Scott Benton is the MP for for Blackpool South.
Whilst the left-wing inspired anarchy which has afflicted cities in the US has not been repeated here, make no mistake that the political flashpoints of the summer (the BLM protests, the ensuing “statues debate” and the BBC’s decision regarding the Proms) are undeniable proof that Britain is in the midst of its own “culture war”.
This is scarcely something that a Conservative government, dealing with the biggest health and economic challenges in a generation, would have chosen to fight. But whether we like it or not, how it chooses to respond to this battle will shape the political landscape and our chances at the next General Election.
The increasingly-evident cultural divide in Britain was unmistakeable throughout the Brexit debate. The defining moment in that battle, December’s election, confirmed the seismic political consequences of this divide for both main parties as the historic class-based voting pattern was shattered in favour of a values-based realignment of British politics.
This spectacularly allowed us to knock down the so-called “Red Wall” and to gain seats that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The reasons for our success (Brexit and the intense loathing of Corbyn) were obvious, but with neither of these pull factors in play at the next election, it remains to be seen whether we can build our own “Blue Wall”.
If we are to do exactly that, we must understand the instincts of those who switched to us from Labour. The evidence suggests that they are economically more left-wing than the average voter, but considerably more right-wing than average on social issues: in fact, they are more socially conservative than loyal Tory voters and Tory MPs.
As December’s election was a “values election”, predicated on Brexit, we were able to break through and convince many of these socially conservative, life-long Labour voters to support us for the first time, and to abandon the Labour Party whose social values are a world away from their own.
The leap of faith that many of these voters took should not be taken lightly. Many of these people have long had (and continue to have) doubts about our party’s economic values and commitment to public services, and have far more in common with Labour’s values on these issues. Such was the lure of Brexit, however, helped by our sympathetic positioning on public spending and levelling up, that they entrusted us with their vote.
If the next election is fought on traditional issues of the economy and public services (particularly if a post-Covid economic recovery is sluggish), a moderate Labour Party may tempt back some of these same voters who naturally gravitate leftwards on the economy. On the other hand, the social and cultural values of the contemporary left could well be the means by which we keep those voters’ support.
Whilst the Government does not wish for a “culture war”, then, it may well be the determination of many on the left to engineer one which paradoxically allows us to demonstrate that we share Red Wall voters’ values and are truly on their side.
Throughout the summer my mailbag has been full of correspondence on issues such as the lawlessness of some of the BLM protests; the revulsion of seeing the Union Flag set alight on the Cenotaph; the absurdity of those wanting to rewrite our history by tearing down statues, and the alienation felt by many at the actions of the BBC in wanting to chip away at our national culture.
The vast majority of my constituents in my Red Wall seat are sick and tired of those who are embarrassed by our culture, and who want to apologise for Britain’s past. They are yearning for the Government to stand up and be courageous in dismissing this nonsense that is directing the national conversation and political narrative.
Sentiments like those expressed by the Prime Minister on the Proms are very welcome and we need more social commentary and reassurances from the Government on issues such as these, but ultimately, ministers are judged on their actions.
Take the situation on the south coast: if the Government cannot use the current legislative and diplomatic tools at its disposal to stem the tide of illegal immigration then it must completely redesign our asylum and immigration policy so that it can.
Likewise, if the BBC cannot get its own house in order and demonstrate that it is able to occupy its privileged position as an impartial national broadcaster, then the Government must embark on reform, starting with scrapping the licence fee.
The emotive reach of social issues means that they will remain politically pivotal for as long as they dominate the conversation, but if we are going to retain the confidence and support of our new voters on these issues, we must do more than merely sympathise with their deep concerns.
A Conservative Government with a large majority should not shy away from having the political and intellectual confidence to lead the debate on cultural issues and to deliver reform on law and order, sentencing, immigration/asylum and the BBC. These are all policy areas where our new and traditional supporters alike demand a tough approach.
Although social values are increasingly likely to drive voting patterns longer-term, the upcoming autumn budget will dictate the short-term political weather. There was a collective sigh of relief in my Red Wall constituency when the Prime Minister ruled out a return to austerity: we simply have to fulfil our spending commitments on the NHS and schools, which were so instrumental in reassuring those former Labour voters who switched to us.
Whilst I think it would be a mistake to break our manifesto commitment on the triple lock, slashing international aid would be met with almost universal acclaim in constituencies such as mine.
It is only through wealth creation and economic growth, however, that we will make a significant impact on the deficit. We must deliver our commitment to levelling up by prioritising regional growth through a meaningful industrial strategy which aims to reduce the north-south divide through a laser-like focus on transport investment, incentives to locate in “left-behind areas” (including enterprise zones and freeports), training and skills.
Real investment, however, at a time of huge pressure on the public finances, doesn’t come cheap. If we are serious about levelling up, there will inevitably be difficult decisions about taxation, which will present some unpalatable choices for colleagues.
Rather than shy away from these choices, we should relish them. The current situation (as well as Brexit) affords us with a once in a generation opportunity to deliver an economic strategy which can tackle the inherent structural weaknesses that have hampered the UK for decades: an approach which makes political as well as economic sense, as it repositions the Party’s economic policy far closer to the public (and our new and traditional voters).
The cultural and economic challenges facing the UK have changed, as has the political geography. Conservatism must adapt to face these challenges and not only reflect the nation’s mood, but also demonstrate that we are the only party which is able to protect the values that people cherish, and provide the means through which their lives can be improved. The economic orthodoxy and social liberalism of the past (Cameron’s “Notting Hill” modernisation) is not what our core voters, and especially our new converts, want. Indeed, it never was.
Repositioning our party to meet these cultural and economic challenges, and in doing so, striving to ensure that we maintain our recent gains, will challenge the ideology of many colleagues.
The prize for successfully doing so, however, is enormous. By building a lasting coalition of our new and traditional supporters, based on their shared cultural values and a blue collar economic programme, we can create a truly one nation party that is able to occupy the common ground for years to come – and in doing so cement our own “Blue Wall”, thereby locking Labour out of power.