Luke Tryl: The Right would be wrong to wage a war on woke

14 Jul

Luke Tryl is Director of More in Common. He is a former Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and a former Special Adviser.

Wokeism is set to become the biggest dividing line in British politics, a report claimed last week . If that’s the case, it follows that to shore up the red wall, the Government would be wise to proceed full stream ahead with culture war politics.

But is that right?

The first question to ask is how real these ‘wars’ really are. Certainly, they get plenty of media air time. Research by King’s College London has found that mentions of ‘culture wars’ in the press have risen fourfold since 2016.

But dig deeper and all is not what it seems. More in Common’s research has found that the issues that motivate less engaged voters are very different from what inflames the base on both the left and right. Britain is not a nation of cultural warriors.

Take the issue of political correctness: a clear majority (72 per cent) agree that political correctness has gone too far. But ask whether ‘hate speech is a problem in this country’ and an equal sized majority of the public agree (73 per cent) with that too – not because they’re incoherent, but because they’re balancers.

Or on race, 60 per cent of the public say ‘most people nowadays are too sensitive about race’, but even more (77 per cent) agree that racism is a serious problem in the UK.

The Frank Luntz/Centre for Policy Studies behind the Times headline found that 40 per cent of the public believe that cancel culture enforces a ‘thought and speech police’ as compared to just 25 per cent who thought it was a good thing. But when we asked whether ‘it was fair for people to be at risk of losing their livelihood because of grossly offensive things they said’ Britons agreed it was, by a margin of 48 per cent to 35 per cent.

Time and time again, we find that across these debates Britons are reaching for balance and common ground. The picture of Britain as two tribes warring over woke might reflect Twitter, but it doesn’t reflect the country.

But even if culture wars don’t currently exist at the scale we’re led to believe, is there a political payoff for Conservatives in stoking them? There is no doubt that parties can win votes by tapping into anxieties about cultural change. There’s also no doubt that when it comes to issues of pride and national identity, some of the attitudes of “Progressive Activists, who make up two thirds of Labour members, are out of line with the country as a whole. Potentially offering a wedge to be exploited.

But a few things should also give Conservatives pause for thought.

While those risks to the left have been well documented, the right can just as easily alienate voters through culture wars too. We can argue about whether the lost Tory votes in Chesham and Amersham or Spen valley were about cultural issues. But two population segments identified by More in Common’s analysis that are larger in areas like this are the “Established Liberals” and “Civic Pragmatists”. They are natural balancers, exhausted with divisiveness and at risk of turning away from the Conservatives. Masked by an overall increase in support for the Government, the Tory vote among both groups actually fell in the 2019 general election, reducing the national vote by two per cent compared to what it would have been otherwise.

Secondly, even in those areas where most people agree with the right on cultural issues there is a risk of overreach. In focus groups last month, voters from Stoke to Morpeth told us that far from being energised, they were more often frustrated at politicians injecting themselves into these spats, at the expense of ‘real’ issues such as Covid and the economy. These groups didn’t like the excesses of the progressive left, but they also didn’t want Government ministers taking their eye off the ball by playing culture politics either.

Third, the public’s views on cultural divides change, and they can change very quickly. Take Section 28 – even as late as the early 2000s a majority of the public supported the law restricting discussion of same-sex relationships in school – but, just a few years later, Tory support for the law had become a totemic example of the party’s failure to understand and connect with twenty-first century Britain.

More recently, several Cabinet Ministers criticised the England football team for taking the knee, and one MP went so far as to say they would boycott England’s matches in protest. Fast forward a few weeks with England enjoying Euros success, and those comments seemed oddly out of place with the wave of patriotism washing over the nation. The winning side of the culture war today can easily become the losing side tomorrow.

Fourth, there’s what I call the Labour manifesto effect. In 2019 polling of the individual policies in Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto often found majority public support. But read as a whole, the sheer number of high spending policies put people off what they saw as an unobtainable wishlist . The danger for conservatives is that while cutting foreign aid, holding refugees offshore or banning gender neutral toilets, may individually be popular, taken together they start to paint the picture of ‘a nasty party’ from which the public recoils – especially at a time when voters see politicians as the number one cause of division in the UK. As Tory modernisers from the 2000s will tell you, those perceptions are then hard to shift.

Finally, culture wars aren’t just risky from an electoral standpoint, they also make it hard to pursue meaningful policy. Take the Education Select committee report on underperformance among white working-class children. As a direct result of the briefing accompanying the report – blaming these disadvantages on the use of the concept of ‘white privilege’ – there was no nuanced discussion of the report’s important policy recommendations. Instead, we had a row over a single phrase. There are countless other examples and that’s why party’s big thinkers should be trying to keep the chilling effect of culture wars as far away as possible from priorities like levelling up or net zero.

Red wall seat voters – and the whole country – desperately want to see results not rhetoric. Three years of a Government led ‘war on woke’ would be either a sign of recklessness (we only have to look at the Batley and Spen by-election to see the consequences for social cohesion), or failure (abandoning the ambitions of the levelling up agenda for easy headlines). But even if that doesn’t stir you, even those single mindedly focused on a Conservative victory in 2024, should be on notice, the culture wars are an electoral gamble, fraught with risk.

