It’s a woke leadership election. That is damaging

It’s one of the most contentious topics of our times but hardly the stuff of debate on the top of the Clapham Omnibus and in the snug of your neighbourhood pub. Many people have never heard of “woke” and a third don’t know what it means.

Yet it features strongly in the Tory leadership campaign, mainly in respect of transgender issues. Why?

The anti-woke momentum in the leadership contest is partly driven by the rise of populism on the Tory right. The right wing media have been gunning against woke, especially transgender issues, for months. Searches for “woke” on Google have accelerated since the leadership contest got underway. Candidates have felt obliged to give a statement of their position on woke. Second runner Penny Mordant had been quite relaxed on transgender but toughened her stance yesterday quoting Margaret Thatcher:

“It was Margaret Thatcher who said that ‘every Prime Minister needs a Willie’. A woman like me doesn’t have one.”

This posturing by the Tory candidates in order to get approval from the right wing press is damaging. Discussions on matters such as colonialism and slavery and the transgender debate need space and time to move towards a consensus. Efforts to achieve a degree of understanding, even if a consensus is impossible, should not be wrecked by the ambitions of wannabe prime ministers.

Avid readers of Tory press – the Telegraph, the Mail and to a lesser degree the Times – will be aware of the moral indignation amounting almost to a moral panic over transgender and woke issues from some journalists and columnists. There is nothing more the Mail likes than whipping a moral outrage and stirring up feelings of disgust and fear in in its readers. Sarah Vine for example. Telegraph readers choke with on their breakfast kippers reading the latest examples of what they call woke thinking. As for Piers Morgan:

These newspapers and journalists have long lost their way and are out of touch with transgender and discrimination issues. That might barely matter if it were not for the Tory obsession with using the views of the editors and writers of these newspapers as a guide to making policy. The print editions of a handful of newspapers seem to hold substantial power over Conservative policies. Boris Johnson is reported to have been fixated on the print editions of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in morning Downing Street meetings.

It is perhaps because a clutch of right wing journalists are obsessed with woke that it has become unavoidable in the current election campaign.

Like so many words in the English language, the word woke has shifted its meaning from its origins of referring to being awake, as in being aware, to a more specific construct of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice. In recent months in the UK, it has become strongly associated with the transgender debate.

Concern about woke is very much a Tory thing.

A YouGov survey showed that 87% of Conservative voters thought they were not woke and 74% that being woke was a bad thing. But only 52% of Lib Dems thought they were not woke and only 20% thought that being woke was not a good thing. Males are more likely to say they are not woke than females. Tories are more likely to think having a negative view of the British Empire is woke (61%) than Lib Dems (34%). Views on whether supporting equality for transgender people is woke are more mixed with around 80 to 90 per cent thinking it is woke or something woke people might do. This survey is now looking a bit dated as the public debate has intensified since May 2021 when it was published.

A more recent survey published two months ago by King’s College London and Ipsos UK found there is a growing awareness of the phrases “being woke” and “cancel culture”, along with more people seeing the word “woke” as an insult (36%) rather than a compliment (26%). The survey also showed that more than half the public feel that the UK is divided by “culture wars” (54%).

One of my concerns with the current leadership debate is that woke is being used divisively in pursuit of the career ambitions of power hungry individuals.

That’s not what we need. All issues around woke, whether that is on matters of British history such as the empire and slavery or the transgender debate, require space to develop understanding of the issues and different perspectives. We need time to work closer towards a consensus. Using populist anti-woke arguments in a dog-eats-dog leadership contest will only increase divisions and put us in reverse on one of the most divisive issues of our times.

This article has not been about trans rights and associated subjects. It has been about why woke and gender features so strongly in the Conservative leadership battle and the Tory leaning media. Please limit your comments to that subject. Thanks.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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14 Comments

  • Tristan Ward 14th Jul '22 - 5:50pm

    The problem with these labels is that both sides of the debate are using the term to drive division. You are “woke” or not “woke”: You are for us or against us. You are in the “in group” or the “out group”

    Seems to me the truly liberal position is to concentrate on the individual rather than the groups so as to ensure that every individual is able so far as possible to live a fulfilling life and is not enslaved by reason of poverty, ignorance or conformity.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jul '22 - 6:13pm

    As usual, sensible, thoughtful, Andy.

    I think even this party ought to be more able to not be as vociferous on these issues, in tone if less in viewpoints.

    The culture war, like the Iraq one or Vietnam, ought not to be fought, because it is not a just or necessary war.

    It touches on individual rights, too much, which are sensitive areas. It needs exactly as Andy says, effort, not one off comments, and it should be dealt with, like Iraq, Vietnam, with the skills of diplomacy.

