Some might rightly ask what the merit is in writing a review of Paul Embery’s book. “Don’t give it oxygen – it will only help drive people towards him” is a common – and sometimes not unfair – criticism of left-wingers who write ‘outrage columns’ about their opponents. As a former columnist for LabourList, I have spent a huge amount of time this year thinking critically about my role as a writer, and how I engage with those who spread dangerous ideas, and what consequences this has for those affected most by them. With this in mind, I set out to write a review of this book not as ‘left wing bait’ that says only the obvious – that Embery is a reactionary and his ideas should have no place on the left – but to focus instead on why, despite most people’s passionate insistence on the contrary, the ideas he sets out have had a place on the left for a very long time. Some might even argue that they are essential components of social democracy.
Many of the criticisms Embery makes in his book of the “left-liberal elites” that staffed social democratic parties and governments – that they are too soft on immigration, that they do not care about what those working class voters with an attachment to community, law and order and the nation state want – are demonstrably false. From rhetoric to the actual policies that Labour has implemented in government, there is plenty that chimes with the arguments that Embery makes in his book. Labour’s social democrats think there is a big difference between themselves and the likes of Embery – but they rarely engage self-critically in how they are blurring the political lines, enforce and enable the same reactionary politics and gradually make worse things possible.
I want to make a contribution to this strategic discussion in the current political context in Britain: the Brexit referendum that delivered the vote to leave the EU; and Boris Johnson’s subsequent landslide election victory for the Conservative Party in 2019. Keir Starmer, who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party in spring 2020, and his team will also have former Labour voters in Brexit-supporting constituencies in their mind when they are designing their strategy for electoral fight-back. How he chooses to position the party to appeal to his coalition matters to organisers within and outside parliamentary politics.
Despised participates in this conversation by advocating for Labour to appeal once again to its traditional base to win back power. Embery argues that currently there is a disconnect between the Labour Party – both its members and elected representatives – and this voting base, the ‘traditional’ working class. Embery says that this is because Labour is more concerned with pleasing its membership that is “urban middle-class liberals, students and social activists”. Their needs conflict with the needs of the working class.
To restore the ‘traditional’ working class vote, Embery argues that Labour must marry a social democratic economic policy with social conservative values. He praises Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto for its commitment to anti-austerity measures and readiness to intervene in the economy to stimulate growth. But he argues that the economy and people’s material conditions are not the only – and not necessarily the most important – driving factor when it comes to voting behaviour. Moreover, Embery calls for a social policy agenda on the basis of ‘shared values’ to accompany the economic programme. These values centre around family, work, community, immigration, national identity, law and order and the welfare system.
Despised claims that there are currently two different types of working class in Britain: the traditional working class and a new working class. The traditional working class is described as those workers with lower wages or social status, that might be unemployed or on benefits, and who own little or no property or wealth. They usually have less control or authority in their workplace. These working class people are most commonly found in post-industrial, small town or coastal communities. He argues that this working class also shares a common set of values, which includes patriotism, social conservatism and communitarianism. He describes them as ‘rooted’, ascribing a high value to family, place, social solidarity and cultural stability. Embery says that he uses no standard scientific definition of class, but interprets the term as he and his social circles “understand it”.
The other type of working class is a new, emerging working class. This group is described as “younger, urban, more likely to have gone to university, highly diverse, less politically tribal and more cosmopolitan in outlook”. Here, Embery seems to borrow from Claire Ainsley, Keir Starmer’s Head of Policy. Ainsley, a former think tanker, published her book The New Working Class: how to win hearts, minds and votes in May 2018. It argues that, whilst the traditional working class is still an important part of society, there are now millions of people up and down the country that fit a new description: they are more likely to work in service sector jobs such as retail, hospitality and care; are multi-ethnic and diverse; and live off low and middle incomes. They are not concentrated in just one area, but can be found across the country. Ainsley argues they make up nearly half of the population. Like Embery, she says these voters are less politically tribal. This means they are up for grabs for Labour and the Tories. (Ainsley wrote a piece with policy recommendations for both ConservativeHome and LabourList) Crucially, Ainsley recommends that political parties who wish to reach out to these groups should focus on their most important values as a way in. She identifies these as “family, fairness, hard work and decency”.
Embery’s book is pitched at the traditional working class, rather than this new working class, but both his and Ainsley’s policy prescriptions are based on a focus on similar social values. Embery recognises this overlap in his UnHerd column, where he praises Ainsley’s appointment to the policy chief role as an encouraging sign that Starmer is taking a ‘values’-based appeal to the working class more seriously. Despite these attempts to frame two distinct sets of the working class it seems that regardless of what ‘type’ they belong to, social conservative values are what unites them all. Ainsley herself says that elections cannot be won off the back of the new working class alone, and any party that wants to win power will have to build coalitions. A coalition based on these social values rather than material conditions (an analysis that chimes with Embery’s book) will be the outcome of her work for Team Starmer.
