The wrong response to a genuine problem

Michael Calderbank reviews Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class by Paul Embery, published by Polity Press

This is a book which – I think it’s fair to say – will divide the already highly polarised crowds. Although striking in polemical tone, Embery’s core arguments will already be pretty familiar to many readers. He draws extensively from the Blue Labour tradition of embracing small-c conservative tropes – place, belonging, stability, tradition and so forth – together with a strain of anti-liberal culture war diatribes associated with right-wing commentators like Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens in the UK, and conservatives like Rod Dreher in the USA.   

The resulting amalgam is a highly unsatisfactory response to a problem which is nevertheless genuine – the sociological and political rift which has opened up between the values and priorities of substantial sections the working class in Britain, and elsewhere in the western world, and the ‘progressive’ political left.

The immediate occasion for Embery’s diagnosis was the Brexit referendum of 2016 and, especially, the failure of the Labour Party to respect the democratic verdict of the electorate, preferring instead to align with forces which often appeared happy to disdain 17.4 million people as deluded, bigoted or both.

Embery is right to connect this failure to the calculated neglect of the former industrial working class in the Blair/Brown years, on the grounds they had “nowhere else to go”.  The ‘heartland’ vote was taken for granted by New Labouir governments which prized themselves on accepting that class was no longer a defining political issue, that there was no alternative to capitalist globalisation and argued that the proceeds of neoliberalism could be used to ameliorate poverty at the margins. Constituency Labour Parties too often became hollowed-out shells, disconnected from the daily lives and priorities of working class communities. So far, so No Holding Back.

At the same time, this political shift entailed a corresponding development in the organisational culture and methods of the trade unions, encouraging an implicit acceptance of the need for legislation to curtain shop floor militancy in return for the regulatory safety net to be provided under membership of a Social Europe. Reliance on working-class self-organisation gave way – at least for the English – to reliance on remote legislators, either in Westminster or Brussels. Power was literally transferred away and people felt left at the mercy of market forces, increasingly unfettered by even modest regulatory ambitions of national and international political institutions.

People voted Brexit because, among other things, they didn’t feel in control of their lives, they didn’t feel their communities counted for anything in the decision-making of the powerful, and they felt that no-one was listening. And the Remain/People’s Vote offensive seemed determine to prove them right on every count. This was true of sections of the ‘Trotskyist’ left and their fellow travellers, Momentum’s Laura Parker and Paul Mason and the Europhile soft left, just as much as the likes of Blair, Campbell and Peter Mandelson. To this extent, Embery is broadly accurate in saying that “the Left increasingly became detached from those living in working-class communities up and down the country, and ignorant of how they think, what they believe, and why they believe it.” 

It’s also true that the demographics of Labour Conference are skewed in favour of students and professional activists and against working class members, who find it less easy to afford the travel and accommodation, get time off work or meet caring responsibilities. However, Embery’s self-portrayal as a lone voice in the wilderness, the near-sole tribune of the ‘traditional working class’ who prophesied the disastrous outcome of the drift to Remain, is a huge exaggeration. These arguments were being made around the Shadow Cabinet table, by the likes of Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett, were voiced in the debate at the 2019 Conference, and by other activists including the Leave Europe, Fight, Transform (LeFT) campaign.

Unfortunately, however, Embery – along with other supporters of The Full Brexit including Maurice Glasman – embeds his argument in a tendentiously romantic and reductive sociological account of class, yoked to an ethnocentric account of culture, tradition and nation. As a result he appears totally incapable, for example, of acknowledging the very real and living legacy of race and empire in the formation of the class inequalities in Britain, and is similarly uncritical in his appeal to other sources of traditional authority – such as the family or ‘law and order’. Perhaps that explains why, unlike leftists who advocated a Leave vote, he was happy to share platforms with the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, and now perpetuates the alt-right trope that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist front organisation.

In the remainder of this review I want to draw attention to various problematic strains in the overarching narrative Embery shares with Blue Labour and the Heinz 57 assortment of professional contrarians.

The ‘traditional working class’

The idea of the ‘traditional working class’ is required to do a great deal of the conceptual heavy-lifting in Embery’s argument. He is careful to rebut Ash Sarkar’s accusation that this term of meant to be understood in racial terms, and synonymous with the ‘white working class’, since it is held to include older generation of migrants who are taken to have integrated more successfully with the dominant values of their host communities. But we are still regaled with accounts of the “deep social and cultural homogeneity” which is said to have characterised the population of his native Barking and Dagenham prior to relatively recent waves of immigration, said to have “engendered a spirit of reciprocity and belonging among local citizens”. 

Embery deduces from the fact that his primary school had only one Asian pupil from an ethnic minority background amid 400 pupils as evidence of underlying “stability” betokening “a commons – and often unspoken – understanding and affinity”.  The fall from this Eden is said to be anticipated by sixties radicals and “cultural revolutionaries” apparently keen to decentre traditional understandings of class by promoting identity politics, paving the way for the cultural changes embraced by neoliberal globalisation. 

There’s an element of romantic attachment to an ethnocentric golden age which is amenable to deeply reactionary ends. The author should take off his rose-tinted spectacles. While it is no doubt the case that bonds of social cohesion and solidarity have been weakened owing to the neoliberal assault on working class communities, the idea this is primarily the result of immigration or unique to culturally homogeneous non-Metropolitan areas hardly bears scrutiny.

It also conceals the extent to which working class communities – even overwhelmingly ‘white’ ones – have historically been the site of all manner of conflicting values, ethnic and religious identities, identifications, gender oppression and so forth. There was fierce resistance to Irish immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries in many industrial heartlands, for example, which left an  underlying legacy of sectarian hate in a number of British towns and cities.  

In the annals of trade union history, Dagenham is perhaps most famous for the struggle of female workers at Fords for Equal Pay – which required a struggle precisely against a certain received traditional understanding of how power should be exercised, including within the labour movement itself. Similarly across the city, Jayaben Desai and the Grunwick strikers had to challenge the inertia of the old trade union bureaucracy and inspire new forms of interracial working class solidarity. But Embery doesn’t mention these events at all.

The selective historical memory on display doesn’t stop there. Tellingly, he writes an account of the working class in part of East London, but makes no reference to the thousands of fascist sympathisers mobilised by Oswald Mosley against working class Jewish communities.  Nor did later generations of migrants painlessly integrate into the ‘traditional working class’.  Are we to believe that the “cultural homogeneity” in Barking and Dagenham on which the author reflects so fondly was immune to the appeal of Enoch Powell, which saw thousands of London dock-workers march against the relaxation of immigration policy – a salutary reminder that involvement in a trade union doesn’t automatically equip you with the solidaristic values of the labour movement?  Were the National Front not a growing threat in the streets of London during the 70s?  It would be interesting to hear the experience of the lone Asian kid in Embery’s school.


Given this history, it is not clear on what grounds Embery claims that contemporary working class ‘concerns’ about immigration are largely free from any racist motivation. Yet he confidently asserts that “no one was pandering to racists” even when they feared the loss of their “tradition, custom, language and religion”. This separation is very convenient for the Blue Labour argument, but as the history of racialised discourse towards the Irish demonstrates, racial “othering” is not a matter of skin pigmentation alone. While the book was evidently written before the resurgence of Black Lives Matters protests following the death of George Floyd, Embery’s claim that Millwall fans booing players ‘taking the knee’ in solidarity had anything do with racist attitudes, seems to confirm a sense that he’s straining credibility to an absurd level with these denials.

Which isn’t to say that all expressions of anxiety about the rate, speed and impact of immigration were nothing other than a spasm of racist bigtory.  Ideology is more complicated that this allows for, and people can and do entertain competing and even contradictory ideas simultaneously. The fear of unimpeded market forces ripping through communities, and the knowledge that decisions were being taken without the slightest thought for the wellbeing of the communities affected were well grounded. In this context, simply counterposing ‘free movement’ and ‘open borders’ in the context of ruthless neoliberal competition was always going alienate rather than persuade.

Embery’s reaction is to mount an argument in favour of tightened state controls on immigration, and some form of points-based system.  This assumes that the needs of the bosses should be the primary basis on which people should be admitted (despite a token commitment to some degree of provision for refugees and asylum seekers), and no reference is made to the horrendous experience of migrants in detention centres awaiting the processing of their applications or appeals, or how tougher border controls can be anything other than forms of violence against often poor and desperate people. Nor does Embery pay any attention to the role of Britain both historically in the expropriation of wealth and exploitation of people in establishing its economic position, or the contemporary impact of foreign policy in creating the situations which drive people into desperation and exile from their homelands. 

Engaging the Tories in a dutch auction on immigration controls hardly represents a socialist or internationalist policy response.  At the same time, we must oppose the ultra-neoliberal drive to exploitation without limit, and a world where war, devastation and poverty drives people into the arms of the exploiters. To accept the binary framing of populist demands for ‘tougher controls’ versus liberal calls for ‘open borders now’ is to risk precluding an approach which begins from strengthening the power of labour in relation to capital on a global basis. 

Nation and Patriotism

Another problematic aspect of Blue Labour thinking on which Embery draws is the uncritical embrace of patriotic identification with national identity.  Again, the liberal condescension and disdain for any form of pride in our identities, communities or histories is indeed deeply problematic and counter-productive.   But to revert to a simple flag-waving patriotism is just as profound an error.   

The book has nothing whatsoever to say about Britain’s role in the slave trade, or the savage treatment meted out to oppressed and exploited colonial peoples in the days of the British Empire. The implication is that British military, economic and cultural power has been a force for good in the world, bringing civilisation to the barbarian hoards.  Any studied attention of the Labour Party’s history in relation to questions of empire and Britain’s international role could hardly justify the nostalgia for “the quietly patriotic and socially conservative values to which so many in the party – from its working class supporters to past leaders and statesmen – had held true.” 

