Making social science accessible

10 Jan 2024

Politics and Society

Public Opinion

How important are culture war issues likely to be at the next election? James Breckwoldt summarises the findings of his recent research, which finds that these issues are more salient for people with traditional social values.

Is the UK in the grip of some sort of ‘culture war’? My recent research suggests that certain new culture war issues (such as statues, LGBT+ representation in popular culture and university free speech) can be a significant driver of who someone votes for and that the effect of these issues can be as large as issues such as tax, the NHS and crime. In particular, these issues are more motivating for socially conservative people (those who value traditional morals and norms).

Previous research on culture war attitudes has focused mostly on the US, but King’s College London has begun to delve deeper into public opinion on these issues in the UK and the latest British Social Attitudes survey also looked at culture war divides. However, despite their prominence in political, media and academic discussions, there is no specific agreed upon definition of what a ‘culture war’ issue actually is, making it challenging to research.

To address this, I created an original definition of a culture war issue, which considers both what the issue itself is about, and the divisions it creates:

  1. A ‘culture war’ issue is a primarily non-economic issue, that attempts to entrench a moral worldview in one part of society with the hope this will filter through to wider society.
  2. This is done by trying to change the rules, social norms or symbols of an area democratically elected politicians do not traditionally directly control (such as popular culture, universities or in the day-to-day interactions between people).
  3. Division is between ‘progressives’ (more liberal individuals) and ‘orthodox’ voters (with more conservative attitudes).
  4. Debate around this issue involves mutual hostility between activists.

Using this definition, I test how electorally important new culture war issues are, in comparison to other economic and non-economic issues.

In my study, I tested six culture war issues that cover recent major topics of debate: allowing transwomen athletes to compete in female-sex sports, keeping up statues of people who profited from the slave trade, ending mandatory diversity training, diversifying the curriculum, increasing LGBT+ representation in children’s TV, and efforts to stop university speaker cancelations.

I present respondents with two hypothetical candidates standing for leader of their preferred party who each endorse two particular economic policies, one long-standing non-economic policy, and a new culture war issue.  An example of what someone who took the survey might have seen is shown below.

We can then assess the importance of ‘culture war’ issues to voters relative to other issues, by modelling how likely a candidate was voted for, based on how much the respondent agreed with their stances on each issue.

Using the extent that a respondent agreed with the policies of their candidates, I find that culture war policies do not stand out as having any particularly unique effect on voters compared to other economic and non-economic issues. Instead, all these issues seem to play some role in who someone decides to vote for. Voters certainly incorporate their culture war beliefs when deciding who to vote for, but economic and long-standing non-economic policies still also move votes.

Data also allows us to look at the effect of culture war policies on voting behaviour individually.

The results above show that culture war issues consistently motivate ‘orthodox’ respondents yet has an inconsistent effect on the behaviour of those with ‘progressive’ attitudes. For example, ‘orthodox’ respondents voted against all candidates in the experiment who put forward progressive policies and significantly voted for all those proposing more conservative policies. However, only three issues impacted the vote of progressives (same-sex parents in children’s TV, mandatory diversity training and diversifying the curriculum) with the rest being insignificant.

We can also consider whether voters with different broader political values are more or less motivated by the culture war. Their answers to long-established survey questions allow us to group respondents into four groups based on their economic (left-right) and non-economic (liberal-conservative) political values:

  • Economically left-wing, socially conservative (Left-Traditionalists)
  • Economically left-wing, socially liberal (Left-Libertarians)
  • Economically right-wing, socially conservative (Right-Traditionalists)
  • Economically right-wing, socially liberal (Right-Libertarians)

The table below shows the policies that had the biggest effect on these four groups’ vote choice, with culture war issues highlighted in bold.

Those who are economically left and socially liberal place little importance on candidates’ positions on culture war issues. Instead, they prioritise economic (six out of the top ten) and traditional non-economic (four out of the top ten) issues.

In contrast, economically right-wing, socially conservative voters clearly prioritise culture war, as well as traditional non-economic, issues. Two of this group’s top issues are culture war-related (statues and transwomen athletes). Those who are economically left-wing and socially conservative are also motivated by culture war issues, but to a lesser extent than economically right-wing, socially conservative voters. Instead, economically left-wing, socially conservative voters are most concerned with immigration and asylum policies.

Why might culture war issues have played a bigger role for people with more traditional social values? Partly, this may be because politicians and media on this side of politics were emphasising the issues referred to in the survey – such as Suella Braverman ending diversity training in her department and Rishi Sunak campaigning to stop ‘woke nonsense’.

A different theory is that, as the Conservative Party – a likely choice of these voters – was in government, these respondents already felt they had some control over economic and traditional non-economic issues, but not over cultural issues which are outside governmental direct control. This feeling may be exacerbated by Britain still experiencing progressive cultural change under a Conservative government, which these voters may feel has failed to sufficiently counteract.

At the same time, the fact that progressives do not consistently vote for progressive cultural change implies a divide between the priorities of progressive activists who push for said cultural change, and less engaged progressive voters. Instead, these voters tend to be more concerned with economic and long-standing non-economic issues.

Certain periods have seen culture wars rise and fall in prominence. These issues may be important to party competition now, but may play less (or more) of a role in the future. New issues will continually emerge in the ever-evolving landscape of cultural battles, and could motivate orthodox and progressive voters to act in different ways in the future.

By James Breckwoldt, PhD candidate, University of Manchester.

James’s full research paper is available here.

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