IN THE AFTERMATH of Labour’s crushing electoral defeat minds quickly turned to speculating how such a thing could have happened. Was it Brexit? Or perhaps the fatal element had been the character of the leader himself? And as I followed from the outside the painful ruminations by the left, it became clear the explanations being proffered up were deficient and lacking in a fundamental sense. In Terry Kettering’s ‘The Elephant In The Room’ he writes,
“We talk about the weather.
We talk about work.
We talk about everything else –
Except the elephant in the room”
And this seems the perfect place to begin. When we watched the Labour Party tie itself in knots with flaccid explanations about what had befallen them, there was something socially exhausting for us all. Nobody ever really got to the point. It all seemed very superficial, the stuff of safety blankets and warm coco. But this is where Paul Embery steps in with his invaluable contribution. His book ‘Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class’ (Polity Press, 2020) has something of the silence-breaker, or whistle-blower quality about it all. The role he is playing is akin to the child at the end of Hans Christen Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Embery is pointing to the elephant in the room, he is not inhibited by any group think or the pressure for silence and denial.
So what is the elephant? What has gone so wrong for those on the left that C2, DE voters prefer to vote for us Tories than for the party which prides itself on being founded to represent them? Embery offers up a powerful set of arguments; some which I fully intend to quibble with; but generally, are quite compelling.
The overarching thesis he offers up is two-fold. First, he outlines a tripartite alliance between three factors whose relationship is deranging the modern left. Globalisation, identity politics and what he calls ‘corporate capitalism’. He paints a picture where you have an upwardly mobile liberal middle class capable of benefiting from the winds of globalisation. A middle class which has begun to embrace the ideology, as he puts it, of ‘liberal wokedom’. At the same time, you have a corporate culture which has begun to see identity politics as a unique opportunity to signal their virtue to this consumer class; whilst also succeeding to balkanising the labour force so as to prevent any meaningful labour movement to push back on corporate excesses. After all, if society is too busy dividing itself up into ever-smaller identity groups viewing each other as ‘oppressors’, what hope is there for a left politics supposedly rooted in solidarity and communitarian spirit?
The second thesis he offers up is of the takeover of the Labour Party by a left-liberal woke middle-class, who have wildly diverging priorities from the working class. But more than this, a liberal graduate professional middle class set who do not see the world in the same fundamental terms as those whom the Labour Party had been founded to serve. After all, this is the liberalism of wokedom, of identity politics. These are the people who intellectually buy into the post-modern critical theories that are, frankly, alien to the broader history of the British labour movement.
Starting with his second thesis; there should not be any doubt that the Labour Party has changed. Embery points to the makeup of the membership and the parliamentary labour party. We see a changed membership, increasingly made up of middle-class professionals. Embery cites a 2017 survey of Labour members which found an astonishing 77 per cent fell within the ABC1 grade; that nearly half of all party members lived in London; and 57 per cent were graduates. This is why the Labour activist class is no longer therefore rooted in the working-class communities Labour politicians at elections seek their votes from. This also goes some why to helping us understand why Labour went from securing 59 per cent of the votes of C2DEs in 1997 to only 33 per cent in 2019 (with the Tories winning 48 per cent). This is a party which has become unrecognisable to these working-class voters. It no longer looks like them, talks like them, nor remotely understands their priorities or concerns. Embery makes his case convincingly throughout the book of a middle class, woke takeover of the party formerly of the workers.
He goes on however to suggest something I am not quite sure about. He indicates there could be an element of class snobbery at play. Where a middle class increasingly finds itself competing with working class graduates (50 per cent all school leavers getting a degree), its members seeks new ways of demonstrating their cultural superiority. Embery suggests this could be a factor behind why the left middle-class liberals have so readily embraced the identity politics of wokeness. I think it is an interesting thought, but I am far from convinced. It sounds too much like the old leftist class politics for a Scottish Tory like me to appreciate.
As I read Paul Embery’s book I grew frustrated as I read his chapter ‘A New National Religion: Liberal Wokedom’. In it he brilliantly makes the case about how the new identity politics hurts the working class. He speaks about the word games that misrepresent their concerns. Malicious inference drawing, and misrepresentation of their troubles. For example, where suddenly ‘working class’ becomes ‘white working class’ – as woke types seek to inject a racialism into the discussion; thereby demonstrating ironically they do not understand the left’s concept of class solidarity.
Or the debasing of language; when ordinary working-class communities urge cultural elites to slow down the pace and scale of immigration are suddenly labelled reactionaries, or racists. Few seriously wish to halt immigration altogether and most people see the benefits new arrivals bring. When did it become ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’ to seek to have a national dialogue about the pace and scale of immigration?
The quibble I have with Embery here is that he does not descend deep enough down into the rabbit hole of identity politics. He never quite gets to the nub of the phenomenon; never explicitly picking apart the post-modern critical theories that form ‘wokedom’. So, he answers the ‘how’ the liberal middle class wokes demonstrate contempt for the working class, but never quite lands the ‘why’. Where is the detailed picking apart of ‘intersectionality theory’ or ‘critical race theory’? It is hard to find.
But to return to his first thesis, he is clearly correct to identify the association between globalisation and identity politics. Few could dispute his argument. As globalisation has become a force in economic life it has fundamentally altered how many see things. There have been winners and losers from globalisation. And the winners tend to be the cosmopolitan upwardly mobile middle-class types most readily standing to benefit from it.
Globalisation is linked to the rise of identity politics insofar as it encourages a dismissal of belonging.
The whole notion of cultural rootedness seems, to those capable of actually using freedom of movement for example, something quite quaint. This in turn has ginned-up a certain attitude from middle class liberals of, say, Islington, who look upon working class communities such as Hartlepool as the embarrassing grandfather at the new year dinner table. Embery makes his case here. The modern left does not seem to care much at all about ‘common good’ or communitarian solidarity which was once a backbone of British Labour movement. But again I need to quibble slightly with him. He writes of ‘corporate capitalism’. And here I agree with a core of what he speaks about but reject the wider point. He also attempts to link globalisation and identity politics to ‘corporate capitalism’. It seems to me he is arguing that corporate capitalism as a whole phenomenon seeks to weaponize identity politics as a means of avoiding proper accountability; or having to face the political realities of organised labour.
Here this all sounds too like socialist class politics for someone like myself to sign up to. In many cases most businesses feel compelled to engage in some level of virtue signalling and ‘sensitivity training’ in human resource departments as woke graduates pour out of the academy. Not because they really wish to, but because they feel they have to. Yet, there is a germ of truth in what Embery is saying. Can anyone on the right seriously deny that trans-national monopolistic corporations do weaponize identity politics to virtue signal and gain acceptance, all the while engaging in highly questionable antics? One only needs to think of big tech to see my point. Google says ‘do no wrong’ meanwhile it is credibly accused of tax avoidance, censorship and antitrust violations. But hey, do not worry we are told, they have ‘sensitivity training’ programmes in their institution. Look at their safe spaces, and do not discuss how this trans-national corporation is now effectively a monopoly. This is not the stuff of free markets and competition exactly is it?
Paul Embery’s book is an invaluable read for anyone who wishes to understand how and why our modern politics has become so dysfunctional. And he offers up a much-needed clarion call from the left to push back on the more malevolent forces of identity politics. He is urging the left to no longer ignore truths, and demands it stops walking on eggshells.