Backfire: Culture Wars and the General Election

  • Research
  • 22 April 2024

What do voters think whenever they hear culture war tactics and narratives being employed by political leaders? How do they react when culture war leaflets come through their letterbox? With a general election looming, More in Common was commissioned by 38 Degrees to understand how ordinary voters think through these questions as the general election looms. 

Using a series of public opinion experiments, polling and focus group conversations, the voters’ verdict is clear - they want a campaign focused on their everyday concerns rather than abstract cultural debates that feel far away from the issues that matter most. The briefing paper shows there is a very real risk that using culture wars will backfire electorally. 

When political parties play the culture wars campaign card, they are speaking to political activists and their core base, not the general public or undecided voters. Most voters are cynical about politicians' rationale for exploiting cultural issues for political gain, and many see these attempts as inauthentic. Many voters see culture war tactics as a reflection of weakness and desperation, rather than a demonstration of strength.

Understanding the electoral risks of culture war election strategies starts by acknowledging what does and does not constitute a culture war. Culture wars are not heated policy debates – the public expects politicians to have reasoned and passionate debates about major policy issues. Debating gender identity or the future of our immigration system is not engaging in a culture war – the public expect politicians to discuss, scrutinise and address these issues seriously. These debates can also touch on issues that are deeply important to many people – issues of fairness, justice, respect and dignity, and which shape our identity as individuals, as communities and as a nation.

Instead, culture wars emerge when people try to trivialise or weaponise these issues, focusing on imagined or imported problems such as banning drag shows, or renaming infrastructure – and prosecute these debates in ways which are deliberately incendiary and designed to create wedges rather than find solutions. Presenting these debates as a battle of two irreconcilable worldviews doesn’t resonate with voters, nor does it do justice to the actual important issues at stake and rarely moves things forward

The public expect reasoned and passionate debates about major issues affecting the future of this country, rooted in their day-to-day experiences in their lives – they don’t want imagined or imported problems which artificially divide the country in two dominating an election campaign about the future of our country. Labelling everything that people disagree on a ‘culture war’ is equally unhelpful. Instead, the clear message from the public is that they want difficult issues to be discussed in a way that points to solutions and genuinely informs the public. They also want to make sure that the balance of campaigning activity focuses on those issues that most matter to people’s day-to-day lives.

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Key Findings

Most voters tune out from culture war debates

An election strategy based on culture wars is more likely to cause voters to “tune out” of political debates, further increasing cynicism in politics. Voters perceive the focus on niche dividing-line issues as a distraction from their everyday priorities.

A MaxDiff experiment conducted as part of this research highlights the risk of voters “tuning out” when faced with these issues.  In this experiment, the public were presented with a series of different campaign leaflet headings – some more traditional policy issues, some more focused on cultural wedges – and asked which they would be most interested in reading further.

The public were much more likely to read on when presented with leaflet headlines about candidates’ plans for tangible, community-focused issues such as job creation, tackling anti-social behaviour, and revitalising the high street. They were much less likely to read on when leaflets focused on renaming local streets, addressing the impacts of colonialism, or limiting children’s access to drag queen shows.

I think that there are much more pressing issues that could be dealt with… we could be progressing like changes like the economy, like the NHS, like immigration, like knife crime – I just can’t see how that’s come to the top of the list.

Lauren, 37, Wokingham

[They] should be campaigning on getting Britain booming again - the country is part broke and there are far bigger issues to be writing and campaigning about. So if I got that rubbish in my letterbox, it would go right into the bin.

Philip, 56, Wokingham

Why aren’t you concentrating on the big issues? It’s so low down on my priority of what I want done in the country. I’d read the first bit and then they’d be both in the bin.

Janette, 59, Wokingham

Culture war tactics risk alienating voters

Culture war messages also risk alienating the voters that parties need to win over (or hold on to) in this general election - as the Randomised Control Trial experiment conducted for this briefing paper shows. 

In this experiment, a culture-war focused campaign message from the Conservatives dampened enthusiasm for voting Conservative, even among their current supporters. A culture war message attacking the ‘woke mob’ coming from the Conservatives lead to a six percentage point decrease in being likely to vote Conservative compared to the control group. This decrease was even more significant among those currently intending to vote Conservative which saw a 10 percentage point decrease.

