Politicians are using culture war as distraction tactic, poll finds

Ahead of general election, top issues people said would determine their vote include cost of living, inflation, NHS and social care

Jabed Ahmed
Friday 03 November 2023 03:50 GMT
Suella Braverman blames travel disruption on ‘tofu-eating wokerati’

More than half of the British public feel politicians are using culture wars to distract from other “important” issues, according to a survey which also found the term “woke” is increasingly seen as an insult.

Almost two thirds (62 per cent) of 3,716 people polled said politicians “invent or exaggerate” culture wars as a political tactic – up from 44 per cent three years ago, the research suggested.

Just one in 10 people felt politicians who talk about divisions over cultural issues genuinely believe it is an important topic, with 56 per cent feeling they are just trying to distract people from other important topics.

The research, by King’s College London (KCL) and Ipsos UK, found that – ahead of a general election – the top issues people said would determine their vote include cost of living, inflation and the NHS and social care.

Channel crossings were also seen as an important voting issue, while transgender rights and free speech were at the bottom of the list, with just 1 per cent of people saying these issues would determine their vote.

The research also found a growing sense that culture wars are a serious problem for UK society and politics, with 52 per cent of people now holding this view.

Conservative MPs have often found themselves at the centre of so-called culture wars, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman pledging to tackle the “tofu-eating wokerati” as she ordered a probe into police impartiality in September, adding “people want officers on streets not policing pronouns”.

In an interview earlier this year, Ms Braverman said: “Trans women have no place in women’s wards or indeed any safe space relating to biological women”.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak doubled-down on these comments at the Conservative Party conference, adding: “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be – they can’t. A man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”

Terminology such as “woke”, “cancel culture” and “culture wars” have become increasingly popular since 2020, but four in 10 people surveyed in the poll said they did not know what either the terms woke or anti-woke meant.

The term woke – defined as being very aware of social problems such as racism, inequality and LGBT+ rights – is now seen by a greater number of people as an insult, the survey suggested.

Some 42 per cent of the public said they would consider it insulting to be described as woke, up from 24 per cent in 2020, with just over a quarter branding it a compliment, a percentage that has remained relatively stable in that time period.

Men were twice as likely as women to say they are anti-woke, while around four in 10 Conservative-Leave voters considered themselves to be so.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the policy institute at KCL, said: “The speed and scale of the UK’s adoption of ‘culture war’ issues and rhetoric in our media and politics has been one of the key trends of the last few years, and it has gone hand-in-hand with big shifts in public awareness and opinion.

“But opinion is also swinging against the use of these identity divisions, with one of the biggest shifts being the increase in the public’s perception that politicians are inventing or exaggerating culture wars as a political tactic.

“The evidence suggests it may not be a particularly successful approach to an election, as tiny minorities pick out culture war-related issues as important to how they’ll vote.”

Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos UK, said: “While negative associations of ‘woke’ are rising, most people do not consider themselves to be either ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’.

“Despite people’s concerns over the divisions that culture wars create, the issue shows little sign of going away, which means it’s important to continue to look for ways to engage with the public and understand different perspectives so that they do not become entrenched.”

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