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2 March 2021

Why the Conservatives’ war on woke is a trap for the left

“Cancel culture” means individuals can be fired for the crime of causing offence, and Labour should be up in arms about this abuse of workers’ rights.

By Martha Gill

What’s the point of the Tories’ nascent war on woke? Why now, in the middle of a pandemic, has this become a policy priority? Why is Gavin Williamson concerning himself with free speech at universities when students are not even free to meet up with each other? Why did Robert Jenrick announce the news that statue disputes may now be settled by the communities secretary, of all things, as if he were manning the last barricades against plinth-thirsty philistines? 

It’s not as if the government even needs a distraction at the moment: the progress of the vaccine rollout and the measured, careful opening up roadmap have boosted its ratings. With Brexit done, do the Conservatives really need to stoke a culture war at the risk of alienating their more metropolitan voters? Particularly when, so far, the war has been noticed mostly by left-leaning progressive Remainers – precisely the wrong end of the voting spectrum for the Tories to find any benefit. 

The answer is that the idea might be shrewder than it has been given credit for. It may not, in fact, be that the Conservative government has misjudged its voters, but that it has made an accurate assessment of Labour’s: this particular culture war is a very menacing trap for the left.

The first danger is that it will split it. Many of Labour’s most outspoken supporters are stridently “woke”, yet a good chunk of the party’s lost voters are more socially conservative and agree with the government on matters such as preserving Britain’s heritage and singing the national anthem. “Cancel culture”, whereby individuals or cultural icons deemed socially unacceptable are thrust out by the “woke”, is as likely to drive these voters away from Labour as it is attract them.

There is the added problem that the term “woke” is not well defined: it can be applied to any position that might otherwise be described as “principled” or “progressive”, and can therefore be slapped disparagingly on to almost any stance or policy Labour might have. The Tories might as well have declared war on “anything not conservative”. 

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Insofar as this is a matter of semantics, Keir Starmer has dealt with it rather well. “Well, look… this bandying of words around doesn’t help,” he said, when pressed last week on whether he would describe himself as woke, “I’m values-driven.” That may work for now, although refusing to take sides could become more difficult if the Tories start attacking the causes closer to Labour’s heart.

[See also: Joanna Cherry’s Diary: Why I was sacked, coming out as gay in the Aids pandemic, and turmoil in the SNP]

The larger issue, though, is that it’s not just a “bandying [around] of words”. There is a very tangible problem with so-called woke culture, and it’s not about statues or street names but something that goes to Labour’s very core: workers’ rights. 

Taken to its extreme, “cancel culture” means individuals can be capriciously fired by corporations and institutions for the crime of causing outrage or offence – sometimes for no reason other than being targeted by an internet mob.

Take the case of the African-American school security guard in Wisconsin who was fired for using the N-word when he asked a student not to abuse him with it. (He was later re-hired after protestations online). Or the professor at the University of Southern California who was placed on leave after using the Chinese word for ‘that” because some people thought it sounded like the N-word. Or the executive at Boeing who was fired last year for having written an article in 1987 opposing the idea of female fighter pilots, a debate that was live at the time. He apologised, saying he had changed his mind soon after its publication. He still lost his job. 

These abused workers are the very people the left should be standing up for. The concept of labour rights – indeed, the Labour movement itself – is based on redressing the power imbalance between worker and corporation. Cancel culture is a clear example of that imbalance.

Employers have a double incentive to fire individuals who have been targeted for causing offence: they can protect their brand and garner woke credentials in the process. Mobs on social media, where so much of this outrage seems to come from, tend to prefer bullying individuals – who can be satisfyingly crushed – to bullying corporations.

It’s clear employees need far greater protections against the consequences of “woke” crusades, and it’s clear, too, that this is exactly the sort of cause Labour MPs would normally champion. 

But will they? That would involve trusting voters to make a distinction between resisting such abuses of power and agreeing with their targets. And the effect of a Conservative-led culture war is to blur these kinds of distinctions, to the point where just saying a word that sounds like the wrong word, or using that word to argue against saying it, can get you fired. 

As the war on woke builds, nuance will become harder to achieve, and Starmer will be forced into increasingly difficult positions. Better perhaps to take a stand now, before it is too late. 

[See also: The Slate Star Codex saga proves a new blasphemy code is emerging among liberals]

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