Between Hartlepool and Hampstead—Paul Embery on the British Labour Party and the Working Class

Between Hartlepool and Hampstead—Paul Embery on the British Labour Party and the Working Class

Carlo Massimo
Carlo Massimo
15 min read

In December of 2020, Paul Embery published his first book, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, in which he argues that the working class no longer has a voice in British politics. Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, and UnHerd columnist, and he believes that the typical Labour voter—like the typical Labour MP—has lost touch with the party’s former base. The catastrophic loss of Labour’s Red Wall of parliamentary constituencies in 2019 was the inevitable result.

Embery identifies as a “conservative socialist” and considers himself unambiguously leftwing, whether or not the Left will have him. I spoke with him in early March 2021 to discuss his book and his unusual political perspective.

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Paul Embery, tell us about the background of this book. Was there a key moment when you realised, I should really write a book about what’s happened to the Labour Party?

There wasn’t a key single moment, but there were a series of events if you like, which occurred in the first decade of this century.

I was born in a community towards the east of London, the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, a very traditional blue collar community. It wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a very settled and stable community. The Ford Motor plant was the main employer in the area. There was a housing estate called the Becontree Estate, which at the time was the largest municipal housing estate in the world.

In the first decade of this century, the area started to undergo some very profound economic change. We really started to see the effects of globalisation and the new global market on the community. Production came to an end at the Ford Motor plant. It was transferred abroad to Germany.

We also started to see very profound demographic shifts, a big increase in the population, a big increase in the number of foreign-born residents. So the area was really an experiment in many ways. It was a social and economic experiment, and it was undergoing these very profound changes. And the people there—the people who had lived there for many, many years—were bewildered by these changes that were taking place. Not so much the fact that change was happening, but just the sheer scale and pace of the change.

And when they looked to their politicians, their Labour politicians—because the area had voted Labour since time immemorial—they were dismissed as being racist and bigoted and xenophobic, and told that they should embrace this new way of living because it would bring improved economic figures and improved wealth and cultural enrichment and things like that. Some 40,000 people just left, people who had been rooted in the community for years.

You come out of the process and you think actually, we probably do need to listen to communities like this a bit more. We should be less enthusiastic about dismissing them as racists and bigots, when actually it was their sense of order that had been violated through this new global market. Not their sense of race, but their sense of order that had been violated. So that was a real eye-opener for me, living through that experience, and it forms the backbone of the book.

You use the word “socialism” or “municipal socialism” several times in Despised. Labour has always had a tenuous relationship with socialism as a movement or a concept. When you use the word, and use it approvingly, what exactly do you have in mind?

It’s true that Labour has always called itself a democratic socialist party, but there’s always been a debate about whether it really is. And partly I think that’s because people, including socialists themselves, often define it in very many different ways. The Labour MP Tony Benn, a great English parliamentarian, sadly no longer with us, said that the Labour Party had never been a socialist party but it had always had socialists in it. “A bit like there are some Christians in the churches in England,” which was a good way of putting it.

For me, it’s the widest possible diffusion of power and wealth. It’s about spreading and sharing power and wealth as much as possible. I think the free market has a tendency to concentrate power and wealth in as few hands as possible, and the job of socialists is to try to break that open and to try to spread it more widely. I mean, I wouldn’t describe myself as a communist. I’m not particularly in favour of an overbearing state that controls every aspect of the economic and social and cultural life of the nation.

I believe in the market. I believe in a mixed economy. I think that it’s important to have a flourishing private sector as well as a good strong public sector, and a well-invested public sector. I believe in strong trade union rights, for example. I don’t like to see a big gap between rich and poor. I would also say that I’m very much a believer in open debate, in pluralism. I would be much more in Orwell’s tradition of socialism.

You identify the 1980s as the beginning of the end for the traditional working-class Labour Party. You seemed to imply that the 1968 generation, the sexual revolution and the cultural shift toward liberalism, laid the groundwork for the eventual change of the guard. Was Labour’s shift from a working-class party to a middle-class liberal party a question of changing values?

I think that was a significant part of it. I mean, Britain was as caught up in the profound social and cultural revolutions in the 1960s, as America was and as many Western countries were. It’s my belief that the people who were very much part of leading those social and cultural revolutions, people who often were students at the time, graduates, university-educated people, really started to make their mark on public life and political life in the 1980s where they started to come of age.

