Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

Starmer has got the culture war all wrong

I’ve decided that I would like President Trump to win the next American presidential election, solely because it will disappoint Hugo Rifkind. I realise that such a statement could only possibly come from a shallow, petty-minded individual and that what should concern all of us is the, uh, stewardship of the free world. But there will be plenty of columnists suffused with gravitas and import to argue those odds one way or the other, leaving me to plough my own rancorous and spiteful furrow. Hugo wrote a very Rifkindy piece for the Times about whether it was necessary, or otherwise, to report the US elections in an honest, truthful and unbiased manner, seeing as Donald Trump was ghastly. He spent 950 or so words justifying not doing so and then, in the final ten, sort of changed his mind. This is one of the good things about Trump: he unhinges liberals and reveals them as being very illiberal indeed. Hugo and the rest of them will seethe and throw their toys out of the pram if Trump wins and for someone who, like me, holds within himself a reservoir of nastiness more voluminous than the Hoover dam, that’s reason enough to be delighted.

While people are relaxed about what constitutes this ‘war’, on the specifics they are anything but

These are the people who will be similarly distressed if Labour does not win the next general election, but I think any prospect of gloating is receding quicker than the hairline of a midget with alopecia. Still, I cannot quite join in the confected loathing of Sir Keir Starmer, which is the default position of those who are anti-Labour. Starmer strikes me as being a man who was dealt a very bad hand indeed but played it rather well. It is true that one cannot believe what he says from one day to the next, but he is scarcely the only politician at which such a charge could be levelled. He has reformed the Labour party, or given the illusion of having done so (which is what counts) in a remarkably short space of time, and he has been winningly ruthless with the Momentum maniacs. I regret a little his jettisoning of John McDonnell’s economic radicalism, but I understand that his concern is not to frighten the horses as we approach an election and, for the most part, his policy-hopping has been adroit. Until this week, perhaps.

Starmer waded into the ‘culture war’ on Monday in an address to the Civil Society Summit, where he suggested the Tories had manufactured the whole thing to distract attention from their manifest incompetence at running the country. Given Sir Keir’s apparent confusion and embarrassment over the issue as to whether or not women have penises, it felt like an obvious misstep to broach the culture war agenda at all. Starmer, I suspect, has been influenced by a number of polls on the issue, which were best collated in the Substack blog The Week in Polls back in November.

‘Well, that’s sparked quite a bit of debate.’

For the most part these polls seem to suggest that Starmer has got it right. Roughly the same percentage of people consider themselves ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’ – around 15 per cent – with the vast majority insisting that neither label applies to them. Some 61 per cent of voters believe that – just as Starmer averred – politicians exaggerate the supposed culture wars to advance their own political agendas. Virtually nobody in the country thinks that these fabricated wars are electorally important or of any great consequence to themselves: cancel culture and the rise of the woke simply don’t figure in the ishoos lists. Further, when the public does express an opinion on such stuff as gender reassignment, the views which emerge are conciliatory and kindly disposed. So one is tempted to believe that Starmer may have got it right again, especially as standard of living issues and the general weariness with the Tories are by far the most decisive criteria for who one will vote for this year.

The trouble for Sir Keir is that I think this is a very superficial reading of the public mindset, for a number of reasons. First, the term ‘culture war’ is a creation of the press: ordinary people do not use such terminology. Moreover, I do not think that people conceive of the thing as a generality: it is the specifics of the issues which grate, and especially when they intersect with those subjects which are a matter of concern to voters.

When you get into the specifics, it is very clear what the public thinks. Let’s go back to the business of trans women for a second. The public holds no animus against those who have transitioned and are split pretty evenly over whether or not they should be allowed, legally, to change their gender. This fact allowed the Guardian to headline a piece on such findings with the conclusion that Brits were not bitterly divided over the issue. However, once you dig down into the detail, you discover that a huge majority of the public are opposed to trans women competing against women in sporting contests and an only slightly smaller proportion were opposed to trans women who have not had surgery using women’s lavatories and so on. It is true, however, that compared with the cost of the weekly shopping, this issue pales into insignificance.

But let’s focus on the mechanism by which people change their genders. Six in ten Britons believe transitioning should not be made any easier and should require a doctor’s approval, according to a survey from YouGov in 2022. In other words, while people are relaxed about what constitutes this ‘culture war’, on the specifics they are anything but. They know where they stand. It is much the same when Brits are asked about colonialism – a YouGov poll in 2019 showed that only 19 per cent of voters thought our imperial past was something to be ashamed of, half those who thought it something to be unequivocably proud of. I suspect Starmer has got this issue badly wrong.

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