By LUKE COOLEY
The Labour party is out of touch with its traditional working-class base. It no longer addresses the worries of ordinary working-class people on issues such as mass immigration, globalisation, and national identity. It no longer appeals to their traditional values of faith, flag, and family. And it has swallowed the toxic brew of social and economic liberalism that has infected politics in the last 30 years. Instead, they now speak for a small minority of cosmopolitan, middle class, metropolitan elites. These people have no time for patriotism, dismiss concerns about immigration as racist, and look upon most people in white working-class communities as small-minded little-Englanders.
Or so claims Paul Embery, a Dagenham born, proudly working-class fireman, trade unionist, and Labour Party member in his provocative new book ‘Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class.’
His work is part of a growing number of political commentators trying to explain how, despite years of austerity and the legacy of Thatcherism, the Tories won the last election by swallowing up so many working-class votes. They took formerly safe Labour seats such as Sedgefield, Bolsover, and of course Workington, home of the famous Workington Man – ‘a northern male, over the age of 45 without a university degree, who enjoys rugby league, and who had previously supported Labour but voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.’ How did Labour lose these heartlands?
The unity between the traditional socially conservative wing of the labour vote, as well as the more modern, progressive, and cosmopolitan wing, the ‘Hartlepool’ and ‘Hampstead’ varieties as Embery calls them, had been coming under strain for some time prior to 2019. In 2009 Gordon Brown was widely criticised when, after speaking to Gillian Duffy, a women from Rochdale who told him about her concerns regarding immigration, he dismissed her as ‘bigoted’. While in 2015, Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted on Twitter an image of a house in the constituency of Rochester and Strood with England Flags and a white van outside, accompanied by the comment ‘Image from #Rochester’ – which many interpreted as a sneering dismissal of the patriotism of the white working class. This was intensified following the Referendum in 2016 in which many of Labour’s core constituencies voted to leave. Embery claims that these landmark moments symbolise how two very different visions of what Britain is, and what it should be, came to a head within the party. The resounding defeat in 2019 was the culmination of these developments. Embery therefore argues that if the Labour Party wants to become anything more than a mere protest movement, the Hampstead establishment needs to listen and respond to the concerns of Hartlepool.
But what does he suggest? Drawing upon his upbringing in working-class Dagenham, Embery believes that the Labour party need to recognise the importance of stability, patriotism, and order that these communities see as integral to a good life. While he does not believe that LGBTQ+ issues, racial justice, or human rights are necessarily unimportant, he claims that they do not connect with the concerns ordinary people have on the doorstep – issues such as jobs, law and order, housing, and belonging. An increased emphasis on these issues combines what he believes is best in labour tradition, the socialist economics that provides support to the worst off in society, as well as the social and cultural conservatism that provides meaning and order to people’s lives.
In a recent interview he has acknowledged that the party has already begun to move in this direction. Keir Starmer has distanced himself from the former leader Jeremy Corbyn who was widely criticised as insufficiently patriotic; while he also commented in a recent Q&A that ‘The Labour party should not shy away from Patriotism.’ Signifying a first tentative step towards healing this rift.
However, many are critical of Embery’s vision. Those on the left of the party have claimed that such talk throws immigrants under the bus; and that the Labour party should instead focus on what is core to its vision for transforming society – campaigning for economic and social equality, and defending the rights of immigrants, the disabled, ethnic minorities, women and sexual minorities. Fighting the Tories on their own turf is a pointless battle.
Nevertheless, Embery’s book is a timely and passionate argument that Labour needs to change. They haven’t won the popular vote in England since 2001, and since Scotland has become dominated by the SNP, Labour have lost their old means of gaining a majority. Winning in England and gaining back the constituencies that they once took for granted will therefore be essential in re-establishing themselves as a viable electoral alternative to the Tories. As Tristram Hunt commented in an article as far back as 2016, ‘There’ll always be an England… and Labour must learn to love it.’
As such, if they fail to reconsider the way in which they relate to their traditional base, and persist in dismissing all concerns about Immigration, Law and Order, and community as either misguided or irrelevant; they may not only consign themselves to electoral oblivion for the foreseeable future, but will fail to win amongst the very people that they were established to represent. In the end, the Labour Party could cease to represent labour. Have stranger historic ironies happened than that?
If they want to avert this eventuality, reading Mr Embery’s book may be a good place to start.