Luke Tryl is Director of More in Common. He is a former Director of the New Schools Network, Director of Strategy at Ofsted, and a former Special Adviser.
What to do about woke? Since the Brexit referendum the Conservative Party seems to have veered between trying to continue Cameronite modernisation by embracing social liberalism and mimicking the ‘war on woke’ championed by its sister parties in Poland, Australia, and the United States.
In Theresa May’s (second) most famous conference speech, she attacked cosmopolitans as “citizens of nowhere”, yet a year later was spearheading trans equality measures. Boris Johnson threw himself into the culture wars, condemning attempts to topple statues, while at the same time opening Britain’s doors to the largest wave of refugees in recent history.
And just this week Rishi Sunak’s Government took the unprecedented step of blocking Scotland’s attempts to reform the Gender Recognition Act, then moved forward landmark legislation to ban conversion therapy the very next day.
In part this inconsistency reflects political reality. Over the past three years, More in Common has identified seven distinct segments of the UK population. The Tories’ 2019 electoral coalition was made up of four of them – two of which are reasonably reliably Conservative, and two on the fringes who will determine if the party stays in power after 2024.
The divergent views of these two swing segments helps shed light on the precarious balancing act the Conservatives face on ‘woke’ issues.
One group, ‘Loyal Nationals’, best reflect the new voters that the Conservatives won in 2019. This group feel little attraction to traditional conservative economic policy, but their social conservatism helped break their longstanding links with the Labour Party.
This is a group more likely to say that Black Lives Matter is a force for bad than good (35 per cent to 47 per cent), to disagree (50 per cent to 45 per cent) that the UK should take in refugees, and most likely to say that GB News is a good thing (52 per cent).
Finding the right way to demonstrate socially-conservative credentials is important to this group.
The ‘Established Liberals’ at the other side of the Tory coalition have different worldview. This group, the most Cameronite Conservatives, support traditional Conservative economic principles, but Brexit and an aversion to populist rhetoric has seen them drift away from the Party in recent elections.
In contrast to Loyal Nationals, they believe the UK should take in refugees (72 per cent to 22 per cent), only 26 per cent think GB News is a good thing and most think Black Lives Matter is a force for good (52 per cent to 25 per cent).
In focus groups Established Liberals make clear their discomfort with culture war policies, from Rwanda deportations to the (now abandoned) Channel Four privatisation.
Viewed from this perspective, the mixed approach to woke issues we’ve seen since 2016 has proven an electoral necessity.
But the truth this seeming inconsistency goes beyond politics, reflecting instead a feature of the British public. Unlike in the US where so-called stacked identities prevail, in the UK people tend to approach cultural flash points on an issue-by-issue basis.
Take Tommy from Blyth, who told us in a focus group that he was furious about small boats crossing the channel, but thought England footballers were right to take the knee as a gesture of loyalty and solidarity to their teammates experiencing racism.
Tommy is not alone: while most of the public think Extinction Rebellion is a bad thing, clear majorities (including all the Tory-leaning segments) think the Government is moving too slowly on tackling climate change.
Even when it comes to free speech, Britons strive for balance. The public are more than twice as likely to prioritise protecting free speech over regulation to avoid offence (54 per cent 21 per cent), but 84 per cent also agree that it is important democracies protect people from harmful speech.
Therefore while the apparent inconsistency of the Conservatives on woke issues might confuse ideological purists (who make up less than a fifth of the public), it mimics the attitude of the public at large.
But it would also be a mistake for any party (left or right) to overestimate the salience of these issues. Time and time again, we find that so-called culture war topics make for good copy, but barely register as issues of public concern.
Our polling finds, for instance, that just two per cent of the public think the debate about trans people is a key issue facing the country, compared to 76 per cent who say the same about the cost of living. While most people roll their eyes at stories about snowflakes and trigger warnings, it’s also not keeping them up at night.
The biggest mistake the Conservatives could make would be to start unnecessary and inconsequential rows at a time the public are exhausted and want the Government to get on with fixing the economy, saving the NHS, and keeping their schools open.
None of which is to say the Conservatives shouldn’t talk about cultural issues. But doing so effectively means recognising shades of grey.
The public object to shutting down debate on campuses, but they don’t want central Government deciding what’s on higher education curricula either; they don’t like positive discrimination but are worried about the gender pay gap and sexism in the workplace.
The term white privilege is a red rag to many, but 77 per cent of the public also agree that racism is a problem (a distinction that politicians like Kemi Badenoch have been keen to make).
In short, there is a way for the Government to strategically push back on elements of progressive excess while at the same time tackling the very real barriers some groups face – whether that be discrimination against Muslim women in the workforce or the plight of white working-class boys in the education system.
The Government doesn’t have to choose between social liberalism or conservatism to find electoral success. But when it comes to woke, nuance is always best.