Voices: Here’s what the Tory leadership candidates are getting wrong about ‘woke’

·6 min read

There’s something deeply depressing about the Tory leadership contest. No, I’m not talking about the candidates trying to one-up each other with promises of fantasy tax cuts, or Liz Truss’s worryingly wooden veneer, like a polished toy with a string in its back that can only repeat the same few meaningless phrases about being “trusted” and having a “track record of delivery”; or even how the third TV debate was cancelled – perhaps because allowing the public to get to know the candidates had become more of a liability than a desired outcome.

It’s turned into quite an embarrassing exercise in barrel-scraping all round, but the part that concerns me the most is that these potential prime ministers (of whom only Truss, Mordaunt and Sunak now remains) have seemed so keen to distance themselves from the merest hint of suggestion that they are “woke” – and instead, have appeared desperate to flaunt their “anti-woke” credentials at all costs.

The former attorney general, Suella Braverman – first to be knocked out of the race – was quick to attack Penny Mordaunt for being “woke”. Mordaunt’s crime? Suggesting we add a bit of gender neutral language to the Maternity Allowances Act, so it was more inclusive for trans and non-binary folks. I know. Heinous.

The first televised debate, broadcast on Channel 4, saw Kemi Badenoch tearing strips off Mordaunt for allegedly supporting trans people’s right to self-identify. Mordant has since sought to distance herself from the claim, asserting that she is the victim of “smears”. The “woke” label is evidently so damaging, so undesirable and compromising, that even a whisper of it must be stamped out immediately.

Let’s backtrack for a second. “Woke”, as a term, hasn’t been around very long, but it’s difficult to avoid. It saturates the headlines of right-wing publications and punctuates reactionary right-wing discourse on social media. Its meaning has been perverted, and “woke” is now shorthand for anything that’s deemed silly, or harmful, or generally disliked.

The Met Office recommending that you take it easy and drink water on the hottest day ever recorded? Woke BS! Calling someone the name that they’re comfortable with or using the pronouns they prefer? Wokeism gone mad! Schools trying to teach some inconvenient part of history where Britain doesn’t sound like the hero of the story? Don’t infect our kids with your wokery!

Mentions of the word in a positive context are few and far between. It’s now become a pejorative, an insult, an effective attack line – as the Tory leadership race has proven with such generous abundance.

Well, let me tell you what I think “woke” actually means: being aware. Not living life blindly or in ignorance. According to Wikipedia, it is: “An English adjective meaning ‘alert to racial prejudice and discrimination’ that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”.

Being tuned in to issues of injustice, prejudice and discrimination is a good thing. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but as the term has become so twisted and divorced from its meaning, this bears repeating. In my opinion, it would only not be perceived as positive by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, where structural inequality locks power in the hands of the privileged few. I believe it has also been wilfully co-opted by people who are racist, sexist and otherwise bigoted. Take your pick.

It is no coincidence that the far-right extremist party Britain First endorsed Kemi Badenoch before she was knocked out of the race yesterday. They urged thousands of members to back the “anti-woke” candidate in a press release. Despite her skin colour, Britain First clearly felt that Badenoch would be the right contender to further their agenda.

Rishi Sunak, Truss, Mordaunt – plus Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat and Braverman before their exits – have all fought to outdo each other in the high-stakes game of anti-wokery. Every single candidate has backed the viscerally abhorrent and shameful Rwanda deportation plan. Mordaunt reckons that people (read: the poor, those needing financial support) should take more “personal responsibility”.

Badenoch, although she later U-turned, called the government’s distinctly feeble net-zero pledge “unilateral economic disarmament”. Smart stuff, as Britain turns into an actual oven, courtesy of the climate crisis.

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It’s sometimes easy, amid all the hyperbole (sun cream and shade – only for woke snowflakes?), disingenuity and bad faith arguments, to forget what this hatred of “woke” is actually about. It seems to me an attack not only on progressive, socially liberal and even the most moderately left-wing values, but is also about trashing standards of common human decency, which call on us to treat each other with kindness and respect.

This makes it easier to erode the rights and protections of marginalised groups – like trans and gender nonconforming people, like refugees and asylum seekers. It creates a country where fear and hatred is the default setting, where we are more divided from one another, more suspicious of difference and more divorced from our capacity for compassion. Where anything new or not understood is sneered at and dismissed as “woke rubbish”, despite the fact that it might make someone else’s life bearable or alleviate suffering for those whose experiences are different from our own.

It adds up, when you consider who will be ultimately tasked with selecting the next PM. The Conservative party membership of around 200,000 – or 0.29 per cent of the UK population – is overwhelmingly male (71 per cent) and overwhelmingly white (97 per cent). More than half are over 60, and hold opinions on issues such as the climate crisis and LGBT+ rights that are out of step with the wider public. This tiny percentage is the “kingmaker” – and it is to these select few that the Tory leadership candidates are pandering.

In Britain, we stand on the edge of a precipice, with millions struggling to keep their heads above water due to inflation, energy bills doubling, food prices rising, wages stagnating – but those slugging it out to become our next prime minister are more interested in proving how “anti-woke” they are on the public stage. Replace “anti-woke” with “unaware of and inattentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”. What a thing to aspire to be.

The “anti-woke” narrative has already defined this leadership contest. The candidates are fighting like proverbial rats in a sack to prove exactly how unconcerned they are about issues of justice and equality, and how decency and respect aren’t on the agenda. God help us all.