It would seem that the Tories have thrown in the towel and they've got nothing left to talk about, but they do have power. They can cut taxes if they wanted to, that could be a vote winner, they could implement a few other policies just to keep people happy. But I don't think campaigning gay rights is going to get people coming to the polling station, saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, look at me. I'll be blue. Barking up the wrong tree here… leave it for the Looney Party, which is what they’ve now become I think.

Philip, 56, Wokingham

Being presented with a culture war-style message from the Labour Party attacking the ‘racist government’ leads to a five percentage point increase in being likely to vote for Labour among those already intending to vote Labour. However, across the electorate overall, the opposite is true; there is a four percentage point increase in being unlikely to vote for Labour. 

This captures the risk of a culture wars strategy that can resonate well with a party’s base – while political parties may see increased enthusiasm from their core supporters, they open themselves up to the risk of losing crucial swing voters outside of that core.

Why don’t culture wars work electorally?

Three reasons explain why culture war strategies fail to engage voters: 

  • Many voters are cynical about politicians' rationale for exploiting cultural issues for political gain, and many see their attempts as inauthentic. 
  • Voters see politicians’ engaging in culture war debates as a sign of desperation and lack of seriousness – while many participating in culture war debates might see it as an opportunity to project strength, many voters see it as a sign of weakness.
  • Culture wars don’t land with the public because voters are more worried about day-to-day concerns such as the cost of living and the NHS, and want a sober debate about issues such as levels of migration.

Moving beyond the culture wars 

The briefing paper outlines six initial recommendations for how political campaigners can better navigate cultural debates and better reflect the public’s values and viewpoints in the process. 

    1. Talk about the issues that matter most to the public: Polling and focus group conversations show that when it comes to the public’s priorities the same issues emerge repeatedly – the cost of living, NHS appointments and waiting lists, levels of immigration, the environment and crime. More abstract or niche culture war debates are not as relevant to voters who are facing real challenges in their day-to-day lives. These everyday concerns should be front and centre of political campaigning - from developing manifestos to door-step conversations.

    2. Keep it local: Localising national policy platforms is a well-trodden campaign strategy and with good reason –  the public want to hear how they and their communities will benefit, whether that’s improving the local high street, attracting a new local dentist or tackling vandalism of community parks. Campaigners are more likely to get a hearing with voters if they can keep it local. 

    3. Keep it practical: More than anything else, voters want politicians to have a plan and engage with topics that are going to make their lives materially better. The public want to see efforts made to reduce the growing number of frictions they see in everyday life whether it is the 8am rush to get a GP appointment, the unreliability of local train and bus services or the lack of availability of local affordable childcare.

    4. Take an issue-by-issue approach: Unlike other countries such as the United States, Britons tend not to have “stacked identities” where their position on one issue is highly predictive of their position on a different issue. Instead, most of the British public approach cultural debates on their individual merits rather than defaulting to a liberal or conservative ideological binary. Politicians and activists should try to do the same, not by avoiding talking about contested cultural issues altogether, but instead approaching them as individual issues with tailored solutions for each.

    5. Demonstrate decency: Even when Britons have strong defined views on social issues, they still want these issues to be approached fairly and with kindness and compassion. When politicians forget this they tend to fall on the wrong side of public opinion – forgetting that for much of the public, being tough does not equate to being unkind, nor do the public want to see debates personalised and trivialised.

    6. Create space for debate: Being seen to attempt to “silence” particular groups or to dismiss concerns as either zealtory or bigotry are unlikely to command public support and build public trust.  A better approach is to attempt to bring people onto your side by engaging in a good faith debate rather than excluding them from the conversation.  Political campaigners can both role model and actively create an environment that is conducive to civil debate on contested issues.
Having both worked on election campaigns over many years, we both know there are valuable insights in this briefing paper that provide some pause for thought for political campaigners and election strategists. The overwhelming view of the voters we spoke to was that culture-war approaches were a reflection of weakness and desperation, rather than a demonstration of strength. The public expect reasoned and passionate debates about major issues affecting the future of this country, rooted in their day to day experiences in their lives – they don’t want imagined or imported problems which artificially divide the country in two dominating an election campaign about the future of our country.

Luke Tryl (More in Common) and Matthew McGregor (38 Degrees)