This account suggests that the Labour party has traditionally just sought to reflect and represent the ‘patriotic’ sentiments of the working class, but this is to put the cart before the horse. Rather, as the late Leo Panitch observed, Labour has been an agent for the socialistion of patriotic attitudes into the working class, and all the more effective in that for the class affinity it has claimed: “[Labour acts] as one of the chief mechanisms for inculcating the organized working class with national values and symbols and of restraining and reinterpreting working class demands in this light… simultaneously as a party of representation and as a major political socialization and social control agent, mediating between nation and class.” 

The framework of national identity is often used to as a means of cultural production to achieve the apparent harmonisation and reconciliation of divergent class interests.  As such, uncritical patriotism is the celebration of a ruling class fiction intended to divert and pacify the working class in order to secure the political and economic dispensation. It encourages a myopia with regard to the state and its coercive power both at home and abroad.  So for example it’s no coincidence that ‘patriots’ from Embery to Donald Trump feel able to celebrate ‘law and order’ in a way which would instinctively jar with the black working class.

The iconography of British nationalism is particularly toxic given the history of Empire. This is not to suggest that the left should simply trash and repudiate all national traditions indiscriminately, something I have previously argued against. There is, for example, a great deal within the English radical tradition which can and should be legitimately reclaimed and celebrated, precisely as a resource for the construction of alternative narratives of a shared culture of resistance against the arbitrary power of the British state.  

As the Scottish ethical socialist and philosopher John Macmurray argued, the left should not seek to suppress nationality (which would be in any case doomed to fail) but “drive a wedge between nationality and nationalism”.

Liberal Wokedom

In some respects, the most predictable and least original section of the book, the ‘anti-woke’ chapter is a fairly boiler-plate repetition of a critique of the increasingly aggressive variant of liberal identity politics which originated in US campus culture and is now a widespread feature of social media exchanges between ‘progressives’. While certainly a legitimate object of critique, too often Embery’s stance is fairly indistinguishable from that made by conservative and alt-right commentators in the US, effectively arguing for a right to free speech which justifies language others might find racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise hurtful and offensive.  Oftentimes, this is little more than an extension of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ attacks beloved of bigots of an earlier generation.

None of which is to deny that there are clearly problems with the culture of shutting down legitimate debate marked by ‘cancel culture’ and Twitter pile-ons, where offence is vicariously anticipated and attributed in order to establish the ‘woke’ credentials of the objectors. A culture in which people aren’t able to express their views, be open to criticism, and perhaps even learn or change their minds, suppresses rather addresses dissent which – as we have seen – is likely to stage a ‘return of the repressed’ in still more shocking and violent terms.  At the same time, we see the spectacle of right-wing culture warriors claiming martyr status because they aren’t able to cause calculated and gratuitous offence at the drop of a hat.  

Faith and tradition

Whilst not overtly acknowledged to any extent, it is nevertheless clear that Embery – and Blue Labour more generally – want to appeal to the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching(CST) as a resource for developing post-liberal alternatives to assumptions shared in common by both Blairite centrists and younger ultra-liberal radicals, some of whom were numbered under Corbyn’s supporters. But like all traditions, the social thinking of the Catholic tradition is highly contested terrain – in application if not in theory – despite a common framework of reference in terms of a focus on human dignity, including the dignity of Labour, solidarity and community; subsidiarity; the universal destination of goods and so forth.  How these concepts should be applied in relation to contemporary social questions is highly disputed, not least in the US where many clerics backed Donald Trump over practising Catholic Joe Biden on the basis of the latter’s more liberal stance over abortion.  

Overall, Embery goes out of his way to sympathise with small c-conservative social views of some religious believers who feel unable to express deeply held religious beliefs – that marriage is properly between a man and a woman, that sex is biologically inherited characteristic, opposing abortion on principle – even if he refrains from identifying himself with all of these views.

He lays claim to being economically radical but socially conservative, but you can also be socially conservative in some respects while being radical in others. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.  For example, you wonder whether Pope Francis, with his concern for the experience of the migrant, and his emphasis on tackling catastrophic climate change, might be considered too ‘woke’ – as is certainly the case for many US ‘conservative’ Catholics. Astonishingly, the fate of the planet is consigned to a list of liberal obsessions by Embery, together with other subjects of marginal interest such as human rights and peace in the Middle East!

For others, a tradition is not a museum to the past but a living body of truths which are meant to speak to contemporary injustices and social ills.  We are challenged to demonstrate the relevance of this tradition afresh, to meet the needs of the times, rejecting what has accrued undesirably, and refreshing what is of greatest value. The renewal of tradition and the development of new forms of solidarity are not necessarily mutually exclusive, an idea that Embery’s Blue Labourism appears to preclude. The challenge facing democratic socialists today is to convincingly articulate the opportunities for both.

Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

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