The Modern Left now sees traditional —or conservative — values on social issues as an embarrassment. Credit: Leon Neal / Getty

November 27, 2020   4 mins

Imagine you wrote a book warning of the dangers of drugs, only to find yourself labelled a ‘junkie’. Or perhaps one in which you argued the case for women’s equality and were immediately denounced as a ‘misogynist’. Then imagine that your accusers, before casting these aspersions, hadn’t even read the thing.

Well, something along those lines happened to me this week. My book, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Classanalyses the rupture between the British Left and working-class voters, and concludes that a contributory factor was the former’s increasing tendency towards authoritarianism and its habit of shutting down legitimate debate by dismissing opponents routinely as ‘fascists’, ‘xenophobes’, ‘racists’, and suchlike.

We see it all around us — this creeping despotism which seeks to engender an atmosphere in which any expression of unfashionable opinion is met with fierce condemnation. No longer, it seems, is the Left interested in winning hearts and minds or reconciling competing interests. Instead, every debate is viewed as a battle between good and evil, enlightened progressives versus reactionary bigots, tolerance against intolerance. It does leave one wondering why, if these people are so inherently right, they feel a constant need to wield pitchforks and hurl abuse at opponents rather than attempt to win them over through the power of argument.

Think kids are better off through being raised by two parents? Not terribly keen on Black Lives Matter? Support proper control of immigration? Don’t believe a man is a woman just because he says he is? Then, in the minds of many on today’s Left, you belong in the basket with all the other deplorables, and the debate should go no further. It is irrelevant that such views still hold currency across much of the land. Liberal-progressive types always know better.

But I digress. No sooner had the more fanatical among the Left got wind of Despised’s release than they were inveighing against it across social media. No matter that none of them had read so much as a single word of it yet; they apparently knew everything about it.

The Left shouldn’t touch the book with a barge pole, they warned. It was an apology for ‘fascism’, claimed some. Others portrayed it as a homage to Vichy France or a manifesto for a new style of ‘red-brown’ politics. All this because – horror of horrors – the synopsis contained a call for the Left to return to the “cultural politics of belonging, place and community”. That was enough for these people to know my secret and sinister motives in writing it.

That an entire chapter of the book is devoted to making the case for the Left to renounce its support for the soft totalitarianism we have seen emerge over recent years, and to renew its historical commitment to free expression and diversity of opinion — the very antithesis of fascism — mattered not a jot. I talk about all that ‘faith, family and flag’ stuff. So I am, by definition, a Blackshirt.

One prospective reviewer announced quite boldly that she couldn’t wait to get her hands on a copy – how kind – but as part of her preparation was swotting up on the far-right. That particular review will be a belter, I’m sure.

I’m not looking for any sympathy here. As a seasoned political activist, I’m unlikely to lose any sleep over the brickbats chucked by petulant student revolutionaries and latte-sipping bourgeois bohemians tapping furiously on their smartphones. You will not, I promise, hear of me being bullied off social media. In fact, I find the levels of hysteria mildly amusing.

But, to be serious for a moment. It is worth remarking on how extraordinary it is that a book written by someone rooted in the labour movement and making a straightforward call for the Left, as a means to winning back millions of lost working-class votes, to combine socialist economics with a much better focus on social solidarity and the politics of belonging, should provoke such fury among supposed political allies.

There was a time when Despised’s key arguments would have been considered mainstream on the Left. Not that long ago, in fact. But a Left that is these days far more concerned with personal autonomy, open borders and identity politics than it is community and class finds such views beyond the pale. And then it wonders why it experienced electoral annihilation.

This all serves to illustrate the mountain that is to be climbed if the Left is to again play any relevance in the lives of those working-class voters who no longer feel any affection for it. A schism occurred for good reason. A movement that once welcomed those who, on the one hand, wanted to see a fairer and more redistributive economy while, on the other, holding true to some traditional — dare it be said conservative — values on social issues now looks upon them as an embarrassment. It still wants their votes, of course. But it would sooner not be seen in public with them. And it thinks they really ought to keep their noxious opinions to themselves.

This modern Left inhabits a world of safe spaces, echo chambers and group-think. It doesn’t want arguments articulated or books written which challenge the new orthodoxy. And those who transgress – especially if they do so from within the movement – must be silenced or hounded.

It is a mindset that leads to the Kafkaesque situation where someone who rails against the new censorship and defends with every fibre the principles of democratic debate and pluralism can be demonised in all apparent sincerity as a ‘fascist’. It is unthinking, unreasoning twaddle.

Ultimately, there is no alternative to confronting and defeating these people. We need a united front across mainstream politics — and indeed wider society — to resist those who would see it as their mission to stifle open discussion and dissent as a means to securing ideological hegemony across our public life. They have enjoyed success so far only because they have too frequently been indulged. The only serious option now is to take them on.

Paul Embery’s book, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is published by Polity

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker