Paul Embery: We need to challenge this climate in which people say they’ve been offended and the debate has to stop
The following is an excerpt from an interview between Mallard Chairman, Jake Scott (JS) and Paul Embery (PE), regarding his book ‘Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class’.
The full interview is available in our print magazine, which you can purchase here.
JS: When the book was announced, there was backlash, never mind the release. I know that on Twitter especially there seemed to be a place for certain academics to be upset that you were even being published – and I certainly had a skirmish with one of them. I wanted to know your thoughts on the reception of the book?
PE: In some respects, it was quite amusing, because there were a number of people who had done a review of the book without ever having read it. As far as they were concerned it was a far-right trap, a fascist manifesto, and people shouldn’t read it. It’s difficult not to laugh at that sort of stuff. A lot of people tried to engage with it on a serious level, and give constructive criticism. You have to take what they say with a pinch of salt.
But you know it was quite fascinating that people were prepared to pass judgment on a book which in many cases they hadn’t read. And some people who did read it, to their credit, said they thought it would say X, and actually it said a lot of things they agreed with. A lot of people have said the stuff around the economy is quite valuable, and quite left wing, which I intended it to be. I saw one review where somebody said this guy predicted the Red Wall was going to collapse, was proved right and earned a hearing.
There was another review where somebody on the Left decided to write a long piece where he slammed the book because I called for the return of national service. The funny thing was I don’t even mention national service in the book. It’s bizarre that somebody would write something like that without ever having done basic checks. The fact that people would just dismiss it, is I think an indication about how far parts of the left have moved away from alternative views, and that’s quite worrying.
JS: I study populism, and the big voice on that field is Cas Mudde – on the announcement your book was to be announced by Polity, he was upset that his books were being published by the same publisher. What do we do, do we keep trying to talk to people like this, or take their route and ignore them?
PE: I think where people raise arguments we should where possible try to engage with them. A case like that, Cas Mudde, and there were one or two other people who did similar things – I’d like to think they’d be embarrassed about what they’d said if they ever read the book. I responded to Cas Mudde’s allegation that the book is a far right manifesto, I attack the BNP (British National Party) in the book, I make it clear that discrimination on the basis of skin colour is reprehensible, I talk about the importance of building unity between people, I talk about the UK taking its fair share of refugees etc. It’s an argument that can be debunked very quickly, yet people still make it because they haven’t read the book.
In terms of what we do; yes we need to engage with them, we need to challenge this climate in which people just say they’ve been offended and the debate has to stop or in order to have someone sacked prosecuted or silenced. As I say in the book once upon a time someone would say I disagree with you now its increasingly likely to say I’m offended by that, almost as if once you’ve said that the debate should go no further. And actually its very sinister, and its what some people have called, quite rightly, soft totalitarianism.
It’s not an overt totalitarianism in the sense we haven’t got a secret police and newspapers being banned, but we do have an atmosphere which is intensifying where you know there’s a particular view, and if you don’t conform to that view particularly if you’re in any sort of position, of having any sort of public profile, and if you challenge that view you can expect to be attacked, and expect your employer to distance itself from you or sack you, and expect yourself to be the subject of a twitter storm. A lot of it frankly boils down to personal cowardice, there are politicians and others who know this stuff is going on and in some cases disagree with it, but they want it to eat them last.
Not feeding the crocodile is the correct metaphor. And until people who disagree with it start raising their heads and raising their voices then this sinister atmosphere is going to continue. We’ve seen safe spaces, hate legislation, group think, echo chambers, and its all with the purpose of saying there’s a particular orthodox view and if you don’t agree with it you cant expect to hold any position of public importance and we really need to push back against that stuff.
JS: One thing I wanted to know – you talk about your own personal life, your younger life as a student – it almost read as a confession in that you went around telling everyone “diversity is our strength” – when did you change? Or was it a process of gradual realisation that the Left couldn’t carry on as it was?
PE: The first decade of this century has had quite a profound impact on my political thinking. That was because I was then living in the place I grew up, the London borough of Dagenham, strong Labour territory, very working class, very blue-collar. A settled, solid working class community, and in fact I grew up on the Becontree state, which at the time was the biggest council housing estate in the world.
There was a period where the very acute effects of globalisation first began to be felt in these communities. You saw it in the form of very rapid deindustrialisation, the transfer of thousands of blue collar jobs abroad, the running down of the huge Ford factory, production was shipped abroad to Germany. You saw it also in the very rapid and profound demographic change, there were very large numbers of new arrivals coming in, many of whom were fundamentally decent people, but they came from backgrounds and cultures which had little to do with those in the community.
There was serious pressures on public services, and Barking and Dagenham was one of the communities that felt these effects most profoundly. What I saw was a community that was disorientated and bewildered, but yet lectured by their political masters, the Labour party, about how these changes were good for them it’d increase GDP, it’d enrich the culture and you should stop complaining because this is the way of the world now. All those silly ideas you have about social solidarity really are not that important.
