I warned her until I was blue in the face. I have tried to convince my colleagues on the left that we are on the verge of collapse at Labor Party meetings, at union meetings and in the media. The schism between us and millions of working class voters was widening, and if we didn't take drastic measures, Labor would be destroyed in the elections.
Yet every time I raised the alarm, I was accused of being some kind of "reactionary" with a nostalgic view of the working class. Fellow activists told me my Labor Party was dead and gone. It was now a modern party with mass membership. Jeremy Corbyn, the glorious leader, played to crowded houses everywhere.
And then came December 12, 2019 – Labor's worst election result since 1935. Supporters of the party's lifelong work in the heartland of the working class voted by the thousands for a Conservative party led by an old Etonian.
So-called "Red Wall" seats – Great Grimsby, Blyth Valley, Bassetlaw, Wrexham, Bolsover, Don Valley – fell like dominoes. Not that Labour's annihilation came as a surprise. No special inspectors were required.
So-called "Red Wall" seats – Great Grimsby, Blyth Valley, Bassetlaw, Wrexham, Bolsover, Don Valley – fell like dominoes. Pictured: Pro-Brexit supporters protest in front of the Supreme Court
Today Labor is a bourgeois party with a militantly cosmopolitan view of the world.
It denies its roots and is a movement aimed almost exclusively at managerial and professional classes, graduates, social activists, and urban liberals. And many within the party have begun to view old-fashioned values with contempt.
In the modern left there is no place for the little C-conservatism of the traditional working class with their love for community and nation and their desire for social solidarity and belonging. Instead, this brilliant, progressive, civic work raises things like personal autonomy, open borders, and identity politics above all this "faith, family and flag" nonsense.
There has always been a tradeoff between the worlds of Hartlepool and Hampstead, but today it's almost all Hampstead and not Hartlepool. For some time, Labor has been on its way to the imaginary sunlit highlands of cosmopolitan liberalism and global market forces. Now it's in a swamp, flirting with irrelevance.
I was not interested in seeing the collapse of the British left. On the contrary, I wanted it to succeed. I still do.
I joined a union when I was 16 when I got a job stacking shelves in a supermarket on Saturday. I joined the Labor Party at 19 and became an activist in the firefighters union, when I began my career as a professional firefighter at 22 and then served as a full-time officer in the union's national executive.
Lifelong laborers in the heartland of the party's working class voted by the thousands for a Conservative party led by an old Etonian
My father was the shop steward for the old transport and general labor union in his factory depot, and my mother was the GMB secretary. I knew which side I was on early on. I learned about the history of the labor movement and its proud role in promoting the interests of ordinary workers. And I wanted to be part of it.
But the historical thread that linked the movement to the working class was already beginning to be eroded.
I witnessed the struggle between Labor and the working class in the early years of this century. In my home district of Barking and Dagenham in east London, where I was born and raised – a proud, stable working community concentrated on a sprawling 1930s estate – the effects of globalization and liberal immigration policies have been profound.
Today Labor is almost only Hampstead … and not Hartlepool
Dagenham's world-famous Ford engine plant had become a shell of its former self as production was shipped overseas and the area was changing at breakneck speed.
Between 2001 and 2011, the region's foreign-born population grew 205 percent – by far the highest increase of any London borough. I have no criticism of them as individuals, but their arrival in such large numbers not only put significant pressure on local services but also undermined the continuity and cultural familiarity upon which stable working class communities are built.
When the social cohesion of the district began to fall apart, the residents asked for quiet. The locals were disoriented and confused.
But whenever they called for better control over immigration, they were patronized with lectures on how their new environment would bring cultural enrichment and an improved gross domestic product.
I joined a union when I was 16 when I got a job stacking shelves in a supermarket on Saturday
Worse still, they were often dismissed by a political class – including Labor politicians and activists – as "bigots" and "nativists" who knew nothing about their lives and did not bother to learn.
This stance led thousands to vote for the British National Party (BNP) in the 2006 local council elections, and brought that party to its best ever performance in local government. A Labor heartland had turned all the way to the right and I was watching it happen.
It was a vote that was driven by alienation. The people of Barking and Dagenham were not against immigration, but they were certainly against the kind of mass and uncontrolled immigration that had changed their neighborhoods – and their lives – so quickly.
Places like Barking and Dagenham are frequented by liberal elites
When the BNP finally failed too, many decided to just pull up their sticks and leave.
In 2001-11 there was a mass exodus from Barking and Dagenham, with 40,000 residents moving to new pastures. Many of my friends and neighbors were among them.
