UK voters frustrated with politicians’ ‘desperate’ culture war tactics, survey finds

<span>The poll showed voters respond well to local issues but dislike divisive culture war campaigns.</span><span>Photograph: Paul Bevitt/Alamy</span>
The poll showed voters respond well to local issues but dislike divisive culture war campaigns.Photograph: Paul Bevitt/Alamy

Voters have been left frustrated with “desperate” culture war tactics deployed by politicians and are prepared to punish those who use them at the ballot box, a survey has found.

Electoral strategies based on culturally charged and divisive issues repulse swing and undecided voters, who see politicians as “playing to the crowd” or “jumping on the bandwagon”, according to research from More in Common commissioned by 38 Degrees.

As part of the research, four constituency-focused election messages – Labour and Tory culture war campaigns and neutral political messages from each party – were shown in three focus groups, in Wokingham and Blyth in February and Calder Valley in April, and in a survey involving 2,000 voters overall.

The MaxDiff experiment revealed the public were more likely to throw campaign adverts “in the bin” that focused on culture war messages rather than local issues.

A Tory culture war campaign message saying “the woke mob is taking over” led to a 10 percentage point decrease in Tory voters likely to back Sunak at the next election.

For Labour, its base supporters responded well to a campaign message saying “we need to fight back against the racist government”, but the party opened itself up to a four percentage point increase in voters who are unlikely to back Starmer.


Richard, from Wokingham, Berkshire, told the focus group: “They’d both be in the shredder, and the only possible effect would be maybe I’d want to stay at home and not vote for anyone if those were the options.”

According to YouGov’s April 2024 MRP poll, there are 44 seats in which the leading party is less than two percentage points ahead of its closest competitor, 37 of them Tory-held seats.

The researchers highlight that for Labour to win a workable majority it needs a broad coalition of voters spread efficiently in seats across the country, rather than amassing votes among its base concentrated in a smaller number of constituencies.

The Wokingham voter also criticised the prime minister’s “old-fashioned” tactic of what he called “playing to a crowd” on transgender issues. “It must be a very difficult process to go through … so to almost belittle people who’ve made certain choices and dismiss it is very disrespectful.”

Lauren, from the same constituency, said politicians use culture war tactics to “try and distract us … so while we’re all looking away following all the scandal that’s going on … what are we being distracted from?”

Voters who were not usually Labour supporters were enticed by Starmer’s party when shown a campaign message based on protecting public services.

A Labour message on the NHS reduced voters’ unlikeliness to back the party by seven percentage points and increased the likelihood by six percentage points.

This NHS message also gained Labour some voters in shire seats and the blue wall, since the NHS is the second most important issue to the public after the cost of living among all types of voters, according to the research.

Earlier this month, Sunak faced calls to remove the Tory whip from the backbench MP Nick Fletcher after he praised the Reform party’s only MP, Lee Anderson, and said he “wished he remained with the Conservatives” as he was “Ashfield’s greatest champion”.

Many Tories believe that Anderson speaks for ordinary working people, even after he said that the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is controlled by Islamists or that nurses should not need to use food banks.

But only 17% of the public said that Anderson speaks for people like them, the survey noted. Among the red wall, or loyal national voters who are very patriotic, only 22% said he speaks for people like them.

The research noted that knowledge of the culture wars was highest among progressive activists who took part in online debates and were highly politically engaged. Among all other voter segments only one in five people could actually explain what a culture war is.