Ainsley and Embery will be familiar with each other: for example at Labour Party Conference 2018 she chaired an event on how Labour could win the next election that had Embery as a panellist, alongside current Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy MP, the former MP and ‘English Labour Network’ founder John Denham and businessman, party donor and previous Labour Leave chairman John Mills. Despite Embery’s claims to be a brave political outsider and different from other hacks that influence Labour’s policy, he clearly is a well-networked individual with access to the right people that make decisions at the top of the party.
Claire Ainsley’s and Paul Embery’s focus on social values is not the only commonality between Despised and more ‘mainstream’ Labour thinking. As previously mentioned, Embery also acknowledges Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policy as a positive change for which there is no reason to retreat from going forward. This is a commonly held position that unites Blue Labour style thinkers and soft left and social democratic members who believe that Corbyn’s views on social issues or foreign policy was what cost Labour the election, rather than the economics.
In Despised Embery speaks out against going any further than 2019 on the economy as capitalism should be managed, not abolished as only the most extreme wings of the Labour left demand. Instead, merely the worst excesses of Blair-style financial liberalisation and neoliberal globalisation should be opposed. He argues that another focus must be on improved terms and conditions for workers, achieved through organising in trade unions. Other ‘cornerstones of early Labour traditions’ like co-operatives, friendly societies and credit unions should also be seen as useful tools for civil society to tame the dominance of capital markets.
When Ed Miliband became Labour Party leader in 2010, he too sought to distance himself from New Labour’s economic policies and the domination of the financial sector. He began advocating for a ‘responsible’ brand of capitalism which sees companies pursue profit but where businesses should be more integrated in a social contract that results in greater sharing of prosperity and equality.
Ahead of the 2015 General Election, LabourList commissioned a pamphlet containing essays of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) from across the country who wrote about their understanding of community and politics. Then-candidate and now Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh MP, who chaired Lisa Nandy’s leadership bid in 2020, penned an article on ‘responsible capitalism’ which explains this narrative. A responsible capitalism is one that focuses more on sustainable, long term goals where companies are more accountable to employees, customers and the communities they operate in, rather than for example shareholders. As part of this more accountable capitalism, Trade Union relations with businesses should not be fractured. The Union’s role is not to fight antagonistic struggles on behalf of the working class, but rather to “work hand in hand with businesses, in the interest of jobs, productivity and better living standards”. Haigh also endorses cooperatives and calls for more workers on boards, two policies that can be found in Corbyn’s manifesto. Embery supports ‘workers on boards’ too, claiming that this would represent an extension of social ownership that diffuses power and wealth in industry and commerce. Embery and Labour’s social democrats both speak of Trade Union organising but rather than viewing it as means for the working class to engage in an antagonistic struggle, it is a corporatist approach that guides their policy prescriptions.
But as the late Leo Panitch put it in a Guardian piece in reply to Ed Miliband, responsible capitalism offers no route out of Labour’s misery. He warned that fundamentally, capitalism’s competitive, relentless drive to maximise profits, which has become the basis of all our social relations, will eventually only come to serve extreme nationalists and the far right. People will try to protect whatever they have left at the expense of ‘the other’.
The politics of place
Embery describes communities as places where shared backgrounds and cultural familiarity foster a deep sense of cohesion. He argues that this social and cultural homogeneity is what engenders a spirit of reciprocity and belonging from local citizens. Cohesion and a feeling of mutual obligation then gets disrupted by a rapid change of the local area brought about by immigration. Different shops, cultural and religious customs and a variety of spoken languages in neighbourhoods mean there is now no common backbone between the people anymore.
Relentless competition in every aspect of our lives alienates people from each other and erodes communities across the country. But because Embery and Labour’s social democrats do not wish to break with capitalism, they are unable to offer a solution that tackles the root causes of this alienation. Instead they prescribe ‘unifying’ policies on the basis of ‘social values’ that not only aim to plaster over the destructive tendencies of capitalism but uphold and reproduce them.
Let us return to our LabourList pamphlet. Among the many familiar faces featured in it, we find the former BBC journalist and Ed Miliband adviser Polly Billington. Billington, then PPC for Thurrock, previously orchestrated Miliband’s media operation during his successful bid for the Labour leadership in 2010. As her former boss was contesting the premiership of the United Kingdom, Billington, like many Special Advisers before her and since, sought to make her own entry into front line politics.