I think that there was a clear link between the 1960s and the ’80s, when you started to see the Labour Party shed its old working-class “cloth cap,” socially conservative, patriotic, communitarian tradition, and embrace a much more kind of liberal, globalist, progressive, cosmopolitan worldview. In the 1990s, Tony Blair became the ideal front man for that particular agenda.

I think that many people in the Labour Party just assumed that the working class had nowhere else to go, because they would never vote Tory. So they felt that they could take that vote for granted; and for a while that was the case.

In the first decade of this new century, when we saw the global financial crisis and the impact of austerity, and people started to feel the pinch economically as well, all of a sudden millions of working-class people who had been tribally Labour and had never really thought of voting anything else, suddenly looked at the Labour Party, and thought, “Actually, you don’t look like me, you don’t sound like, you don’t really speak about my interests, the things that matter to me. You are much more now a kind of middle-class, urban, liberal, graduate-type party, and you no longer resonate with me.”

At what point was the class shift? There’s been a shift in values, but at what point was there a shift in Labour Party leadership from working to middle class?

If you go back even to the 1970s and ’80s, there were a large number of MPs on the Labour benches in the House of Commons who came from that working-class background. They would have people who came through the trade union movement, they had worked in heavy industry and manual labor. Nowadays, if you look at the benches of the Labour Party in the Commons, it’s very much people who have been to university; they’ve worked as research assistants or for think tanks or charities, and then they’re fast-tracked into Parliament in safe Labour seats, and really don’t have that direct connection with the working class.

The Labour Party, when it was at its most successful, was always a historical compromise between what I call Hampstead and Hartlepool. Hampstead is in North London, a liberal, wealthy, cosmopolitan type of area. Hartlepool is in the north-east of England: very industrial; nowadays you’d call it post-industrial. Very blue collar, very working class. The Labour Party at its best has always managed to hold those two places together. It’s always been mainly Hartlepool but with a bit of Hampstead.

In the last 30 years, that coalition has become seriously imbalanced. It’s become far too much Hampstead and not enough Hartlepool. Until the pendulum swings back the other way, I don’t think Labour’s going to win the working-class vote back.

What is your judgment of Jeremy Corbyn?

I think he got some things right. I think that he was right on the question of austerity. I think he was right to challenge the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, to say that we should try to close the gap between rich and poor, to tackle regional inequalities, to tackle boardroom excesses, to say that we need strong trade union rights, that we need a shift of power and wealth in favour of ordinary working people. I think some of that stuff was broadly popular, actually.

I think where Corbyn failed was on not in any way trying to address the culture war that existed between large parts of the Left and ordinary working-class people. In fact, if anything he made it worse. He comes from that globalist, cosmopolitan, progressive tradition, which doesn’t understand the instinctive socially conservative nature of lots of working-class people, and treats them like an embarrassing, elderly relative because of some of those views.

And Keir Starmer, current leader of Labour?

It’s quite interesting, really. Originally, I would’ve said Starmer was probably the worst choice. He was very similar to Tony Blair, in the sense that he’s a North London liberal lawyer, and didn’t necessarily understand working-class communities.

But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the stuff that he’s done. He started to talk about those themes which usually cause Labour activists to look down at the ground and shuffle their feet in embarrassment. He’s started to talk about patriotism, he’s started to talk about family, he’s started to talk about the importance of community, getting Brexit done, all of the stuff that, as I say, normally makes Labour activists uncomfortable.

Now, on its own that’s not going to be anywhere near enough. You have to back that up with clear thought-out policies rather than just soundbites. But it’s a start. When he gives a speech, he will often do it in front of the Union Jack, and he will be hammered by elements within the party, the liberal Left and the far-Left, for doing it. They accuse him of embracing some nativist agenda.

You ended Chapter Two very dramatically, with a two-word, one-sentence paragraph, “One Nation.” “One Nation” was the motto of the Disraelian Tory vision that dominated English conservatism until Thatcher. It’s surprising to hear from someone as steeped in Labour lore and English radical history as you. Were you trying to shock your readers by citing this kind of column of Tory thought? Or do you feel a genuine affinity with Toryism?

