Most Britons now know what ‘woke’ is

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
September 26, 2022, 8:27 AM GMT+0

Few use the term, however

With the early stages of the Conservative leadership election characterised by candidates talking about ‘woke’ culture, often at the expense of addressing more pressing concerns like the cost of living, a YouGov survey revisited Britons’ understanding of wokeness.

Asked about the term ‘woke’, most Britons (57%) now say “I have heard this being used and know what it means”. This is up from 41% in early 2021.

Over the same time period, the number of Britons who have had the good fortune to not be exposed to political debates using the term has fallen, with only 15% now saying they have never heard the term being used, down from 30%.

While awareness is becoming more widespread, it is still a term that is rarely used by the public themselves. Only a quarter of those who have ever heard the term (23%) say they use it to describe a set of beliefs, or a group of people with a set of beliefs. This rises to 32% among Conservative and Leave voters who have heard the term.

Among people who use the term, the vast majority do so in a pejorative sense – 73% use it in a disapproving way, compared to only 11% who employ it approvingly.

So now that the proportion of Britons who say they know what the term woke means has increased, has the understanding of what ‘woke’ means shifted with it?

The results show that as familiarity with the concept of wokeness has increased among the population, so too has disdain for it.

Currently, only 16% of Britons say they consider themselves woke, up marginally from 12% in 2021. However, the number who consider themselves not to be woke has grown three times as much, rising 12 points from 23% to 35%.

One in seven Britons (14%) say being woke is a good thing, within the margin of error from the 2021 study (11%). By contrast 23% of Britons consider wokeness a bad thing (up eight points) and 18% say it is neither good nor bad (up four points).

Among Conservative voters, greater awareness of the term woke has only brought greater recognition that they themselves are not woke. In 2021, only 3% of Tories considered themselves woke, compared to 32% who did not, with the rest unsure or unaware of the definition. In 2022 the number of Conservatives who consider themselves woke is unchanged (4%), but the number now aware of the definition but styling themselves not-woke has risen to 49%.

By contrast, among Labour voters, greater awareness of wokeness has been more mixed, but the number of those who don’t consider themselves woke has grown faster than the number who do. In 2021 24% of Labour voters considered themselves woke, while 15% said they are not. Now as awareness of the term has expanded, those numbers have almost equalised, with 31% considering themselves woke but 29% saying they are not.

A similar story plays out when it comes to whether Conservative and Labour voters consider being woke to be a good or bad thing. Among Tory voters there remain the same number of people who think being woke is a good thing (3%), while the number who think it is a bad thing has grown from 37% to 29%, and there has also been a smaller growth in the number who think it neither a good nor bad thing (from 6% to 13%).

Among Labour voters, there has been a 15 point growth in the number who think wokeness is a good thing (to 27%) and a 17 point rise in the number who think it is neither good nor bad (to 23%). There has been a smaller seven point increase in the number who think it is a bad thing, from 8% to 15%.

What things are woke, according to people who claim to understand the term

Please note that, unlike the rest of the article, all figures cited in this section are as a percentage of people in each group who claim to understand what woke means, not as a percentage of all Britons/voters

In terms of whether public figures are woke, Boris Johnson is now seen by more of those who say they understand the term woke as ‘not woke at all’ (69%, up from 62%), while Keir Starmer is now seen by more woke-understanders as being woke (23%, up from 17%). Both of these changes are driven almost exclusively by Conservative voters, with the number considering Johnson to be not-woke rising from 47% to 59%, and the number considering Starmer to be woke rising from 31% to 43%.

For political beliefs, where understanding has changed it is has shifted towards being less likely to see attitudes as woke. The biggest shift is on “supporting racial equality” which 30% now see as woke, down from 39%. Similarly, belief that “supporting the Black Lives Matter movement” is woke is down 7pts to 49%, while belief that “supporting equality for gay and lesbian people” is woke is down 6pts to 37%.

Labour voters who say they understand what woke means are less likely to see almost all of the attitudes we asked about as woke than in 2021. Among Conservative voters who know what woke means, the results are more mixed, but they too are less likely to see “having a negative view of the British empire”, “supporting the Black Lives Matter movement”, “being politically correct” and “opposing allowing people who hold unpopular, but not extremist, views from giving public lectures or appearing on TV” as woke.

But what do those who consider themselves woke consider to be woke? Topping the list is supporting equality for trans people, which 60% of the woke consider woke. This is closely following by supporting equality for gay and lesbian people (56%), supporting racial equality (56%), supporting Black Lives Matter (55%) and supporting gender equality (54%).

Almost across the board, fewer people who consider themselves woke now consider each attitude to be woke. In each case, most of this is a result of shifting towards describing them as “not specifically woke, although it is something woke people might do”.

Among those who understand what woke means but say they themselves are not woke, the 2022 figures on what is woke are almost identical to the 2021 results. The only notable exception is the number who consider “having a negative view of the British Empire” to be woke, which has fallen from 52% to 45%.

That so many of these attitudes are less likely to be seen as woke, particularly by those who consider themselves woke, suggests that understanding of the term might be moving towards a more narrow definition. It is possible that, given the tendency for the media and others to use ‘woke’ in a pejorative sense, that some might be less inclined to label stances they hold as woke.

See the full results here

Photo: Getty