I saw people in the community being dismissed in that way by the Labour Party and it became very very clear to me that there was a chasm emerging between the liberal left which was dominant in the Labour Party under Tony Blair which embraced these changes, and blue-collar working class communities which were profoundly impacted by them and saw no real benefit from globalisation. In Barking and Dagenham what this meant, was that in 2006 the BNP came out of nowhere to become the official opposition on Dagenham council, its best ever result in local government. The far right had never had a foothold in Barking and Dagenham, but they won simply because the people had been ignored by the Labour Party. It became clear to me then that until the Labour Party listened to these people’s concerns, or dismissed them as bigots or insisted that the changes were good, that there would be a haemorrhage of working class votes from Labour. Those effects were being felt in our traditional working class communities. And the votes you can see it in the statistics that working class votes started moving away from the Labour Party, millions of WORKING CLASS voters simply abstained from elections, voted for UKIP or the BNP. A chasm began emerging in that decade, and has widened ever since, resulting in the election of December 2019.</p>
JS: The thing that strikes me, as much as I find the book really inspiring, the fundamental issue for Labour is there is no path back to power without Scotland. It seems that the Blue Labour movement and your views are very popular and appealing to the English working class, but have less of a grab on the more socially liberal, Remain-voting Scottish working classes. Does Blue Labour have an answer to the Scottish question?
PE: Not necessarily an answer, but I think the situation in Scotland is a result of a very different dynamic and it is very difficult for labour in Scotland. The problem for labour is that whenever the Tories are in government in Westminster – lots of people in Scotland hate the Tories we know that – the Tories have always had a base there, but generally the Tories are loathed by the Scottish working class, or at least disliked. And I think that the problem for labour is whenever the Tories are in power in Westminster, it raised the support for the SNP as an antidote to the UK government. it raises support for independence and the Labour Party cutting through that when the Tories are in power in Westminster, is really difficult.
Things are seen through the prism of nationalism and independence at the moment. The SNP are of course very opportunistic, they blame the Tories for everything that goes wrong and take credit for everything that goes right. I think a lot of the Labour Party meltdown is along similar lines as the reasons why it shifted support in England, but getting them back may not necessarily involve the same strategy north of the border. People look at the Labour Party and they don’t see it as particularly Scottish, whereas in the past you cold look at the Labour Party front bench and see Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, and other big beasts.
So yes, the Labour Party needs Scotland before its likely to win a GE again. But it won’t be easy, its not just a case of winning back like it is In England, there’s the dynamic of nationalism which it has to get to grips with.
JS: One thing obviously that you criticise a lot in the book is globalisation. I think you make a good differentiation between internationalism and globalisation. This book was published was released at the start of 2021, and you talk about how the pandemic, plus Brexit has revealed the fragility of supply lines, and the cost of an outsourced production base, both in terms of food and essential commodities and supplies. In the past week we saw that 10% of the worlds trade was blocked by a single ship. How can we revive manufacturing in this country? You talk about it being 30% pre 1980, is that a level we could return to or is that a pipe dream?
PE: Whether we could get back to that level I’m not sure, but we could certainly get it higher. I don’t buy the idea that because we have emerging competitors who can undercut our own manufacturing industry that somehow we cant do anything better, Germany and Japan manage to maintain thriving manufacturing sectors despite the emergence of new competitors, and I think that’s for a variety of reasons. I think we’re pretty poor at having any sort of clear industrial strategy, I argue in the book the overvaluation of sterling has made us uncompetitive in the international marketplace, we suffer from lack of investment, we suffer from productivity problems, and I think all of these things have contributed to the evisceration of manufacturing.
I think wider than that, we don’t treat vocational qualifications as importantly as we ought to, and sort of a contempt now among the political and cultural elites about the importance of vocational education and in attitudes toward blue-collar manual jobs. There used to be a pride in being an electrician or a plumber but now its increasingly sneered at. We’ve seen how sending everyone to university has turned out, it hasn’t provided the future for young people that people thought it would do. There is much we can do to improve our manufacturing base, to improve our industry generally, and as you say covid has shown the importance of a national economy, of a manufacturing sector; Brexit showed what we can do in terms of challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy. Maurice Glasman said that the EU was the biggest capitalist project every invented by man and the British working class, particularly the English working class, who voted for Brexit showed, that you can put a missile through that system and really shirk it if if you want to. Whether it will pan out the way we want, we’ll have to see. But I don’t accept the argument that the neoliberal agenda, or that globalisation is the natural way of things and is here to stay.
But that’s clearly not going to be easy and its going to take time. But Brexit and covid have shown that we can move to that sort of economics in the future if we put our minds to it.