggests socially liberal people are more likely to have negative views of conservatives than the other way round

July 05, 2021
The majority of the British public supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: John B Hewitt / Alamy Stock Photo
The majority of the British public supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: John B Hewitt / Alamy Stock Photo

We all know the story by now. The “culture wars” used to only be fought in America. In Britain, party support was strongly linked to views on an economic left-right axis; if you believed in extensive government intervention and redistribution then you voted Labour, if you believed in a small state and leaving markets to their own devices, you voted Conservative. But in the last decade, beliefs around values and identity have become increasingly important in UK as well as American politics—at the last UK general election, a voter's position on values (for example whether they thought the death penalty should be reintroduced) was just as likely to determine their vote as their position on economics.

The EU referendum result exemplified this split: overwhelmingly people with very liberal attitudes voted to remain in the EU whereas those with more conservative views (who, for example, were often hostile towards immigration) tended to vote for Brexit. At a certain point the analysis becomes stretched. The winning Leave vote has frequently been portrayed as a protest by this socially conservative majority against aloof, unresponsive liberal Remainers. Five years on, much of the UK press still paints a picture of a country riven by splits over culture and values, where social conservatives angrily reject the continued attempts of a liberal minority to enforce an unpopular "woke" agenda. The recently-launched GB News was founded on the idea that there is a large, conservative audience which feels that its side of the culture war is being ignored by existing media outlets.

But new research from the Policy Institute presents a different picture. Much of the public, it finds, is confused about terms such as “culture war” or “woke.” When asked what issues they would associate with the “culture wars,” 43 per cent could not think of a single issue and only tiny numbers referred to topics which have had huge resonance in the press (1.5 per cent mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement, 1.1 per cent mentioned transgender issues and 0.7 per cent mentioned statues).

Of course, large numbers of people could still be deeply unhappy about these issues, even if they do not associate them with the term “culture war.” But the research also suggests that people on the socially conservative side may not be so angry after all. Those at the liberal end of the debate consistently have more negative views of conservatives than the other way round. Those who take liberal positions are more likely to say they would struggle to be friends with someone who had a conflicting view. For example, of those who support the Black Lives Matter movement, 55 per cent say they would struggle to be friends with someone who opposed it, whereas only 26 per cent of BLM opponents say they would struggle to be friends with someone who supported it. Meanwhile, researchers found that those who voted Remain are more likely to continue identifying with the "Remain" label than Leavers are with theirs.

So why does the narrative of the disenfranchised, angry social conservative persist?

Social conservatives make up the majority of the British population. The Conservatives won a landslide at the 2019 election principally through consolidating this vote around the pledge to "Get Brexit Done," while the smaller socially liberal vote was more split. But with Brexit now falling down the list of important issues, the government remains keen to keep the focus on culture and values, given that Labour’s best chance of revival is a return to a more traditional politics of economic left and right (the majority of the public lean towards left-wing views on economics).

But politicians are not the only source of the "angry conservative" narrative. Right-leaning journalists and academics are deeply concerned by "cancel culture," and claim that liberal suppression of dissenting voices (usually on the grounds of racism, misogyny or transphobia) is widespread, particularly in universities and on social media. Whether no-platforming at universities is as big a problem as it has been made out to be is disputed, but it is received wisdom that "cancelling" and abuse on social media towards people with "unacceptable" views is rife.

The Policy Institute research suggests the majority does believe that “political correctness” has gone too far and that people are now too easily offended. Yet it also found that on a range of issues, only relatively small minorities of people would be unwilling to share their views with co-workers or colleagues. The topic which people were most unwilling to speak about was trans issues, which have been a source of particularly bitter dispute on social media. Even on this issue, however, only 21 per cent felt they would be somewhat or very unwilling to speak their mind. Outside social media and universities (where, of course, journalists and academics spend much of their time) a large majority of people do not seem to be impacted by "cancel culture."

All this suggests that we overstate the importance of Britain’s culture wars. Many of the issues that gain huge amounts of attention in the press have little resonance with the public—and in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, a majority (58 per cent) support its aims anyway. Views on social issues such as gay and inter-racial marriage and even immigration are becoming ever more liberal, although most people would still prefer that the numbers of migrants coming into the UK were reduced.

The recent Chesham and Amersham by-election provided the first piece of electoral evidence that in a country where liberals seem angrier than conservatives, right-wing politicians’ emphasis on culture war issues might backfire. There will have been many reasons for the huge swing from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats, but this was a seat which voted 55 per cent/45 per cent to Remain. In the run-up to polling day, Liberal Democrat canvassers reported that the government's culture war narratives alienated liberal voters in the constituency.

Labour continues to do badly in Leave-voting areas (see for example, the Hartlepool by-election). Yet the party should be careful of attributing this entirely to enduring anger over Brexit and/or the culture war. The fact that the party narrowly held on in the Batley and Spen by-election (which voted 60 per cent Leave) appears to bear this out; in this seat there did not seem to be an automatic transfer of votes from the Brexit-supporting Heavy Woollen District Independents (who came third in the 2019 General Election) to the Tories, and it is likely that some more liberal Conservative voters stayed at home. Socially conservative voters’ initial shift to the Conservative Party was undoubtedly linked to the sense that Labour did not share their values, but their continued allegiance is probably more dependent on their opinion of the government's handling of the pandemic and whether Labour can offer a credible alternative.

None of this is to say that divides between social conservatives and liberals are not important. But if anything, it may well be the liberals who are more motivated to change their vote based on cultural values.