Bernie Wilcox reviews Paul Embery’s new book ‘Despised Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class’ Bernie is a lifelong Socialist and anti-racist campaigner from Manchester. He was heavily involved in Rock Against Racism in the 1970s.
A long illness enabled him the time to re-examine some of the basic tenets of the Left in a changing world and amend his thoughts accordingly.
Paul Embery’s book has caused quite a stir in the press and he’s been invited on lots of talk shows to discuss it. However, whilst he’s been interviewed extensively in the Express, Mail, Mirror and Scotland’s Daily Record, he’s been completely ignored by the papers of the left like the Morning Star, the Socialist Worker and The Independent and had just one obscure and hidden review with no comments allowed in The Guardian.
It’s interesting that in the past he was regularly featured in the Socialist Worker whilst he was supporting and leading FBU disputes or supporting their ‘Stop The War’ campaign. He was even accused of heading up an SWP front when he was the editor of the rank and file Firefighters’ paper, Red Watch. However, as soon as he spoke at a Brexit rally he was immediately persona non grata with that particular far left weekly and it simply hasn’t mentioned him since, including his unfair dismissal from the FBU, which they would usually be all over like a cheap suit.
It doesn’t really matter if the Left agree with Embery or not. The fact is that he’s raised lots of issues that Labour and the Left, in general, need to debate if they’re going to have a hope in Hell’s chance of winning over the working class again. For them to try and pretend that this book doesn’t exist because they simply don’t want to discuss these issues is completely self-defeating but also completely predictable.
Embery grew up on the Becontree council estate in Barking and Dagenham in what used to be called Essex and was the largest public housing development in the world when it was built in the 1930s. It’s one of the areas that changed so quickly when Blair loosened immigration rules and the EU’s Freedom Of Movement kicked in when the Eastern European states were admitted to the Union. In the book, Embery charts his own political journey from being an immigration-supporting young Labourite to someone who now laments the change in his old estate from 2001 when the census results showed that 80% of Becontree’s residents identified as White British to the London Assembly’s 2041 projection of just 23%.
Don’t run away with the idea that Embery is some sort of racist right winger though. Although he’s almost certainly socially conservative and I believe he’s a regular Catholic churchgoer, he’s definitely left of centre on many issues and economically much to the left of Corbyn and Momentum. He has a respect for Corbyn and a true dislike of Blair and the New Labour project.
Embery argues that Labour was always from its very beginning a coalition of “Hartlepool and Hampstead” and indeed struggled to get elected unless it had the support of both the traditional working class and the middle class liberals which is what New Labour was initially so proficient at. How much Labour need this alliance can be illustrated by the fact that since Kier Hardy was first elected as a Labour MP 120 years ago, they have only been in a Parliamentary majority for 30 of those years.
It seems that what went wrong since Blair’s landslide in 1997 is that the party became 90% Hampstead (or Islington these days!) and 10% Hartlepool and it simply lost touch with Hartlepool and the working class in general, whether that was in the Red Wall seats in the north or in the Dagenhams of the world in the south.
The mainstream media would have it that Corbyn’s 2019 defeat was Labour’s nadir and in terms of seats, it was certainly catastrophic but actually, the death throes of New Labour from 2005 onwards was much worse as this percentage of the popular vote table illustrates.
2019 Corbyn 32.2%
2017 Corbyn 40.0%
2015 Milliband 30.4%
2010 Brown 29.0%
2005 Blair 35.2%
2001 Blair 40.2%
1997 Blair 43.2%
Corbyn’s disaster last December was actually better in percentage vote terms than both Brown and Milliband and we shouldn’t forget that Brown, without the benefit of Labour’s Scottish seats (that his successors didn’t have through no fault of their own), would have managed around 27% which would have been in Michael Foot territory.
The other thing to note about the 2019 result is that if you added that 2.5% of the vote that Corbyn didn’t have in Scotland (but Blair did have) then his 32.2% would have been 34.7% which isn’t too far away from Blair’s 35.2% in 2005 that won him that election.
Corbyn’s 2017 result was nothing short of miraculous but even then, Labour didn’t really resonate in the Red Wall. Corbyn’s 2017 resurgence was built on middle class votes, particularly from current and former students and their parents who’d been promised, nay bribed, that their student loans would be wiped out.
The Labour Left’s about turn on EU membership which they actively campaigned against in the 1975 referendum cost them the 2019 election. Corbyn was between a rock and a hard place. His natural euro scepticism was tempered by the fact that he simply couldn’t fill up his shadow cabinet places unless he changed sides.
Hampstead had won the Party if not the country and although Labour Remain activists like Yvette Cooper had solemnly promised her constituents in Pontefract who’d voted 69% Leave that she would honour their decision, it took her less than a week post the 2017 election to jump into the cancel Brexit campaign with both feet. Cooper had only survived in the 2019 massacre because the Brexit Party had spilt the Leave vote and she scraped by with a much reduced majority down from 15,000 in 2015 to less than a tenth of that in 2019. Had the Brexit Party not attracted 8,000 Leave votes from the Tories, she would have converted that 15,000 majority into a minus 7,000 in four short years. That’s some going eh, but Cooper was one of the lucky ones. This same scenario happened all over and in many seats that had been Labour forever and a day, the voters decided that a lying, philandering and incompetent Old Etonian could represent their interests better than the party they’d always voted for. And this was after 9 years of a Tory austerity!
