Towards the end of the 1980s, I presented a paper to a Labour party students’ organisation called Clause 4, a soft-left grouping. It was not a triumph. Handwritten on both sides of several sheets of foolscap, the paper was very theoretical, drawing from the post-Marxist thinking of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. I lost my place halfway through and excruciating minutes passed. There was a heavy, ominous silence when I finished. Then someone said: “This is not what I joined Clause 4 for.” That turned out to be the most generous response I would get.
Though haplessly delivered, the paper was nevertheless a very minor sign of the times. As Labour came to terms with three successive defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, I argued that the late-80s left should spend less of its time narrowly focused on class, and more on the emancipatory potential of feminism, gay rights and other social movements.
On the left there was a dawning awareness that accelerated de-industrialisation and what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall was the first to call “Thatcherism” had moved the goalposts of British politics. The diminishing power of the unions in a shrinking manufacturing sector, and the careful cultivation of a new individualism by the right, were making the old politics of class solidarity seem old-fashioned and electorally unappealing. In an effort to find a foothold, Labour would move towards a liberal and aspirational politics of equal opportunities and the rights of minorities. The assumption was that its traditional base would follow, having nowhere else to go.
Thirty years on, it’s the turn of that perspective to look dated. In the wake of Brexit, Trump and a 48% C2DE vote for the Conservatives at the last election (compared to 33% for Labour), class is back at the forefront of political debate. Centre-left parties in the west, predominantly professional and middle class these days, have been turned on by a large part of the blue-collar base they were founded to serve.
As authors such as Michael Sandel, Robert Putnam and Michael Lind have all, in different ways, suggested, something neglected during the past three decades has angrily resurfaced, demanding attention: it has to do with a sense of communal identity and associated values that working-class communities were characterised by in the postwar period, and which social democratic parties were seen to represent. It is a commonplace view that Labour’s route to power in future elections lies in reconnecting with this ethos. But does the modern liberal left really want anything more to do with that lost world?
The chastening experience from the Clause 4 meeting in my youth came back to me last week, on reading a new book by Paul Embery, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class. Embery, a former trade unionist and Labour member, would probably see my ill-fated paper as an early example of exactly what he is talking about.
Despised constitutes the latest salvo in a fraught standoff between liberalism and a communitarian tradition that has been undervalued and, at times, distrusted. It is a polemical text intended to provoke, and some of the language is tediously glib. As Embery makes the case that the modern left has misunderstood working-class communities such as Barking and Dagenham, where he grew up in the 1990s, he indulges in crude caricature. Today’s Labour party is presented as a citadel of “wokedom”, dominated by “middle-class, Guardian-reading bohemians and pseudo-intellectuals … pursuing an uber-liberal, youth-obsessed, London-centric agenda.” This is a way to end, not begin, discussion. But a dialogue of some kind is truly needed, for the good of Labour’s divided soul.
The book’s account of working-class disillusionment in Barking and Dagenham is a tale of economic, social and demographic upheaval. In 2000, Ford, for 70 years the major employer, announced plans to stop car production at its Dagenham plant, symbolising a loss of secure, high-status blue-collar work. In the subsequent decade, the area saw by far the sharpest rise in immigration of any London borough. Much of that was a result of the expansion of freedom of movement to the new EU member states in the east.
This combination, Embery writes, plunged a previously stable and cohesive community, which thrived on close ties, tacit mutual obligations and shared values, into crisis. A rooted and parochial world, conservative in the sense that it valued continuity and the familiar, had generated a sense of security, conviviality and belonging. Now it was gone and the loss was deeply felt. One symptom of the malaise was the brief rise of the BNP in the mid 2000s, making headway with a nakedly racist politics of hostility to outsiders.
The account of “community” in Despised is much too romantic. Its flaws are exposed in Embery’s discussion of the 1960s, which he excoriates as inaugurating an age of “self-gratification, individualism and contempt for tradition”. Other than a passing reference to Vietnam protests, the book ignores the social and political turmoil of that period. Yet the civil rights movement in the US and the rise of feminism had exposed the stultifying structures of domination and prejudice at the heart of postwar society. Ethnic minorities, women and LGBT+ people were obliged to protest and struggle to earn the right to fully “belong”. This was the dark side of community.
But it is not necessary to share Embery’s loathing of the 60s to accept that he raises issues that the contemporary left has been slow to recognise and too quick to dismiss. Warily, the liberal left tends to stick to economic solutions for a disconnect that is also cultural. But throughout the history of capitalism, British working-class resistance to its disruptions and demands has often taken the form of a conservative defence of threatened community. A politics that values stability, locality, honour, loyalty and patriotism, as much as individual freedoms, has an honourable history on the British left.
The past – “Old England” – has often been invoked as a corrective to a flawed present in which collective values have been betrayed. The ethical socialist William Morris critiqued the destabilising excesses of the profit-seeking capitalism of his age by evoking the middle ages as a lost age of grace and social harmony. Something of this utopian nostalgia for community was also at work in the working-class leave vote in 2016, in its antipathy towards globalisation’s indifference to place.
If Labour wishes to reconnect with its lost voters outside the progressive, liberal cities, these instincts and preoccupations must be given more respect and space to express themselves. Equal rights and equal access to individual fulfilment are fundamental to any contemporary notion of the common good. But belonging, a sense of mutual dependency and the idea that individuals find meaning in something bigger than themselves contribute to it too.
The diminished prestige of these kind of values is not the only explanation of the upheavals of recent years. But it tells an important part of the story. In beginning a new conversation with the voters it has lost, the left needs to take its own conservative traditions more seriously.
• Julian Coman is a Guardian associate editor