Paul Embery’s Twitter bio is ‘Firefighter. Trade unionist. Democratic socialist. Pro-Brexit. Blue Labour. Made in Barking.’
Laura Perrins: Define Blue Labour for me.
Paul Embery: At its core, it’s about relationships. Relationships with family, community and institutions. It understands the importance of place, vocation and the human need to belong. It rejects the commodification of humanity, and the dominance of the market (as well as an overbearing state) over our lives. It respects the contribution of Christian socialism and trade unionism to the history of the labour movement, and draws heavily on catholic social teaching. It argues for a socialism and solidarity that are entirely compatible with traditional values of social conservatism and patriotism which still exist among large sections of the working class. It’s socialism with a small ‘c’, if you get my meaning.
LP: Why do you think Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of politics was so successful in the last election (although not popular enough to take him into Number 10)?
PE: Because the Tory campaign was so dreadful. Because Corbyn had a good personal campaign. Because some people not naturally inclined towards Labour didn’t think he could possibly win, so they treated it like a by-election in which they could safely register a protest vote. Because growing numbers of people are hacked off with austerity and recognise that Corbyn was right to say it is a political choice not an economic necessity. All of those things. But, for all Labour’s triumphalism, it didn’t win and is still in opposition. We mustn’t forget that. Neither must we forget that the election data reveals some disturbing truths for Labour. There was a swing to the Tories in many traditional Labour constituencies; we lost places such as Mansfield and Walsall North; the C2s went Tory. Some of us have been shouting about this growing disconnect between the party and its traditional base for years. It is worsening.
LP: You are firmly of the view that Free Movement of people has driven down wages. Do you have any proof for this? Is it not the case that EU workers are doing jobs that others will not?
PE: Free Movement has been a disaster. Evidence from a number of reports shows that it has exerted downward pressure on wages, particularly at the lower end. Tellingly, we are now seeing wages in some sectors start to rise directly as a consequence of labour shortages following the EU referendum. Free movement commodifies workers in the interests of big business, atomises communities, and has created social tensions and aided the rise of the far-Right across Europe. The silence of labour and trade union movement leaders about the negative impact of free movement on the people they are supposed to represent borders on the criminal. They put their own ideological purity before the interests of the working class. Most people (I’m one of them) support immigration, but simply want it to be managed sensibly. The Left has totally failed to understand that rapid and large-scale movements of labour can cause the same kind of social and economic disruption in local communities as rapid and large-scale movements of capital. The swift and deep social and cultural changes that are the consequence of vast international movements of people can violate even the most tolerant person’s sense of place and order. I saw this up close when I witnessed the BNP win 12 seats in my home borough of Barking and Dagenham in 2006. It was the response of local people to having been ignored by a tin-eared political class for years. But what was genuine bewilderment and disorientation at the pace of change was dismissed as racism and xenophobia. Too many on the Left are content to resort to trite sloganeering around the issue of immigration, instead of having an honest and forensic debate about it.
LP: Do you really think Brexit will benefit lower-income families?
PE: I don’t know. Nobody can be sure. What I do know is that Brexit at least clears the path for a Labour government to implement the kind of programme that any socialist should want to see. In that respect, I see it as a necessary but not sufficient step. So few people on the Left seem to have any comprehension of the restrictions imposed on us by the EU when it comes to things like public ownership, investment and state aid. There is an argument that Labour’s 2017 manifesto could not have even been implemented while we were inside the EU. Once upon a time the Labour movement was full of big hitters – such as Tony Benn, Peter Shore, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Bob Crow – who were fiercely anti-EU. They knew it was an anti-democratic neoliberal institution. The dramatic shift in Labour movement thinking on this issue over recent years has been one of the talking points of politics. Ultimately, Brexit was the working class’s way of hitting back at a political establishment that had treated them with contempt for so long. We should embrace it.
LP: What is your opinion on globalisation? My feelings are that it has made goods much cheaper – especially for working-class families. However, it has also come with the cost of destroying many working-class jobs. I also think on balance, people would prefer jobs with less cheap stuff, than the other way around.