No, it’s a genuine opinion. I think it’s a term that’s perfectly legitimate for people on the Left to use. In fact, Ed Miliband, when he was the Labour leader between 2010 and 2015, embraced it as well. In an age where communities are increasingly fragmented and atomised as a result of globalisation and the new global market and rapid and large-scale movements of labor and capital, and vast demographic changes, it’s important to say, “Look, we can still bring people together, and we still need to bring ourselves as one nation and one community.” So no, it wasn’t to shock. I think it’s perfectly compatible.

There are certain parallels in your book, which I’m sure have been pointed out to you, with the views of one of the villains of contemporary British history, Enoch Powell. Like you, he advocated culturally coherent communities; he was strongly Eurosceptic; his opponents called him a racist; and he did have a vocal working-class following, especially in your native East London. Do you think it’s time to revisit Powell?

No, I would regard what I argue for as distinctly different from Enoch Powell. As you alluded in the introduction to the question, many people in Britain would want to distance themselves from anything that Enoch Powell said. He’s a very controversial figure, and with good reason.

First of all, I wouldn’t agree with his politics generally. He was an early monetarist in Britain. Margaret Thatcher drew many of her ideas from him, and I would be on a different page from him politically on many, many things, including economics.

But I think the big mistake with his “Rivers of Blood” speech is that he made the whole thing, or large part of it, about race. To me that was unforgivable. He used phrases in that speech like “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” It was inexcusable. I think there’s a perfectly legitimate argument to be had about how you manage migration, about the importance of controlling numbers, about the importance of assimilating new arrivals into local communities in a way that both parties are comfortable with. But I think that any nuanced argument that he tried to make about those things was lost in his desire to focus on race.

For me, the colour of people’s skin is absolutely irrelevant to the debate. We should focus on bringing people together as much as possible, while still having an honest debate about the problems that can occur with mass migration. Powell failed at that badly.

You write quite a bit about the importance of industry and trade unions, not only for the immediate benefit of workers but as institutions propping up the Labour Party. You talk about the possibility of reversing globalisation to some degree, of bringing heavy industry back to Britain and devaluing the pound. Are your hopes for England, for Britain, pegged to a return of heavy manufacturing? Isn’t that a risky bet?

Well, I don’t say specifically heavy industry or heavy manufacturing, although I do absolutely talk about the importance of revitalising manufacturing in Britain. Some of those heavy industries undoubtedly have gone for good.

When you think about how important the manufacturing base in Britain was 40 years ago, 50 years ago, we are shadows, really, of our former selves. And some people say, “Well, that’s inevitable. You have these emerging economies now, which are taking a bigger share of the market.” But actually, countries like Germany and Japan still manage to maintain a thriving manufacturing sector, and so I don’t really see why we can’t do that ourselves.

I think also we can’t ignore the very real social impact that that has on local communities. Take the Ford factory in Barking and Dagenham. It employed thousands of local people once, and I saw what happened when production went overseas. Thousands of good, solid blue collar jobs just disappeared.

We focus so heavily in this country on the financial economy and the City of London, not on the real economy. We’ve also seen the emergence of the gig economy: precarious, transient employment. I’d like to see a proper joined-up industrial strategy that has a clear plan for revitalising manufacturing in Britain, revitalising the productive parts of our economy. And it seems obvious to me that a Labour Party should have that at the forefront of any economic program.

And the unions? How do you unionise people that are working zero-hour contracts?

Well, this is the key thing. There are vast parts of our private sector in Britain that are completely untouched by any union organisation at all. That stands in contrast to many years ago, where trade unions organised strongly in the private sector as well as the public sector.

Trade unions have got no real strategy for reaching out into the private sector. It seems to me that we need trade unions there as much as ever. People will say that we don’t have, for example, the cotton mills like in years gone by, we don’t have people being exploited like we did in Victorian times.

But that’s quite naïve. Okay, we don’t have cotton mills; but we do have call centres where hundreds of people are lined up next to each other, working long hours in what many would see as hard toil, a job of drudgery for lots of people, and often with no protection in the workplace, no union to fall back on to negotiate for them, to represent them if they’re ever threatened with discipline or the sack.

Worse, we’ve got a class of union leadership now that doesn’t seem particularly interested in organising in the private sector, and I think that’s a tragedy for those workers and the movement itself.

