Book Review: Paul Embery, Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class

In 1936, Victor Gollancz, founder and lead publisher of The Left Book Club, commissioned a young author by the name of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, to write a book on life in the industrial north, in the wake of the infamous 1935 election, in which Clement Attlee`s Labour Party returned just 154 seats. Attlee had only taken over the party days before the election after pacifist leader George Lansbury resigned as delegates voted in favour of sanctions against Mussolini’s Italy. Gollancz, who paid Orwell some £500, was horrified when Orwell returned The Road to Wigan Pier, which was not only an account of life in the industrial heartlands, but why, considering the Labour Party were the only Party that offered tangible solutions to the problems in the north, they were unable to garner mass support. Gollancz reluctantly published the book in 1937, but only after writing an introduction to the book that warned the readers of what he claimed was ‘half-truths’.

Fast forward eighty-three years and step forward Paul Embery. Like Orwell, Embery is undoubtedly on the left, despite frivolous claims otherwise.  Embery’s book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, sets out how the British Labour Party has lost the support of the section of society it was created to represent, and how that relationship might be repaired. Set against the backdrop of the 2019 general election, in which the Labour Party suffered its worst defeat since 1935, where the former strongholds of Blythe Valley, Greater Grimsby, Wakefield and Don Valley – to name a few – turned to the party of Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher to represent them. 

From the Gillian Duffy – Gordon Brown, ‘bigot’ Incident, to Emily Thornberry`s sneering at a white-van-man in Rochester, Paul Embery takes us on a journey of how the British Labour Party went from representing ‘the kind whose loyalty and endeavours the success and prosperity over generations has depended’, to being an organisation ‘comprised largely of urban middle-class liberals, students and social activists’. Within the first chapter (of five), titled The Gathering Storm, Embery sets out the changing demographics within the Labour Party, which in 2010, won more votes from the middle class voters than it did from the working class. 

Embery accuses the British Left of ‘taking the side of the establishment over the people’, over Brexit.  Joining forces with the elite financial establishment broke somewhat of an inviolable rule for the role of the Labour Party within British Politics. Which come with significant consequences, as the working class plumped for the Tory Party (48%) over Labour (33%) in 2019.

Embery puts them all on trial. None more so than the trade unions who abandoned working people against the market forces of the capitalist European Union, whose free movement policy has meant that ‘for every 10 percentage-point in the proportion of immigration in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, there is a 2% reduction in pay.’ Embery writes that the ‘moral bankruptcy of the trade union leaders on this subject border on the criminal’. 

The trade unions are not the only ones to experience the wrath of Embery. Tony Blair, the former leader is accused of ‘making peace with not only the market itself but with the most severe strains of market ideology.’

The newly Independent MP and former Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is not let off the hook either. Whilst Embery praises the shift to the left on the economy under Corbyn, under what Embery calls a ‘broadly Keynesian’ economic manifesto (whilst acknowledging that within the economic structures of the EU, which the Labour Party urged to remain under Corbyn, how much of it would have been possible remains to be seen – pun intended). Embery writes that whilst Corbyn made strides on economic policy, he made ‘no progress at all in closing the cultural divide’. 

In a concise, 200-page account, Embery  frequently returns to his own experience of a working class/communitarian upbringing in Barking and Dagenham. Where he went from knowing all his neighbours, to being stopped in the street by someone ‘asking if he spoke English’. Well laid out chapters include: The Gathering Storm; We Need to Talk About Immigration; A New National Religion: Liberal Wokedom; A Case for the Nation State and finally, What is to be Done? Each chapter consisting of thought-provoking and direct sub-chapters: The Brexit Revolt; Whiteness as Original Sin; Pressure on Wages – Time for an Honest Discussion; and The Gender Madness, to name a few. 

Embery states ‘until the British Left can shake off the growing perception as unpatriotic or, worse, privately ashamed of its own country, it will struggle to recover the support it has lost in the working class communities’. Unfortunately, it appears as if Embery’s calls are already falling on deaf ears. Since Despised was announced, the left which Embery talks about have attempted to discredit Embery by comparing his views with that of Nazis and Fascists. Like Orwell in 1937, Embery has returned an honest appraisal of the British Left, of which they have not taken too kindly. Surprise.

Anyone with a sane, open mind can see that Paul Embery is nothing more than a Democratic Socialist. And despite his, at times, scathing critique of the left, it quite obviously comes from a place of love for the history and traditions of the British Labour Movement, ‘the banners, the flags, the songs and the people’.

In the final chapter, What is to be Done? Embery advocates a more egalitarian economy, observing ‘voters across all classes and backgrounds want a fairer economic system’. As well as promoting family values and incentivising two-parent families for the benefit of children, Embery argues that the ‘consequences of family breakdown for children are dire, with an increased chance of them turning to drugs or alcohol, suffering from depression, performing poorly at school and living in poverty’. Embery goes on to say, ‘what on earth is socialist about turning a blind eye to this?’.