Just a few months before the pamphlet was published, Labour had lost control of Thurrock Council. Although the Party continued to govern a minority administration, the surge of UKIP votes there and in neighbouring Essex constituencies so close to the general election worried Labour strategists.
Billington’s essay tells a tale of “unrelenting and rapid change” caused by globalisation and immigration in Thurrock which saw many former Labour voters turn to UKIP. Residents would be asking ‘understandable questions’ such as whether it is right that someone who has lived in a place all their life is treated the same way by the welfare state as people who ‘have only just arrived’. To restore trust, Billington calls on the Labour Party to change its policy on welfare to a system that is harder to access for immigrants who have not yet ‘contributed’. Her claim is that such a policy would not only speak to people’s concerns on public services but also reflect ‘Labour values’ of decency. Billington’s vision of Thurrock as a welcoming community is one that accepts “those who work hard, pay their taxes, learn to speak English and contribute to the society they chose to become part of”. Solidarity among locals can then be built on these ‘shared values’ that cross the boundaries of race, language or class.
Strategists have long connected certain places with the bellwether voter du jour to make their point. Before the ‘Red Wall’, there was the ‘Essex Man’. The term was popularised to describe young and ambitious self-starters that should normally support Labour but had voted Conservative under Thatcher because of her economic policies. The term became superseded by the ‘Mondeo Man’, a voter group that used to vote Labour but then shifted to the Tories because they now owned their own home and a decent car. This voter inspired Tony Blair to pitch New Labour to the ‘aspirational working class’. Then there was ‘Worcester woman’, a voter in her 30s that had little interest in politics but worried about quality-of-life issues. A swing voter, she would have previously supported the Conservatives before Blair’s New Labour appealed to her. She then turned back to the Tories in 2010.
From the Essex man to the ‘Workington man’ in the Red Wall, there is a clear shift away from an individual’s material conditions and aspirations to a values-based, communitarian framing. The Conservative think tank ‘Onward’, who coined these latest terms, published its report ‘The Politics of Belonging’ in October 2019, finding a shift away from freedom of choice towards security as a priority for swing voters. The report also states that voters believe communities have become more divided, that family values are in decline and that an increase in university graduates versus those completing technical qualifications has been bad for the country. Economically, these voters will strongly oppose globalisation and the modern liberal market economy and believe that immigration has had a negative impact. Onward concludes by recommending to Boris Johnson an electoral strategy that focuses on economic security, restores a sense of belonging, prioritises national security and pursues cultural changes over a longer period of time.
Following the Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in 2019, attention for Labour strategists is now firmly on the Red Wall and it seems that Onward’s analysis has been wholesale adopted – and endorsed – by the left. Little in terms of alternative coalition-building ideas has been published. Labour’s own election post mortem in form of the Labour Together report concludes that what is needed is a strategy based on an economic agenda combined with a “robust story of community and national pride.”
Is it wise to wholesale subscribe to a framing that has been developed by Conservative researchers, making recommendations for a Conservative victory? Are we just bound to compete for the same voters or is there a different coalition out there that could carry the left into government? The voter groups we identify as key to unlocking electoral success translates into what our policy priorities are, who we want to support with what we do; and what we might have to sacrifice or compromise on to hold our coalition together. This is why it matters how we define community and how we decide what ‘values’ are the ones we share.
Labour Together’s report identifies the potential winning coalition for Labour as one that would build greater support in the public for a transformative economic agenda that is seen as credible and morally essential and rooted in people’s lived experiences and communities. This sits alongside a robust story of community and national pride while bridging social and cultural division. The messaging hopes to enthuse young voters at the same time as speaking to former Leave-minded voters through a grounding of policy in community, place and family. The report believes this coalition-building can be achieved through dialogue and mutual understanding that local parties can foster.
A renewed focus on community organising, different approaches to the doorstep that is not just about asking who someone might want to vote for and toying with citizen’s assemblies and similar is certainly not brand new. Labour has been talking about the need to work with communities and not just come around knocking at election time for as long as most activists will be able to remember. Our LabourList pamphlet from 2014 strikes a similar tone – in its foreword Arnie Graf (then consulting for Ed Miliband on a party review) writes of the importance of engagement, politics as understanding people’s relations to each other in society and culture. In her contribution, Lisa Nandy speaks of the importance of community self-organising like cooperatives, friendly societies, unions or mutual aid. To reconcile conflict in communities, Nandy writes we can agree to disagree on some things and just work for a common good based on the things that unite us rather than divide us.
