Review of Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021
June 23rd 2016 marked a political earthquake in the UK as the country voted to leave the European Union despite the domestic and international establishments warning that such an outcome would be an unalloyed disaster that would lead to severe economic hardship and damage living standards.
But this was to no avail as 52% voted to leave. Why this ostensibly shocking result occurred is a key aspect of Paul Embery’s book as is, relatedly, the sharp loss of support for the Labour Party of many core working class voters that resulted in its worst performance since 1935 in the general election of December 2019.
Embery is a proud working class firefighter, trade union activist and life-long supporter of Labour; furthermore, he is an honest intellectual who writes without fear or favour. In the crosshairs of his ire is what he describes as the new national religion of “liberal wokedom” that has initiated and sustained the abandonment of the white working class and its modus vivendi.
He avers that this is nothing short of loathing by the leadership and the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members and believes his party has been utterly transformed since the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994 to become an organisation comprised mainly of middle-class liberals, students, and social activists.
It is to this constituency that its policies and pronouncements are targeted, which does not speak the language or share the interests and priorities of working-class people and firmly rejects “the old-fashioned concepts of patriotism, self-discipline, conscience, religious belief, marriage and the centrality of family, manners, respect for tradition, personal morality, and a belief in free will”.
The political fall-out of this was dramatic as in the 2019 general election many ‘Red Wall’ seats that Labour had held for almost a century swung to the Conservatives who captured almost half (48%) of the core (C2DE) working class vote in comparison with Labour’s 33%.
Embery argues that Brexit was the manifestation of revenge by millions – nearly two thirds of C2DEs voted to leave – who had witnessed their beliefs and values ignored or scorned by an arrogant liberal establishment.
It was the desire for self-government and sovereignty, for control over immigration, and for the reassertion of democracy over the rule of unelected technocrats. He believes that the attempt to block Brexit was an undemocratic betrayal of the largest democratic exercise in the UK’s history and the argument to justify this on the grounds that “no one voted to be poorer” was bogus. On the contrary, leavers were happy to trade some economic hardship in the hope of rekindling community, identity, and belonging.
What has been of greatest concern to the white working class since the election of the first Blair government in 1997 is mass immigration that has precipitated a rapid transformation of towns and cities across the country as the foreign-born population increased by almost 3 million from 2001 to 2011 (from 9% to 13%).
Embery gives as an example the London borough of Barking and Dagenham where he grew up: its white British population decreased from 81% in 2001 to 49% in 2011. On a visit to his home town, he tells of one occasion when someone asked him “do you speak English?” and on another, during a two-hour visit in Barking town centre, he heard literally no one speaking English.
He asserts that there is need for a brutally honest conversation about the impact of mass immigration on working class communities which are still brimming with anger and bitterness.
Alongside rapid ethnic and religious change has been pressure on wages, jobs, housing, health services, and other public services. In sum, life has become worse. He bluntly states that “the moral bankruptcy of trade union leaders on this subject. borders on the criminal” maintaining that they have given primacy to their ideology of open borders over the interests of their members.
He exposes a fatal contradiction in the left’s advocacy of open borders by positing the question that if this is such a good thing, would they be happy for the government to extend it to not just the EU but all countries? Usually the answer is “no” and based on the same reasoning as Brexiteers.
There is still uncertainty as to the exact reasons why Blair’s first government embarked on this profound change in policy but a sense of it is provided by an adviser, Andrew Neather, who admitted that the deliberate policy of New Labour ministers from late 2000 was to open up the UK to mass immigration so as “to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date”.
Whether this is true or not is a moot point but the fact of increasing diversity, indeed “super-diversity”, is real and resented by the working class who did not vote for it. To support his arguments, Embery could have cited Robert Putnam’s study of the phenomenon in the USA which found that in the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital; in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to “hunker down”, and trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.
Though the left is his main target, Embery also takes aim at the political right asserting that for all their anti-PC posturing, they have not only succumbed to it but in part are responsible for its spread because they are also terrified of causing offence. He berates identity politics which he views as the demand that minorities be seen as inherent victims and that it must be the responsibility of society’s progressives to protect them from the oppression of the privileged majority. He could have added that this indicates paternalism and the racism of lower expectations.
However, on the issue of the importance of religion, viz. Christianity, to the white working class, Embery is mistaken as evidence suggests that white Britons are now decidedly irreligious – for example, a Pew Research survey of December 2018 found that only 11 per cent of the UK population consider themselves as “highly religious” but the percentage for the white British would be even lower. This is why churches in towns and cities across the country, especially in working class areas, have been emptying and closing at an accelerating rate. This is not a new phenomenon given that as long as 1844, Friedrich Engels observed in The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844: “among the masses there prevails almost universally a total indifference to religion”.
In stark contrast, religion – and religious identity – is highly important to ethnic minorities and this is undoubtedly a contributory factor of the alienation felt by many of the indigenous population to mass immigration. Dutch writer Ian Buruma provides an important insight in this regard. Explaining the sudden rise of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands in the early 2000s, Buruma reasons that Fortuyn, and millions of others, not just in the Netherlands, but all over Europe, had painfully wrested themselves free from the strictures of their own religions but here were these newcomers, meaning Muslims, injecting society with religion once again.
There is much else in the book including a chapter on the case for the nation state where Embery argues for an end to austerity. On this, there is widespread consensus in the Labour Party and even the Conservative government has stated that post-pandemic, there will not be a return to austerity. So his insights here are not so novel but this should not detract from what is a formidable work that presents and analyses issues of profound importance to the UK with great clarity and cogency. Furthermore, they are also apposite for other Western countries.
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the Civitas Thinktank, London. Among his books are Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010) and Modern Europe and the Enlightenment (forthcoming in 2021).