David Davis: Much of Cummings’ critique was right – so don’t throw all his ideas out with him

18 Nov

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

The soap opera that was the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street was marked by his numerous enemies heaping dirt on his metaphorical grave and stamping on it. This was perhaps inevitable, given his aggressive personal style, and his inability to see an institution without attacking it. From members of Parliament who felt they had been cut out to Cabinet ministers who were demeaned and diminished, there was no shortage of antagonistic commentators. So far, so obvious.

Certainly, this moment gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to reset a large number of relationships. He can be more open with his backbenchers, and he can be more consultative with his Cabinet. He can avoid unnecessary culture wars with many of the institutions of the state.

Nevertheless it is very important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although Cummings’ methods were in the final analysis counter-productive, much of his critique was right. The British state is dysfunctional in many ways, as has been highlighted all too painfully during the last nine months. Its operational capability is appallingly weak, and its advice is often little more than the insights of a gifted amateur. This is one of the reasons that the gGovernment falls back far too quickly on spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on outside consultants.

Cummings was also right about the lack of scientific and technical expertise at the heart of government, and was right to blame that for the fact that in the past couple of decades Britain’s economic success has been largely despite government, rather than because of it.

This is particularly important if we are actually going to give expression to the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” agenda. We will not rejuvenate the North simply by throwing money at it. Neither will we transform it by decanting whole government departments into the regions, as appears to be currently fashionable. Labour governments tried that in the 1960s and 70s, and all it did was make it impossible for small businesses to get off the ground because they were competing with government for staff and premises.

If we are going to transform the old industrial heartlands of Britain, we have to do no less than initiate a fourth industrial revolution in the towns and valleys from West Yorkshire to Wales. That means different attitudes to science, different attitudes to enterprise, and a prejudice in favour of productive activity. It does not mean wasting taxpayers money “backing winners” in yet another recycling of twentieth century industrial strategy.

What it does mean is reorienting the state to catalyse productivity and wealth creation. We have long been very good at innovative and creative science, but it is a truism that we have been terrible at turning it into new industries in this country. As a nation we have done more to generate wealth in Silicon Valley with our ideas than we have in our own regions. We were terrific at pure research, and useless at translational research.

Cummings understood this, and started a series of mechanisms with the aim of improving the environment for wealth creation distributed throughout the country. To that end he started to staff Downing Street with scientists, and started putting aside funding to ensure that the necessary changes happened.

One of his models of success was the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in West Yorkshire. Ironically built on the poisoned land of the coking plant at Orgreave, where striking miners battled the police, the AMRC is a brilliant example of what can be done in the bleakest of environments given sufficient imagination and enterprise.

Employing about 600 people, it provides bespoke high-technology products to Boeing, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, and Messier–Bugatti–Dowty. The textile weavers of West Yorkshire are now weaving in carbon fibre, and the steel knives for Sheffield have given way to the single crystal turbine blades for Rolls-Royce.

The concept included ideas like generating an MIT of the North. MIT – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is a probably the most successful university in the world in terms of spinning off brilliant ideas into successful businesses. A decentralised research-based institution based in the towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, building on new technology and harnessing traditional skills, could transform the nature of the North.

We could also create a completely new style of university designed to compete with places like MIT. Teaching 48 weeks a year, rather than the 30+ taught by conventional universities, like MIT it could focus solely on science and technology. It could be fully funded, rather than loan financed, and as such would attract the brightest and best from all classes of society and channel them into productive and successful careers.

The Prime Minister has already undertaken to double the funding of science research in the UK. This is absolutely the right thing to do, but we must reform the way we allocate such money, modelling our approach on the most successful countries in the world, such as Germany and USA. The aim must be to make Britain, post-Brexit, one of the most attractive places to do science in the entire world. We have a fabulous history to build on here, but it will take purpose and imagination as well as money to deliver it.

To back this up, we will have to have an economic policy that has growth and wealth creation firmly at its centre. This is doubly important in the aftermath of Covid-19, because we have to rebuild our economy back to where it was and set it on the path to future growth if we have any hope of carrying the debt burden we have just acquired. That means lower taxes and intelligent investment in infrastructure that can be delivered in the immediate future. This does not mean vanity projects like HS2, but the sort of investment necessary to make the networks of the Midlands and North work efficiently together. Think a mixture of Reaganomics and Roosevelt.

Frankly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Cummings leaves Number 10, we must be careful to preserve the best of our ideas, and not let them disappear in the smoke of political battles around Downing Street. Of course it is important to get the Prime Minister a decent Chief of Staff. No doubt it is important that we have some sort of policy committee. But above all else we are going to need the imagination to pick up on the good thing Cummings did, and with creativity and imagination deliver the levelling up agenda that we promised at the general election.

Luke Tryl: Why we don’t have to choose between Workington and Notting Hill

18 Nov

Luke Tryl is a director at Public First. He is a former is Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and former Special Adviser.