So do you see a parallel shift in union leadership, away from rank and file and towards a university-educated professional caste?

British trade union leadership and its ideology have mirrored those of the Left generally. I mean, in Britain, a number of trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party, so the link is intrinsic.

The trade union leadership now is very much sadly the kind of mouthpiece of the London liberal class, rather than being the mouthpiece of ordinary working-class people. If you look at the figures for trade union membership in Britain, in 1980 it stood at 13 million, and it’s now six-and-a-half million, so the number of trade union members in Britain has halved over that 40 years. And undoubtedly that’s partly through de-industrialisation. But it’s partly self-inflicted as well on the part of the trade union leadership, there’s no doubt about that.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about specifically English, not British, identity. Even the Guardian ran an op-ed calling for English patriotism. Where do you stand on that?

It’s something that’s been dismissed for many years. It’s something that’s been looked upon by large parts of our political class, particularly the Left, as something a bit uncouth, a bit unclean. It’s odd, because the same people, particularly on the Left, will often look at that kind of civic nationalism in Scotland or Wales, and will be quite relaxed about that. They look across the Irish Sea to Ireland, and lots of people on the Left will positively embrace Irish nationalism because they see it as a reaction to British colonialism.

But when it comes to England, it’s not allowed to be displayed, and I think that’s because they have this weird belief that it stems from empire—that whereas Scotland and Wales and particularly Ireland can be seen as victims of English oppression, we English are the oppressor. England has got blood on its hands.

This just increases the schism between the political class and ordinary working-class English people, and it increases the desire of ordinary people to display that patriotism. And not in a jingoistic way. I mean, I’m not a jingoist. I don’t believe in we should have children saluting the flag in school and singing the national anthem, I’m not particularly in favour of any of that stuff.

But English patriotism is often just a kind of quiet understated affinity for country that most people naturally feel. But it’s something the political class, particularly the left political class, just really don’t understand at all.

On the subject of culture, is there anyone or anything in popular culture—a singer, an actor, an author—that you can point to and say, that’s the sort of working-class culture I like, that’s what the Labour Party should be standing for, that’s us?

No, and I don’t think I would. I think it’s a mistake to believe that the working-class is in some way homogenous, that it’s one uniform slab, and that anyone who doesn’t fit that criteria somehow can’t be working-class.

What I say in the introduction of the book is, look, people across the working-class have different beliefs. They come from different backgrounds. Some working-class people, particularly the younger generation, are undoubtedly more liberal and cosmopolitan in their worldview. It doesn’t make them any less working-class than more traditional blue collar working-class communities who I’ve spoken about.

That reminds me of something you mentioned in Despised: that as a young Labour activist you were much more liberal, and that your views were much closer to the liberal consensus than they are today. What’s changed between the Paul Embery of 20 years ago and the Paul Embery of today?

I think the very profound experiences in Barking and Dagenham in the first decade of this century which I described earlier. I certainly began from a position of being entirely relaxed about what was happening around me, not quite understanding why anybody would express any concern about very profound economic and demographic changes in their local community. I believed, actually, that much of it probably was driven by innate racism or xenophobia or hostility to change.

I realized that it really wasn’t driven by those things; that actually, for people who are now in their 50s or 60s or 70s and rooted in the local community, concepts like family and place and tradition and community are very important. When your own horizons are reduced because you don’t have the wealth and the opportunity to travel, to have those cultural experiences that middle-class people can have, things like family and place are what’s important.

Finally, the book is dedicated, with obvious pride, to the people of Barking and Dagenham. Which people did you have in mind: the community you grew up in, or the very different, largely immigrant one that lives there now?

Interesting question. I guess when I wrote the inscription I had in mind the people who I grew up with and the people who experienced those profound social and economic convulsions in the first decade of the new century—the people who, early on, I was quite dismissive of, as was Labour as a whole. Those are the people who the book is aimed at: the people who had lived and sustained the place for many, many years, the people who were absolutely rooted in the place, but felt so neglected and let down that in the end they deserted it.

But I certainly wouldn’t want to be disrespectful to the new generation of people who are living there. It’s still very much a working-class place. I still regard the people living in places like that as working-class. I’m very happy to have a healthy, respectful debate with them, and to explain what lies behind my thinking, which is largely driven by experiences that the political establishment never had.

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