Another delegate hits out at members’ voices being ‘wiped out’ by party at conference
Conservative chairman Oliver Dowden has faced criticism from members of his own party for pushing “anti-woke rhetoric” and for the government pursuit of draconian legislation “antithetical” to Tory values.
During a fringe event at the party’s annual conference, Mr Dowden was also urged to consider making his position directly elected by the Tory faithful amid claims the members’ voice had been “wiped out”.
The comments came after Mr Dowden, who until last month was culture secretary, stepped up his attack on so-called “woke” culture with a warning to government-funded organisation they could lose funds.
“If they go too woke, they risk going broke,” the Conservative chairman told the event hosted by the Daily Telegraph.
But Mr Dowden was challenged by one party activist from the Conservatives against Racism and Equality group during the question and answer session, who told him: “I really don’t like the culture war, and I really don’t like all of this anti-woke rhetoric.
“The chancellor alluded to that in his speech yesterday by saying if you pit people against each other we can’t make progress,” Albie Amankova added.
“Was women suffrage woke? Was universal suffrage woke? Were gay rights woke? We couldn’t even suggest that people shouldn’t boo our national football team on the global stage. Have we learnt anything from the progress of the last 100 years?”
In response, Mr Dowden said: “When I make interventions in this area as I have done I genuinely ask myself exactly that question — am I just standing in the way of change in a reactionary way? I genuinely do not believe that is the case.”
He added: “What worries me about some of this woke argument it’s sort of reinterpreting our history to the extent of saying we should see shame when we used to see pride in these things.”
A second Tory member at the event said the Online Safety Bill and the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill currently being pushed by ministers were “very authoritarian” and “antithetical to Conservative values of liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of protest, freedom of thought”.
The member from the Conservative youth wing also asked the party chairman “why on earth” the party was pushing through the “draconian” legislation.
Mr Dowden, however, argued the Online Safety Bill was being introduced because of “appalling cases” of young people with algorithms pointing them to harmful content on the internet. “I think it’s always been the responsibility of Conservative governments to intervene in to protect people in those circumstances,” he said.
The party chair added: “I’m absolutely clear in doing so we should uphold freedom of speech, freedom of expression. I put in strong safeguards in regards to freedom of speech and expression. It is a challenge to tread that line.”
Another Conservative member also expressed frustration at the voice of the membership being “wiped out” during the conference.
“This used to be the members’ conference,” he said. “We used to have motions for debate on which members could vote and they could speak on the platform.
“The latest absurdity is now that when questions are taken from the audience in the main auditorium they are filtered through a WhatsApp programme.”
The audience member also pressed Mr Dowden on whether the party would shift to a directly elected chairman — rather than one being appointed at the behest of the leader of the Conservative Party.
However, Mr Dowden said: “We’ve never had an elected chairman and I think we’ll keep it that way”.
During the event on Tuesday, the party chairman also suggested that a shift to state-based funding for political parties at Westminster, rather than private donations, would be a “massive retrograde step”.
“I think that would be profoundly wrong,” the party chairman said. “I actually want to pay tribute to our donors — most people give money to political parties as part of their civil duty and civic sense of responsibly and they care about their country and they do it from exactly the right place.
“I would far rather have that free and open system which I see as part of our liberties in this country that we don’t have the state interfering. I think it would be a massive retrograde step for the state to intervene.
He added: “It would ossify politics because you would not be able to have new incumbents because you would always have your state funding determined by how many seats you’d already got.”