The Labour Party’s dismal performance in the 2019 UK general election has generally been attributed to its incoherent Brexit policy and the shortcomings—real or perceived—of its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
But according to trade unionist and party activist Paul Embery, Labour’s worst electoral showing since 1935 also stemmed from the decades-long alienation of its traditional voting base.
“The effect of Labour’s transformation over the past thirty years into a far more liberal, urban, middle-class, globalist party is that it has been largely hollowed out of working-class representation and influence, with increasingly fewer individuals from working-class backgrounds representing it at the highest levels,” he writes in his new book, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class.
“The party neither looks nor sounds very much like the people it was created to represent. Many of its representatives and spokespeople—indeed much of its membership—live wholly different lives, and have contrasting interests and priorities, to the millions of working-class people living in the more disadvantaged parts of our nation.”
Embery combs through the wreckage of the 2019 campaign, which saw the collapse of the fabled “red wall” in post-industrial England and the loss of electoral districts held by Labour for more than a century.
“The Left became increasingly detached from those living in working-class communities up and down the country, and ignorant of how they think, what they believe, and why they believe it,” he explains. “On social media, they would follow or engage with only those who shared their worldview. They confused Twitter with Britain.”
A pro-Brexit London firefighter who served on the Fire Brigade Union’s national executive, Embery’s politics are complicated.
A self-described democratic socialist, he holds economic views that would place him to the left of most of Canada’s NDP legislators.
But on social and cultural issues, he is far more conservative.
He rails against “gender identity madness,” laments the growth of “liberal wokedom,” and blames Britain’s “divided communities and monocultural ghettoes” on state multiculturalism policies. For Embery, Labour’s path to power winds through the country’s forgotten working class towns, villages and neighbourhoods, which were “built around the centrality of place, belonging, family, vocation, patriotism and reciprocity.”
He wants the party to champion class politics instead of identity politics, and to focus on workaday issues instead of niche ones.
“For the Left, the resort to identity politics has been a disaster,” he writes. “For it has shifted the focus from broad-based campaigning and organizing to advance the interests of the working class as a whole according to the things that united them—a desire for a secure job, decent pay, pensions, housing, and so on—and towards narrow, isolated battles around the unique attributes of a given group.”
This fragmentation on the left is not just an impediment to unity and mass appeal; it’s also the gift that keeps on giving to Labour’s political opponents.
Embery writes: “The Left’s obsession with identity politics and wokeness, alongside its increasing hostility towards freedom of expression, has provided free kick after free kick to the populist Right, which always benefits more from culture battles than it does arguments over economics.”
Such was the case in the United States in 2016, when neglected and frustrated working class voters, condemned by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables,” were won over by Donald Trump’s anti-elitist rhetoric.
A similar movement swept Ontario in 2018, when the pro-conservative, anti-woke Ontario Proud Facebook page helped propel Doug Ford to victory under the populist banner, “For the People.”
Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole is trying desperately to harness this populist insurgency.
He has declared war on cancel culture, routinely pokes fun at his opponents’ empty woke platitudes, and is openly courting private sector union members.
Back in the UK, Embery may be down on the Labour Party, but he is not out.
In the final chapter of Despised, he provides a roadmap—albeit an overly nostalgic and inward-looking one—for the party to regain its relevance among ordinary Britons.
Increased working class representation at all levels of politics is essential, he argues, to ensuring the party looks, sounds and acts like those it aims to represent.
A radical anti-capitalist economic policy, social stability and solidarity, respect for family, vocations, and the nation—all of these are prerequisites to electoral success, Embery says.
“The Left desperately needs a new vision—one anchored in the traditions of the labour movement but still fit to serve the needs of working-class people today,” he writes. “A vision that is unremittingly post-liberal and speaks to the human instinct for solidarity and belonging; and one that strives for economic justice but, in doing so, pursues a plan for wider society that elevates the relational over the transactional, the local over the global, and the communitarian over the cosmopolitan.”
Despised may not be a great book, but it is a timely and important one.
It reminds the reader that right-wing populism only succeeds where the left has failed to understand, engage, and properly represent the working class.
As the NDP prepares for the next federal election, it should heed the lessons in Embery’s book, especially the one about not confusing Twitter with Canada.
Scott Costen is a journalist, podcast host, and Canadian Armed Forces veteran. He lives in Enfield, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter @ScottCosten.