    I think Mordaunt gets this. A shame she isn’t saying it enough. But having researched her , years ago and recently, she faces many who think she is indeed a “woke,” liberal.

    All parties emphasise their activist base. Labour go left. Tories right. Liberal democrats go liberal, neither right or left.

    Mordaunt was at home in the coalition. Though a brexit supporter, Lord Frost today paints her as not what he liked as a minister. I like her more for that!!!

  • Anthony Acton 14th Jul '22 - 8:04pm

    Thank you Andy for your thoughtful post. It seems to me the unpleasant “woke” stuff flying around the Tory candidates is a deliberate distraction from any discussion about the “Clapham omnibus” issues which will very likely destroy the career of whoever is elected as the new PM: fuel and food poverty, inflation and a collapsing NHS. The LibDems need to be on that bus and leading that discussion.

  • The far-right is trying to create a narrative to justify the persecution of LGBT+ people (and, under the “woke” banner, ‘woke’ originally being a Black term from the US, anyone insufficiently old, white, male, straight, and middle-or-upper class). At the mild end, this will result in some sort of trans version of Section 28 being passed in the vein of Thatcher; at the extreme end, it will result in extermination camps for LGBT+ people in the vein of Chechnya. The former will still result in a huge amount of suffering and loss of life, because that is the whole and entire point of the exercise. The fact that the Lib Dems largely seem to be aware of this, is greatly reassuring.

  • David Le Grice 14th Jul '22 - 10:07pm

    The right wing press is clearly trying to import all of this from America, it seems totally artificial and doesn’t seem make sense in the context of anything that’s actually happening inBritish politics.

  • Tristan Ward 15th Jul '22 - 11:49am

    @Ian

    Thatcher-s comment was certainly about Whitelaw. As she had no sense of humour it was only the sniggering in the back row that alerted her to the double entendre.

  • Peter Hirst 15th Jul '22 - 3:36pm

    If woke means being concerned about cultural issues why not say that? I suspect it’s one of those words that is useful for adding ambiguity to your remarks. Presumably being anti-woke implies standing up for traditional values that means forgetting all the progress we’ve made as a society in the last fifty years.

  • @Ian Sanderson (RM3) & Tristan Ward

    Interesting, placing the Margaret Thatcher complimentary reference to Whitelaw on Penny Mordant’s usage, does raise the question as to whether Penny had any appreciation of what Margaret actually intended Or is this a coded message to the MP’s that her leadership will be confrontational “my way or the highway”?

  • @ Ian Sanderson. I think you’ll find the comment about stirring up apathy was made by William Whitelaw in the 1970 General Election campaign. It was directed at Harold Wilson – who subsequently lost the Election.

  • George Thomas 16th Jul '22 - 9:12am

    At the moment British history is taught a bit like Argentinians describing Maradona’s performance against England in 1986 and only talking about the second goal. From an Argentinian perspective, what Tories don’t like about “woke” is that they think it’s people only talking about the hand of God goal and ignoring the second score; but for most people it’s not, but that’s what they’ve picked up on because a traditional mindset, even traditions which have held us back – only talking about Maradona as a fantastic footballer and ignoring he needed help for drug addiction, is so fundamental to their belief system.

    The best weapon a woke mindset has is shows like “Call the Midwife” which shows that woke attitudes have always been part of British mindset firstly in small pockets of the UK and then slowly the best of that mindset spreading around. The best weapon an anti-woke mindset has is showing that a “woke” opinion about any subject isn’t fully defined and there are more extreme mindsets.

    What to do for LD’s? Play with a straight-bat and tell people what “woke” means as a basic definition, tell them that you don’t agree with the more extremists mindset (though some of what’s being said by radicals will become normal), we can’t only talk about half the story and with rose-tinted view on our past or our present set-up, and that for lots of people having time to discuss culture is a privileged position.

  • @ Ian Sanderson As it happens, Ian, I’m old enough to remember it happening in the 1970 election on tv (never mind about ‘aggregating sites’).

    A few years later when I lived in Willie’s constituency I clearly remember him coming round the villages glad-handing the locals. One old lady, when asked by him how she was replied, “I’m afraid my husband’s just died”. The avuncular Willie responded in his best most avuncular way, “Jolly good.Jolly good, Well Done, Well done”, and moved on down the line.

    Incidentally, shortly after Willie retired to the Lords from Penrith & the Border in 1983, the Liberals just missed winning the byelection by about 500 votes.

  • It is interesting to note that 52% of Lib Dems don’t consider themselves to be woke which supports my view that the natural Lib Dem constituency is centrist, rather than radical, on social and cultural issues.

    My own view was summed up by Tony Blair in the New Statesman in 2021 when he said “People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice”.

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