The suggestion that the statements above are in anyway resembling fascist or totalitarian ideology is, frankly, ridiculous. The modern left should take note of Embery, before it’s too late. As Embery states at the end of Despised, ‘the British Working Class has found its voice. Politics in our country is realigning at speed as the old tribalisms crumble. The Left, if it to halt the slide towards irrelevance, had better start listening’.  

Photo owned by the Mallard.

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6 Responses

  1. Simon Cohen says:

    I think what is missing here and where Embery’s argument becomes skewed is that he is clearly a convert from earlier liberal/globalist beliefs to Blue Collar Labour. So, as with all converts they seem to idealise their ‘new religion’ and excoriate excessively their old world.

    Embrey’s critique of the liberal ‘progressive'(not) is very incisive and pertinent but the deification of the working class, in my view seems to go too far. The idealisation of the familly structure as an economic and psychologically independent unit is rather damaging and marginalises single parent families, many of whom are in working class settings and struggling. This is dangerous because it fuels a divide (already manipulated by the Tories) between the house owning , family unit and the single parent who might be more reliant on benefits.

    In short, Embery might be unwittingly fuelling the very elements that the Tories have skillfully manipulated by an orchestrated gaslighting project since 2010 pitting:

    1. The house owner against the social tenant (deemed a ‘scrounger’).
    2. The disguising of the housing bubble by raising house ownership as the result of the ‘hard working familiy’ meme which led to a self-righteous stance whilst hiding the exploitative bubble led by financialised interests.
    3. This then fed the divide between the in-work struggling and the unemployed/ill
    4. And further fed the lie that benefit claimants had collapsed the economy (not an out of control asset bubble).

    I’m not sure Embery teases these things out effectively and he might have fallen into the trap of creating another identity politics about ‘salt-of-the-earth’ working class in touch with the ‘real world’ pitted against a faux cosmopolitan elite who are coffee table progressives.

    There is much truth in the latter but in my view it would be more productive to critique both and point out that the while the Liberal progressives are hypocrites who bought into financialisation, the working class have allowed themselves to be gaslit and manipulated.

    We probably need a 30’s style revival of educational initiatives that encourage the raising of awareness, language framing and class analysis. But there is no sign of this coming anytime soon. This education is also fully applicable to the liberals who tend to arrogantly consider themselves ‘educated’ but aren’t

    In my campaigning experience leading up to the 2019 election I found an appalling level of ignorance amongst both groups and a lack of interest beyond their preformed viewpoints. This was itself very disturbing.

    These are issues Paul needs to consider. I think and perhaps bring some balance to the on the whole good arguments he presents.

    Where I come from, in Manchester, many Labour seats were held onto reasonably strongly and were, by no means, bastions of liberal coffee table merchants.

    • Rob D says:

      We should be less worried about hurting the feelings of those in single-parent households and more concerned about trying to reverse the catastrophic collapse of the two-parent household among the working class. There is no society on earth where single-parent societies don’t suffer from a host of economic and social disadvantages compared to intact families, and no government program robust enough to make up that gap materially, let alone socially.

      It’s baffling how so many on the left refuse to acknowledge the crucial role family structure plays in wellbeing. The educated classes overwhelmingly raise children in two-parent homes, so they clearly recognize how crucial it is. So why are they so reluctant to advocate for intact families in the working class? Why treat raising children without a father in the home as a choice that is beyond our control, at a time when progressives are so enthusiastically demanding changes to a whole array of social norms?

      • Simon Cohen says:

        Family breakdown is a big part of our present social reality. People need support rather than a sort of ‘doctrinal’ condemnation. Many two parent families are also struggling and dysfunctional and need support.

        Many are brought up in unhappy families. So let’s look at the overall picture, if we can and without raising sentimentalised ideas of the family to an abstract ideal which is then used as a cudgel.

        You might be able to Remember the Tory leader, John Major, making an appeal to family values back in the 90’s/ He called it ‘back to basics’ yet it turned out he was having an affair with another M.P at the time he made these promulgations. SO I suppose he was getting ‘back to basics.’

        This is one of the problems of not taking people as they are and being supportive-the problems just go underground and unleash hypocrisy.

        The great moralistic tones of the late 19th Century Britain hid the reality of the London seamstresses having to earn money via the sex trade. At that time there was a ration of one sex worker to 12 men in the capital. Yet the moralising was all about the sanctity of the family.

        lets work with reality rather than abstraction please.

  2. Darin Jeanty says:

    i love this flawless post

  3. Simon Cohen says:

    Yesterday I wrote a critical review of Paul’s work and it was taken down. It was carefully and politely worded.

    I’d like, at least the common decency of an explanation of why it was moderated away. it took me time to write and was thought out over time based on real campaigning experience.

    Did it not fit in with your ethos?

    Yours sincerely.

    Simon Cohen

  4. Simon Cohen says:

    Apologies for the above post as my comment was, indeed, posted! Please feel free to remove the above comment and this one as I was obviously too hasty in coming to judgement about whether I had been edited out or not-itself a product of the culture war I feel Paul exacerbates.

    And many thanks for posting my critique which I tried to make as balanced as possible.

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