Any good consultant will tell you that the heart of strategy is all about deciding what not to do, who not to target, where not to expend energy. Most organisations, and for that matter most governments only have limited bandwidth and therefore the hardest decision is often where to invest your resources for maximum benefit.

I’m sure that’s why many of those offering thoughts on a Downing Street ‘reset’ think the Government must choose between conservatism for Notting Hill and conservatism for Workington. I disagree: a brief look at the history of the Conservative Party plainly shows that choice is a false one, and there exists a reset agenda that manages to level up and hug a huskie at the same time.

Firstly, it’s all about the rhetoric. There is no doubt the country is divided, from Brexit to lockdown, national heritage to migration, race relations to gender identity. But so much of these divisions have been, if not caused, certainly exacerbated by the Government’s seeming zeal to enter every culture war row.

There is an argument that creating a false choice between Notting Hill and Workington to unite the leave vote, was a necessary price to pay to defeat a uniquely dangerous Labour leader and excise the poison of anti-Semitism. But it is certainly not a formula for Government and will not pass muster in the face of a mainstream, competent opposition.

Rather than indulging in the rhetoric of ‘hard rains’ or briefing crowd-pleasing headlines about ‘sticking it to the National Trust’, the Government can afford to and would be wise to, switch off campaign mode, and use its position to look at how to solve cultural and social divides rather than exacerbate them.

That doesn’t mean selling out on the ‘red wall’ – I’ve seen zero evidence from polling or focus groups that voters in these areas are yearning for a ‘war on the BBC’. But it does mean, on such issues as Brexit, recognising (four years after the fact) that you’ve won and that, as the victor, it is incumbent on you to build a unifying peace. As we leave the transition period, the Government should engage in the long overdue mission of showing the half of the country who voted against leaving the EU that they are not ‘citizens of nowhere’ but have just as much of a stake in post-Brexit Britain as those that voted for it.

That’s not just good electoral sense – and the only way of ever bringing the Canterburys and Batterseas back into the Conservative fold – but it matters for the sake of Union. There is no doubt the culture war rhetoric has played into the hands of the SNP, and driven up support for Scottish Independence. If the Party is to take its unionist credentials seriously, it should be projecting a unifying message about why we are better off together, rather than amplifying the cultural divides between us.  As the Biden victory showed just this month, kindness can be far more powerful than divisiveness in crafting a winning electoral strategy.

But what about the substance? Sure, there are differences of emphasis between Cameron’s 2015 agenda and Boris’s 2019 manifesto, but when it comes down to the fundamentals, there are enough issues for the Government to address that unite both Workington and Notting Hill.

First, social care. The spiralling costs of social care – the risk of losing your home to pay for care and the post code lottery in care provision – are an issue which affect everyone apart from the very wealthiest. Announcing a fair, sustainable long-term settlement – good for Workington and Notting Hill.

Second, childcare. Ensuring parents and carers have access to wrap-around care, building on the work of the coalition in expanding access to free care, allowing more creativity in how parents can get their care – for instance, allowing them to pay grandparents and other family members – good for Workington and Notting Hill.

Third, good schools. The academies programme, born in London, finally seems to have hit its stride outside of the major cities thanks to educational powerhouses like Outwood Grange, Inspiration and Star academies. The Government should double down on helping them to spread excellence across the country – good for Workington and Notting Hill.

Fourth, housing. The housing crisis isn’t just a concern for Londoners, speak to grandparents anywhere in the country and they’ll tell you their worries about their grandchildren getting on the housing ladder. Again, there’s an opportunity here to combine building homes with strategies making ownership easier and supplying enough decent social housing – good for Workington and Notting Hill.

Finally, jobs and skills clearly sit at the heart of the levelling up agenda. Proper reform of FE, apprenticeships and technical education are long overdue. Rather than presenting this as the atavistic (and ultimately self-defeating) desire to return to the jobs of the past, we should put green skills at the heart of technical education reforms, both allowing Britain to lead the world on the green agenda, and create jobs along the way –  again combining the key elements of Cameroonism with levelling up.

There are many more – the need to regenerate high streets applies right across the country.  Support for savers would go down just as well in Halifax as in Bromley. There’s a settlement on immigration to be reached that recognises the need for control, but which also shows compassion to the vulnerable rather than pretending we’re under attack from a fleet of dinghies in the channel.

What’s more, uniting Notting Hill and Workington is the only sustainable electoral strategy in the long term. Divide and rule will only ever get you so far and will do nothing to close a yawning age and demographic gap that will eventually catch up with the Conservative Party. The Tory party always has to guard against being seen as the nasty party; culture war victories one-year can easily leave you looking out of touch just a few years later.

Those who believe that the divides of the Brexit referendum can never be resolved or point to some deeper malaise that the Government must lean into, are being utterly defeatist. People in this country are tired of the endless divides and division – the future electoral prize is for the party that shows they are the ones that can provide the healing, and if the Conservative Party won’t, a resurgent Labour Party under Keir Starmer most surely will.