With the left asleep at the wheel, the right has surged ahead with its cynical anti-woke narrative | Ellie Mae O’Hagan

If you watch any current affairs programme for long enough, eventually you’ll come across a sinister enemy that is intent on attacking fish and chip shops, taking away the nation’s books, and corrupting your children. This terrible coterie has become known as the “wokemob”.

The “wokemob” is becoming an increasingly dominant part of British political discourse in the 2020s. Tony Blair recently made yet another rare political intervention to urge Keir Starmer to drop “woke” politics (when asked what policies should be focused on instead, Blair said that Starmer should introduce biometric ID cards). Just yesterday, I appeared on BBC Politics Live alongside the self-appointed leader of an “anti-woke collective”, Laurence Fox, who described “wokery” as disgusting.

The challenge for progressives, and progressive political parties, is to avoid the trap of endless debates with the right about wokeness, while also defending progressive values. To that end, at the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), we have undertaken a year-long project called the UK Race Class Narrative project, officially launching tomorrow. It examined this “anti-woke” story and its purpose, and uncovered a new way of talking about British society that can unite people around their shared material interests, rather than dividing them.

We found that the divisive story about the wokemob had mainly been constructed by a small handful of people, consisting of certain politicians, parts of the media and very privileged public figures. It is mainly coming from the hard right of the political spectrum and key figures in the government and media, but elements of the centre and the left have started experimenting with it as well. Many adherents of the anti-woke story genuinely believe it, but it also provides them with a useful distraction technique. In the face of pressing issues such as the cost of living scandal or government corruption, the anti-woke story is usually dispensed to convince people that the biggest threat facing the UK is the nebulous wokemob and not, say, energy companies making vast profits at people’s expense, or the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. Four days before the charity Action for Children announced that children were getting chilblains because their parents couldn’t afford to heat their homes, the Telegraph published an article arguing that “woke is not just an insult – it’s a threat to our freedom”.

Race plays a key role in how the narrative of the wokemob works. Its proponents largely avoid attacking minority groups directly. Instead, the focus of their outrage are the advocates of racial justice. This is an extremely broad group of people: everyone from the National Trust to Black Lives Matter, Disney to academics, the Labour party to the England football team have all been pejoratively described as woke at some point, simply because they have acknowledged the existence of racism (particularly structural or historical racism) and they have concluded that it is a bad thing. Indeed, it should tell us something about the “anti-woke” story that the word “woke” is believed to have been coined by Black Americans in the mid-20th century, who used it to describe the process of becoming sensitised to issues of racial justice.

The wokemob, argues the modern story, is hellbent on lavishing minorities and immigrants with undeserved privileges at the expense of the white working class (sometimes described using more euphemistic terminology like the “authentic” or “traditional” working class). This is clever on the part of the people promoting this anti-woke story, because they are essentially telling us that equality is a zero-sum game in which white people lose out when advancements in racial justice are made. In their story, people of colour, recent immigrants and their “woke allies” are pitted against the white working class, their “traditional British values” and people like Boris Johnson, who implies that only his government has the genuine interests of the working class at heart. Thus, every time anyone uses the term culture war, the idea that two sides are at war over a clash of values is reinforced.

Faced with such a vivid and emotive story, the response of the people on my side of the political spectrum – the progressive side – has been a kind of paralysis. Unsure of what to say and afraid of being labelled woke ourselves, progressives oscillate between repeating damaging elements of the anti-woke story (by repeating our opponents’ phrases, such as cancel culture) or simply denouncing the anti-woke narrative as racist (which it is). The underlying problem is that we are yet to create our own competing story about society, the country in which we live, and our shared values and needs. Perhaps we have also confused the sheer dominance of the anti-woke story in the mediasphere with cachet among the public, overlooking the fact that most people have not made up their minds about key political issues, and most care about their communities and want to be kind – qualities that should mean that most people are at least in theory receptive to progressive politics. Recent polling suggested that nearly a third of people don’t even know what woke means.

It’s time for progressives to bite the bullet and start telling a story of our own. Our UK Race Class Narrative project uncovered new ways of communicating that bring people together around their shared material interests, and actually outperform the divisive anti-woke story in empirical testing. Far more effective than focusing on problems, denouncing the right or listing policies is opening with shared progressive values (like the importance of a good quality of life and building a better world for our children), being clear about exactly who is getting in the way of those values being realised and why, and emphasising that by joining together across our differences we can make life better for all of us, whatever our race.

But there is another thing we discovered in the course of our research. We used hundreds of sources to create a summation of the anti-woke story and a summation of the current progressive response to it, and showed both to participants to gauge their response. The anti-woke story decisively won. In fact, one in three people who took part in our research couldn’t even remember what the progressive response was immediately after hearing it, let alone decide whether they liked it. Progressives sometimes like to see ourselves as too evidence-driven and honourable to get into the dirty business of emotive politics. But the truth is we’re not above this issue: we’re asleep at the wheel as our opponents paint us as the enemy. It’s time to change course, and fast, because if we don’t we might one day find ourselves steered into an all-consuming reactionary society, as the socially liberal and unified future we’d hoped for recedes into the distance.