Despite what the anti-Corbyn camp within Labour claimed, anti-semitism didn’t cost Labour the 2019 election. It was, alongside gay marriage, transgender rights etc considered a fringe issue with many working class voters.
The one issue that cost Labour the huge defeat was their arrogant stance on Brexit. They’d not even stopped at telling those uneducated Northern oiks that they’d been tricked into voting Leave and they would be given a second chance to vote again and get it right this time.
In Labour’s proposed 2nd referendum they didn’t want to take the chance that the “low information” poor might not understand how they should vote. Instead they gave them Hobson’s Choice of Remain or Remain in name only and the voters in turn, gave Labour the bum’s rush.
However, there were other issues on the doorstep and the largest one of them was one of the drivers behind the Leave vote – immigration. In the 2016 referendum, the largest Leave vote was in those very areas where immigration or the increase in immigration had been the highest.
It’s not hard to understand why the middle class like immigration so much. They love eating out at ethnic restaurants and being able to easily employ nannies, cleaners, plumbers and builders who will work for much less than they used to have to pay at the same time as being generally polite, hardworking and respectful. They also tend to own property and the increased demand from so many people joining us each year has certainly contributed to an upwards pressure on both sold prices and rents. What’s not to like you might wonder?
On the other hand, the poor tend to see the other side of the coin. All those cleaners and waitresses don’t go home to Hampstead after a shift but more likely go back to Dagenham. And when they’re there they compete with the traditional working class population for housing, school places, doctors and dentist appointments, hospital beds etc. And of course, the additional supply of labour means that the price remains low.
Whereas many middle class people can get around most of the public services downsides of immigration in that they can pay for private education and healthcare, the one thing that put both classes in the same boat used to be transportation. Crowded trains and buses and congested roads hit both classes equally. Until Covid that is. Now the middle class work at home (because their jobs are more suited to it and because they have the room in their houses to do so) whilst the working class bring them things right to their doorstep.
And what did Labour do to assuage the immigration fears of their working class voters? Oh, that’s easy. At their September 2019 conference, just three short months before their biggest election defeat in yonks, they voted with a huge majority to extend the free movement of labour from just EU citizens to those of the rest of the world.
Out of touch? Us?
Of course, there were other issues in 2019. The demonisation of Corbyn in the mainstream media didn’t help but Corbyn didn’t help himself either. The Hampstead crowd have always been snobby about being patriotic as Orwell pointed out in the 1940s, but patriotism and the defence of the nation state matters a lot to the working class.
So how could Corbyn possibly have been taken seriously after he proposed to build nuclear subs but not arm them? We were in You Couldn’t Make It Up territory.
Boris won in 2019 after Dominic Cummings told him to concentrate on three simple things. Get Brexit Done. Spend money on the NHS and Law and Order.
By promising to spend money on the NHS he effectively took the wind out of Labour’s sails and trumped (forgive the pun) their strongest card.
Whilst Labour’s Woke middle class would like to defund the police and whilst the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester and former Labour leadership candidate, Andy Burnham presided over his police force hiding a simply incredible 80,100 crimes in 2019, a recent Home Office report has just been issued that shows that the most deprived areas of the country – those that abandoned Labour so effectively last time out – are by far the worse hit by crime. Poor people, far from wanting to defund the police actually want to see more police and more police on their streets.
Embery, of course, deals with many more subjects than just immigration and Labour’s catastrophic 2019 defeat. He deals with identity politics, he deals with the Wokes’ intrusion into freedom of speech (unless you agree with them of course) and he deals with the Left’s obsession with fringe issues that simply don’t concern most poor people who are trying their best just to survive. He states that these issues should certainly be supported, but that they shouldn’t be the main, upfront policies of the party because they clearly don’t resonate with most of the party’s former voters. And while people of colour are now thankfully in almost every TV advert what is absolutely missing is any representation of working class people (of whatever colour) from such adverts. The people of colour might be there but they’re all posh people of colour. The BBC’s £100m diversity program is superficially welcome but it won’t be concentrating on making the political opinions of BBC employees more diverse or on employing more white working class kids.
Embery’s economic ideas are taken straight from the Tony Benn book of industrial strategy and those of his critics who claim he is a right winger could do well to look at these and revise their opinions.
Embery concludes his book with a program for Labour’s future. He says that Labour will never be elected again unless they can rekindle the Hampstead and Hartlepool alliance. He doesn’t want to replace Hampstead with Hartlepool but says that unless the party can rekindle the old alliance, it will be simply impossible to be re-elected.
Going back to my first paragraph, given that the Left press have totally ignored this massively important book, I somehow doubt that Mr Embery is going to be a happy bunny any time soon.
Paul Embrey’s book is available at Amazon Link
Reviewed by Bernie Wilcox
Bernie Wilcox is a lifelong Socialist and anti-racist campaigner from Manchester. He was heavily involved in Rock Against Racism in the 1970’s. A long illness enabled him the time to re-examine some of the basic tenets of the Left in a changing world and amend his thoughts accordingly. He was also a strong supporter of Lexit and also campaigned for Leave in the 1975 referendum. He welcomes debate on these contentious issues providing it doesn’t degenerate into name-calling and insults. Join Bernie on Twitter @berniewilcox
Bernie Wilcox, one of the founders of the Northern Carnival Against the Nazis in 1978, on the 40th anniversary of the anti-racism event; and ahead of a new public exhibition in Manchester showcasing photographs and posters from the carnival. Watch the video