‘Culture war’ issues: Tory leadership candidates weigh the benefits of getting involved | Conservative management


It has always been a defining feature of political party leadership contests that to be successful, candidates must appeal to members’ niche interests. With the Conservatives, it was usually a low tax rate. But now there is something else: the “culture wars”.

The field to succeed Boris Johnson, believed to be at least 10 and growing, is roughly divided into enthusiastic culture warriors, those who borrow his tactics for their own ends, and a handful who would rather the whole subject be gone. But it is nothing.

Conservative politics are increasingly steeped in debates about the apparent scourge of “woke” issues, from renaming streets to removing statues of controversial figures from history.

Any discussion of the political debate in the UK on topics such as racial disparities and transgender rights should be cautioned that, while culture war issues may mirror those seen in the US, the battles here are nowhere near as fierce.

But they have become more prominent in Britain, another effect of Johnson’s willingness to exploit most political tactics for his own ends.

Despite being in many ways something of a North London liberal, the ever-adaptable Prime Minister was happy to use these corner issues to his alleged advantage, with the details often decided by his former senior political aide, Munira Mirza.

Actual hostilities were generally left to deceased party co-chairman Oliver Dowden and culture secretary Nadine Dorries, with divisions continued on everything from the National Trust to the BBC and ‘no platform’ at universities .

Prior to Johnson’s resignation, his Downing Street campaign team had planned a future general election campaign based heavily on such social divisions.

Among his potential successors, Attorney General Suella Braverman and ex-minister Kemi Badenoch are avowed culture warriors, with Badenoch in particular a critic of theories of institutionalized disparities based on ethnicity.

Others have shown their willingness to get involved: Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor, used an interview with the Sunday Telegraph to say “we must be able to call a mother a mother”, a reference to gender neutral language. Nadhim Zahawi, similarly, said his former job as education secretary made him want to protect children from the views of “radical activists”.

However, some candidates are not playing along. Asked about transgender issues, backbencher Tom Tugendhat called for respect and avoidance of divisiveness, while Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said “If there’s a Shapps administration and I’m prime minister, I won’t spend most of my time on these kinds of issues.

At the heart of this is how candidates balance what matters to Tory MPs and members who will choose the new leader, and what matters to the wider electorate. And they are not the same.

Polls on so-called “culture war” issues show the public is fairly evenly divided on what is a complex and nuanced issue, although opinions are tending to become sharper among conservative voters.

Another aspect of the ballot is unlikely to be noted by candidate campaign managers, but perhaps it should be: the younger the voter, the more liberal they tend to be on such things.

Young voters are increasingly rare for the Conservatives: waging a six-week internal culture war to choose a new leader is unlikely to solve this problem.


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