Local Elections 2023Rishi Sunak Falls Victim to his Own ‘War on Woke’
The Conservative Party’s huge defeats in the local elections reveal a party that is increasingly out of step with modern Britain, reports Adam Bienkov
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Most elections, like most wars, are won and lost long before battle actually commences.
Long term political, demographic and economic shifts almost always matter much more to the final outcome than any one leaflet, attack ad, or campaign gaffe.
There are few better examples of this than yesterday’s local elections. In the months running up to polling day, Rishi Sunak’s party and its ideological cheerleaders tried desperately to start a series of ‘culture wars’ on everything from immigration, to the BBC, to trans rights.
As voters told pollsters that their overwhelming priorities were dealing with surging prices, falling wages and an increasingly broken public sector, the Conservatives instead spent months talking about unisex bathrooms, small boats, and Gary Lineker.
In the weeks leading up to polling day, as Labour and Liberal Democrat activists poured onto doorsteps with promises to fix Britain’s broken economy, The Sun newspaper instead splashed on a claim that ‘BRITS SAY NO TO WOKE’ while suggesting that voters were set to ‘reject woke Labour’. Meanwhile the conservative academic Matthew Goodwin toured broadcast studios pushing his theory that the liberal-left ‘new elite’ had become completely detached from the public mood.
In reality the complete opposite was the case. While the Conservative party and its cheerleaders banged on ever more loudly about its ‘war on woke’, voters have increasingly headed in the opposite direction.
As the nation’s leading pollster Sir John Curtice told the Byline Times in an interview this week, “If you look at the long term trends, anti-woke views are becoming less and less common”.
“You are chasing a declining zeitgeist, because in the end, one of the reasons why ‘anti-woke’ folk are so upset is because certain things that once upon a time nobody questioned, like the idea that same sex relationships are not a good idea… are no longer commonly held views.
“On this whole argument about diversity, attitudes have shifted and they have shifted in a ‘woke’ direction.”
This is not just a recent development. Former Prime Minister David Cameron first identified the way the country was heading way back in 2005 when he became Conservative party leader. His attempts to reform the party’s image with younger, university educated, and increasingly socially liberal and globally aware voters were derided at the time by the press as an attempt to “hug a hoodie”. However, they were decisive in helping bring the party back to power after more than a decade in the wilderness.
Yet since the Brexit referendum, Cameron’s party has abandoned all such attempts and instead sought to repeatedly pump a few more gasps of air back into the gradually deflating coalition of older, more socially conservative voters that helped to win the Brexit referendum and 2019 general election.
The results from yesterday’s local elections suggest that this strategy has now finally run out of breath.
In those areas that voted most strongly for Brexit in 2016, voters have instead turned back to Keir Starmer’s party, while in those areas that most heavily backed Remain, Conservative voters have instead headed towards the supposedly out of touch ‘new elite’ parties of the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
A War on Itself
Indeed, rather than push the Conservative party towards an unprecedented fifth general election victory in a row, Rishi Sunak’s ‘war on woke’, appears, if anything, to be actually making the party’s likely defeat even likelier.
Even on the one ‘anti-woke’ issue that most voters appear to actually agree with Sunak on – small boat crossings – the party’s heavy focus on it has backfired in these elections.
By so significantly raising voter awareness of an issue that the Government has done so little to actually tackle, while at the same time using rhetoric which turns off more socially liberal Conservative voters in its ‘blue wall’ strongholds, Sunak and his Home Secretary Suella Braverman have succeeded in worsening its defeats on both sides of its electoral coalition.
A sign of quite how badly this strategy has backfired came on polling day itself when the conservative intellectual David Starkey took to the ‘anti-woke’ GB News channel to denounce Sunak himself as somehow not being “grounded in our culture”.
Starkey’s dog-whistle comments, which closely echoed those made recently by Suella Braverman about asylum seekers not “sharing our values”, perfectly encapsulates the failure of the Conservative party’s ‘war on woke’. While such views may motivate some on the very extreme fringes of our politics, they are increasingly out of step with a country which is overwhelmingly comfortable with its two biggest constituent nations being led by Brits from ethnic minority backgrounds.
By heading in an increasingly socially conservative direction, while each new generation of voters heads in the opposite direction, Sunak and his party are succeeding only in waging war on its own chances of another election victory.
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Even on its own terms, Sunak’s strategy in these elections has been increasingly hard to make sense of. After months of failed attempts to ignite a culture war with the opposition, the party spent the final days of its campaign talking instead about Sue Gray and civil service independence. As ministers toured broadcast studios talking about obscure Westminster watchdogs and delayed Cabinet Office investigations, the Labour party leadership looked on in utter bewilderment at a Government that appeared to have so utterly lost its will to win.
The result of this combination of an increasingly head-in-the-sand approach to modern Britain, with an incompetent and bizarre short-term electoral strategy, has combined to hand Sunak’s party what looks set to be its worst result since before it was last ejected from office in 1997. As the polls closed on Thursday one senior Lib Dem figure told Byline Times, that the Conservatives were suffering a “perfect storm” as their former voters deserted them right across the country, with opposition voters switching tactically to those parties best placed to oust them locally.
This was all entirely predictable.
As the Chinese general Sun Tzu once noted, the worst generals start wars first and then figure out how to win them afterwards.
Rishi Sunak has gone one step further. By launching his ‘war on woke’, many years after it was essentially already lost, the Prime Minister is now pushing his electoral armies towards what looks likely to be a historic defeat.