PE: Globalisation is essentially the dominance of international capital over the nation state and its citizens. It isn’t internationalism: the two are quite different. Globalisation allows vast amounts of capital to move freely across the globe at the press of a button, with all that entails for the stability of economies and communities. When huge global corporations can exert so much influence over elected governments, it places democracy at real risk. It strips us of our political power as well as economic power. Companies are free to close operations in one country and open them in another just to save on labour costs, or – thanks to Free Movement laws – simply import that cheaper labour from lower-wage economies. Any benefit from cheaper goods must be balanced against all of that. In 2005, Tony Blair told the Labour conference: ‘I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer . . . The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.’ He may as well have said: ‘There is no such thing as society, only money and trade.’ Of course we don’t want to be a fortress nation, but neither should we be slaves to the multinationals and financiers. We need to be careful about writing off the nation state. To this day, there is no example of a successful model larger than the nation state in which citizens feel a sense of belonging, generosity and some democratic control over their leaders. We undermine it at our peril.
LP: Should we be celebrating the fact that the NHS relies on so many foreign workers? Is it ethical to poach nurses and doctors trained in other poorer countries? Do we have evidence that these countries can spare them, or not?
PE: NHS workers do a brilliant job, often under extreme pressure. We should recognise their efforts, regardless of where they came from. But I’ve always been a bit baffled by the eagerness of some of my colleagues on the Left to trumpet the fact that so many of our NHS workers come from abroad. These workers often come from the poorest countries, where good, universal healthcare is a pipe dream. Should we, as a richer nation, be congratulating ourselves over the fact that we have stripped these poorer nations of some of their best and most essential workers, to the serious detriment of their own citizens? I think it shows a strange sense of priorities.
LP: I think the collapse of marriage among the working class has been disastrous, especially for working-class boys. Do you agree?
PE: The collapse of family life generally has had massive consequences. It is in the family unit that humans first learn about rules, love, respect and compassion. It teaches loyalty and obligation in a way that transcends politics and economics. Chip away at that, and you undermine the very bedrock of society. An overbearing, impersonal state is no substitute for the family. I get sick of colleagues on the Left who dismiss the family as oppressive and outdated. In fact, it lies at the heart of all civilised societies.
LP: The Labour party used to represent people who labour. Now they seem to represent an odd alignment of identity-politics fanatics and hard-core socialists. Is this wrong?
PE: Not entirely. Certainly there is an obsession with identity politics. It’s an obsession that doesn’t speak to the priorities of ordinary voters. While the working class are worrying about the threat to their jobs, wages, community and security, Labour is talking about gender fluidity. The truth is, Labour has, over the last 30 years, increasingly become a bourgeois, middle-class, metropolitan, liberal party, now with a strong student element. Its politics of liberal cosmopolitanism place it wildly at odds with the kind of people it was set up to represent. There’s a tremendous degree of group-think on the Left. I find it very disturbing. They think Left-wing politics began in 1968 (or even with Corbyn’s election as leader) and have no understanding of the history of the earlier years of the labour movement and what it stood for. Millions of voters in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands – people who often still hold true to those old-fashioned ‘faith, family and flag’ principles – no longer see the party as their natural home. And in return the party treats them like some kind of embarrassing elderly relative. These voters have deserted the party in their millions over recent years, and, as the 2017 election showed, are in no hurry to come back. Labour no longer understands the human instinct to belong. It no longer understands the language of family and place – the things that matter more than anything else to its natural vote. There is far more that unites Corbynites and Blairites than either camp would care to admit. They are both globalist, middle-class and liberal in outlook, with nothing between them on social policy. Working-class influence throughout the party has been hollowed out. This rupture is a tragedy for the party and the country.
LP: Do you think the Conservative party could ever represent the interests of the working class?
PE: No. Theresa May made a stab at it in her early days as prime minister. She spoke of resisting untrammelled free markets, and attacked the globalist agenda and the concept of being ‘citizens of nowhere’. Very Blue Labour language. But the policy did not match the rhetoric, ultimately I think because it isn’t in the party’s DNA. When it comes to the crunch, they will always put the demands of the market first, because they believe in market solutions for almost everything. That will inevitably put them at odds with organised labour. The Tory party will never – could never – be the party of the working class.