Corbyn’s coming culture wars

Written by James Frayne on 22 October 2015 in Opinion
We may see Jeremy Corbyn losing the electoral war but advancing in the left’s cultural battles. 

Will Jeremy Corbyn win the next general election? It seems unlikely in the extreme.

Emerging serious divisions within the Labour Party and his strategy of positioning the party on the hard left will not play well with swing voters. Polling around new leaders is notoriously difficult and this is made more complex in Corbyn’s case by the fact that he is almost entirely unknown. We will have a better sense of the polls in the New Year.

But success in politics should not be measured purely by electoral victories. Of course, being in Government is the ultimate prize in politics. You can change a huge amount when you are in Number 10 with a working Parliamentary majority.

However, success can be measured by cultural change too - changes in society that affect the overall climate in which we all live and work. Such change takes a long time but it is hard to reverse. It is possible that we will see Jeremy Corbyn accept defeat in the electoral war but seek to make significant progress on what the left will see as crucial cultural battles.

The modern hard left still cares about economics and class – as the appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor shows. Increasingly, however, the hard left has chosen to shift the battleground increasingly into the cultural sphere.

While the right has had some success in this space in recent times – for example, with Michael Gove driving through an agenda to raise school standards, or with Chris Grayling’s highlighting problems with human rights legislation – the cultural sphere is not one in which the right is intrinsically comfortable. For much of recent times – for example in the decade after Margaret Thatcher left office - the right has tended to focus its battles on economics. 

What cultural battles might Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour pick in this Parliament? The most obvious battle is in foreign and security policy. Jeremy Corbyn has a long history of opposing British military involvement overseas and has already effectively come out against using nuclear weapons if elected Prime Minister. It seems very possible that Corbyn will try to lead a national conversation on what sort of country Britain wants to be – in his terms, interventionist or cautious. Such a move would surely see him call for a change in Britain’s armed forces – where Britain was less able to make major interventions abroad, even if he did not call for a formal cut in the armed forces.

Would such an approach work? The British public has undoubtedly been affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and many regret the fact that Britain went in in the first place. The public is also well aware that, in a time of austerity, maintaining a large and active armed forces costs money – and people always prefer to spend money on domestic priorities where a choice has to be made. But the British people are proud of Britain’s armed forces and their role in protecting the country through the decades. There is a lingering strong sense that countries need to be prepared to defend themselves at short notice – the Falklands War in 1982 being the most obvious example.

Furthermore, the British public have a very strong sense of fair play and standing up for those that cannot stand up for themselves. While people are unenthusiastic about further entanglements in the Middle East, it is worth remembering that they did back Britain’s involvement in the Middle East at the time – partly because they thought that hostile groups in the region threatened Britain’s security, and partly because of the very nature of those groups. This has not just vanished in a decade.

Another obvious cultural area that Corbyn might touch on is the culture of big business – and specifically their role in supporting women (particularly working mothers) and minorities in the workplace. Corbyn is obviously no fan of big business – and the people that elected him leader seem to be even less sympathetic. A mainstream conversation has sprung up over the last few years about, for example, the under-representation of women on boards. With this in mind, Corbyn may feel that he can and should enter this debate with genuinely radical policy proposals.

If securing traction on a change in Britain’s role in the world might be difficult, a cultural war on big business is something else. While it would be wrong to suggest that the public is anti-business (as Ed Miliband found), it would be reasonable to say that the public is sceptical about the way many businesses operate – not just over things like how much tax they pay, but generally in how they treat they people. Much of this is unfair – many of Britain’s biggest companies are at the cutting edge of more flexible working patterns for working parents, for example - but scepticism remains and Corbyn may seek to tap into it.

Where else might Corbyn look? If we were in the 1980s, we would inevitably pick education -  long a chosen cultural battleground for the left. So far, Corbyn’s team has given mixed messages on free schools and Academies. It does not look at this point in time that they will choose to campaign for the reversal of this policy, even if they seek to restrict the growth of these schools.

In turn, because of the freedoms that these schools have, it will be difficult for Corbyn’s team to make many inroads into the debate around the national curriculum (because free schools and Academies do not have to teach it). But might we see Corbyn play to his left leaning voters and go after those institutions that they hate even more than free schools and Academies – private schools? What if Corbyn chose to call for the abolition of private schools’ charitable status?

Whatever Corbyn decides to do in this Parliament, it would be a mistake to judge him in the manner of a conventional politician – a politician to whom poll ratings and elections matter most. Rather, we should judge him heavily by his ability to run campaigns that change opinion in such a way that makes his preferred policy changes more likely, or even inevitable, in the future.

Corbyn has played the long game through his career and, as a committed ideologue, he takes a long-term view. He will likely be happy if, looking back on his short time as leader, he managed to change politics.


James Frayne is Director of Policy & Strategy at Policy Exchange and is author of Meet the People, a guide to public opinion.

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