A working class community once at ease had in a few years become a poisonous political battlefield.
In 2014, Barking hosted the BBC1's Question Time political discussion program.
One woman in the audience, Pam Dumbleton, asked, "Isn't it time the government listened to people about the impact immigration is having on transforming our communities?" The government has to come and go through our city and see how we live now. "
I witnessed the struggle between Labor and the working class in the early years of this century
Another audience, a middle-aged man, agreed: "Listen to the indigenous people here, the people who have been here all their lives," he pleaded. He continued to criticize what he believed to be disproportionate government support for newcomers. At that point he was loudly reprimanded.
The audience, still desperate, said he was homeless and considered it unfair that, as a local man, he was neglected by the government for the benefit of others. He said he had unsuccessfully applied for a hundred jobs.
But Times panelist and columnist David Aaronovitch – a loyal foot soldier in the Liberal elite army, if there ever was one – accused him of "blaming the wrong people."
"Why isn't a street yours because some of the faces in it are black?" Aaronovitch said, illustrating that he had totally missed the point. Nobody mentioned black faces.
Seconds later, the man in the audience gave up.
He put on his coat and walked off the set – an example in the microcosm of how people in places like Barking and Dagenham are patronized by the liberal and cultural elites.
I knew what I was seeing was an indication of things to come. And I said it so frankly – not a very popular thing to do if you are an active member of the labor movement and hold a senior position in a union.
I realized that a divorce was imminent if my colleagues across the movement did not begin to acknowledge workers' legitimate fears
When I dared to criticize labor leaders for their attempts to reverse the result of the referendum at a pro-Brexit rally on Friday evening – in my spare time – I was fired from my position with the union.
I realized that my colleagues across the movement did not recognize the legitimate fears of workers and no longer treated them as if they were some kind of embarrassing elderly relative – in some cases they actively despised them and dismissed them as petty racists for divorce was in sight. And so it has proven itself.
In the 1997 general election, 59 percent of the Labor vote came from the C2DEs (the working class) and 41 percent from the ABC1s (the middle class). In 2010 Labor won more votes from the ABC1 than from the C2DEs for the first time.
When I dared criticize the leaders, I was fired from my union
The workers had left the working class and now the working class returned the favor. The 2019 election marked the low point in the relationship. The Tories secured 48 percent of the C2DE's votes compared to Labor's 33 percent.
When I speak to voters in Barking and Dagenham and other working class communities, they want the conversation to be about their own fears and concerns.
They prioritize things like family, law and order, immigration, and national security – the kind of issues that, when brought up on the doorstep, cause Labor activists to look at the ground and shuffle their shoes.
These activists tend to be much happier obsessed with LGBT rights, Palestine, climate change, and gender identity – issues that, while not unimportant, do not rank first in the minds of pressured working class voters suffering from everyday stress stand.
And while it is true that Labor under Corbyn spoke more about the need to tackle wealth and income inequality – a welcome move – the Corbynistas failed to see that promises of economic security are not enough. Traditional voters also want cultural security.
And while it is true that Labor under Corbyn spoke more about the need to tackle wealth and income inequality – a welcome move – the Corbynistas failed to see that promises of economic security are not enough. Traditional voters also want cultural security
Work has to change before it can even think about gaining power. And in particular, its members must stop hating large sections of the country's working class.
Labor heartland voters are not calling for miracles. But they want a chance at decent work and decent wages. So that your children can get one foot on the ladder. So that the streets are safe.
They may have socially conservative views and are likely to refuse to be considered museum pieces in their own country. And when they speak through the ballot box, as they did with Brexit, they expect their wishes to be implemented. You want to live in a nation that is characterized by stable families and communities and of which all citizens are proud to be a part of it. It's not that complicated.
There was a time when these churches found it very convenient to vote for Labor. And the party was proud to have its support.
Because Labor was a patriotic, communitarian party that understood the importance of tradition and place in our society – a party that, in Harold Wilson's words, “owed more to Methodism than to Marx”.
But then it went and made a catastrophic mistake and forgot the politics of belonging. It paid the price in millions of lost votes.
For Labor there is no way back to power that does not go through the lost heartland of the working class. I hope, as someone who has been rooted in the movement for more than a quarter of a century, that it is not too late. But I'm afraid it could be.
And if it turns out that way, the damage would have been entirely self-inflicted.
Despised: Why the Modern Left Abhors the Working Class, by Paul Embery, will be published by Polity on November 27th at a price of £ 15.99 (Kindle £ 12.79).
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