Labour’s mainstream has been busy musing in the abstract about community, values and unifying factors without much concrete to work from. Meanwhile Paul Embery has been putting pen to paper to set out some clearer definitions of how community is constructed, and on what values and obligations a ‘social contract’ can be formed.
Class vs identity
Despised tells us that the battle we face is between a promotion of ‘identity politics’ over ‘class politics’ but its own definition of class and its coalition-building rests wholly on identity and Eurocentric values rather than material conditions. This values-based construction is antagonistic because it is exclusionary. Immigrant communities find themselves in a stranglehold: either they ‘assimilate’ to not disrupt ‘cohesion’ or they should not be allowed the same rights and access to support. From Labour’s perspective, this should make this framing impossible to accept as peacefully uniting behind a set of British ‘cultural values’. It is not a free choice, it is a condition placed on people’s survival in this country.
Embery at least is somewhat honest in that he is not shying away from conflict – he does not want to prioritise people’s needs over cultural assimilation and therefore has made his pick of which section of society he wants to see represented by Labour. The Party mainstream is dancing to a similar tune, but is less honest about it. Flat statements of unity and empty descriptions of community and values, fearful to antagonise and desperate to avoid political conflict, do not set a counter-argument to Embery. Mainstream Labour figures engage in the same language but are rarely spelling out what they actually mean. Consequently everyone can interpret their definitions of community, pride and place however it suits them. This void is easily filled with Embery’s interpretations. And when pressed to go more concrete, mainstream Labour voices slide down a bit further along the path that arrives at the same conclusions as Embery does: their definition of community remains ultimately closed and static, with a focus on unity over class conflict. Desperate appeals to unity reflect this aversion to struggle even internally in the party.
How similar in concrete terms Embery’s policy recommendations and Labour’s mainstream thinking is easily proven. One only has to skim through recent manifestos to find evidence. Embery calls for a points-based visa system limited by skills and economic needs. This has also been the Labour Party’s position, even under Jeremy Corbyn. In its 2015 manifesto, Labour made a direct link between the feeling of communality – of sharing a sense of belonging and being able to contribute to the common good – and controlling immigration and denying EU migrants the ability to claim benefits for at least two years. They also pledged to strengthen integration by ensuring that people speak English. The manifesto further placed a huge emphasis on the family and community, the bedrock of a society based on trust and mutual obligation. At the same time, Labour wanted to ban migrant workers from accessing child support if they send money to their families living abroad. Whether it is a call for national service or the reciprocity of the welfare system – the overlap between Embery’s social policy recommendations and those of the Labour mainstream for decades is blatantly obvious.
Family, community, local institutions, the nation – what Embery laments as forgotten values for the Labour Party is a golden thread that is woven across generations of Labour Party manifestos. Whether Blair, Brown, Miliband or Corbyn, it crops up in some way or another. There is no reason to believe that Starmer, whose mission is to bring Labour back from the brink in a post-Brexit world, will go in a different direction.
Miliband was the closest to what Embery prescribes – an economic policy that is centre-left paired with a culturally conservative values-based approach. Of course, Miliband did not win an election. So the question is: what part of Milibandism does Starmer think he must dial up to achieve the electoral coalition that he seeks to build?
Labour under Starmer will not outflank Corbynism on the economy – whilst some of his policies were valued across the party, it is also accepted that it is more or less the limit of radicalism that can be achieved within Labour. Let’s not forget that plenty of voices declared the 2019 manifesto as unrealistic. This conflicts with those on the left who think that the best parts of the economic manifesto were not fully developed yet and should go further.
In the new year, Starmer is set to announce his new approach to the politics of place and belonging. Those of us who disagree with the foundations that underpin Embery’s politics, not just his rhetoric, must therefore apply the same levels of scrutiny to the Labour Party. We can’t let them get away with vague and evasive proclamations of support for communities and mutual obligations when the policy outcome is indistinguishable from Embery.
The current danger lies in a prioritisation of an electoral coalition that is built on a narrow definition of identity, linked to a culturally homogenous place, which compromises on the benefits of those who do not fit in. This will hit hardest migrant communities, communities of colour, people who do not live in ‘nuclear families’ and others who fall somehow outside ‘the norm’. Starmer’s comments on Black Lives Matter protests or his reluctance to show support for transgender rights is a worrying indication of where his priorities will lie.
We don’t need an appeal to unity from Labour but leaders who are brave enough to confront and struggle against oppression. But in fearing to take up this struggle, Labour’s social democrats risk making the same mistakes over and over again.
Paul Embery’s Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, Cambridge: Polity, 2020 is available now. To order a copy go to Polity.