‘Wokeness is no substitute for political campaigning’
Paul Embery on the sad growth of social-justice activism.
2020 has been the most woke year on record. Despite the distraction of a major global pandemic, identitarian activists have ramped up their censorious and illiberal campaigns, and the culture war has escalated to new heights. From Black Lives Matter to the transgender movement, the cult of social justice is rapidly establishing itself as the new political normal. And, despite widespread frustration among the general public, neither Labour nor the Conservatives seem willing to challenge it.
Paul Embery is a trade unionist, writer and author of Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class. He joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
Brendan O’Neill: In your book, you talk about ‘the religion of liberal wokedom’. Could you describe for our listeners how you understand it, and what it means to you?
Paul Embery: Wokeness is about people who are very pretentious in regard to certain social causes. But that is also coupled with a real, deep intolerance towards people who disagree. I think it is about people trying to signal their virtue by expressing fashionable moral or political opinions, or denouncing someone for expressing unfashionable ones. They often do this by spreading a hashtag or wearing a bracelet – the kind of stuff I refer to in my book as woke slacktivism. In my experience, many of these people have no real interest or involvement in grassroots political organising or campaigning. They think campaigning can be done simply sitting behind the keyboard and sharing a meme. That is not a substitute for the hard yards of political campaigning.
I have time for people like Marcus Rashford, who has taken what he considers to be an injustice, and lobbied, spoken to politicians and raised interest in it. But I have very little time for people who sit on their iPhones and just tap furiously in an attempt to gain some social kudos by being seen to be woke. That does not impress me at all.
O’Neill: Do you think this represents a broader shift, from a left that was concerned with tangible problems like the economy, jobs, housing, and people’s living conditions, towards a left obsessed with less tangible issues like cultural attitudes, what people say about trans people, and whether they speak the right political language? In your book, you talk about how a lot of the rot of contemporary left politics set in from the 1960s onwards, when there was a shift towards a new left. That left, as it has developed, has tended to leave working-class people behind because they do not share its outlook in terms of the religion of liberal wokedom and the rise of woke slacktivism.
Embery: Yes, and I think the two go hand in hand. That shift has occurred because the left itself has fundamentally changed. The Labour Party today is far more middle class, urban based, liberal and cosmopolitan than ever before. Because of that, it has adopted a different agenda to the traditional one, which mattered to working people. I am not saying it does not discuss those things, like housing and wages – it does. But it also spends an obsessive amount of time discussing issues that, for the vast majority of working-class people, are not particularly important.
Ordinary working people, when you speak to them on the doorstep, are worried about jobs, wages, their families, and issues like immigration and law and order. They want to talk about the things that actually impact on them day to day. And they would want a Labour Party that claims to speak for them to put those issues front and centre. But the amount of time Labour activists spend on things like LGBT rights, gender identity and climate change is in inverse proportion to the amount of time people in working-class communities spend on them. Until there is a major recalibration in language and emphasis on the left, Labour has no chance of winning again.
O’Neill: Anyone who says that sections of the left have a disproportionate focus on issues which most people consider to be fairly minor runs the risk of being told they think all working-class people are homophobic or do not care about gay rights. I do not think that at all. I think the opposite, in fact. I think there is a huge amount of tolerance in working-class communities and the rest of the country for gay relationships, for trans people, for all those forms of living. In a way, these issues have become not simply things the left can obsess about, but almost useful tools for pushing back against and correcting the supposed wrongthink of vast swathes of the country. These issues have become means through which, quite opportunistically, sections of the left are almost chipping away at some of the things you write about in the book – the traditional convictions and beliefs of a majority of people in the country.
Embery: The big problem for the left is that it is all very well trying to foist this new way of thinking on people, but if you have not actually won hearts and minds, it becomes meaningless. As we have seen in Britain, and to a certain degree in America, that kind of wokeness does not penetrate the ballot box. People hit back at the establishment over Brexit, and in America the Rust Belt elected Trump in 2016.
I believe what you said – the vast majority of people in this country are tolerant. We have made huge progress on things like gay rights, for example. Abuse still happens, of course, but we have eradicated so much of that kind of stuff. But the idea that people who still hold some traditional, dare we say socially conservative, views should not be allowed to express them or should be denounced if they do is the very opposite of tolerance.
Maurice Glasman says there is none so intolerant as those who preach tolerance, and none so exclusionary as those who promote inclusiveness. I think that is very true. I see it all the time on the left. You argue particular opinions and people’s chins hit the floor, because they cannot believe someone on the left is arguing such a thing.
O’Neill: You mentioned wokeness not doing well at the ballot box. I think the most remarkable event of this year and possibly of the past four or five years was Donald Trump getting 74million votes in the presidential election in November. It tells us there are tens of millions of people who are still incredibly dissatisfied with the status quo ante, with establishment politics, with technocracy. And of course, we saw a similar thing here when the Red Wall revolted against Labour and voted for Boris last year. But even though wokeness does not do well at the ballot box, we always seem to end up with it anyway. It strikes me that the people who voted for Boris in December 2019 were not particularly woke. And yet, we have an administration which seems to be going down the woke route. It was very cowardly in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests in terms of defending statues, for example. How would you explain this disconnect, not simply between the left and working-class voters, but between the broader establishment and working-class voters?
Embery: There is an awful lot of personal cowardice around at the top of politics. Politicians are frightened to be the first to say we need to push back against this nonsense. When you speak to politicians and others in senior positions, often they will say this stuff is mad, but what they say privately is often different to what they say publicly. We cannot put faith in politicians to address this. We need a united front across wider society.
There was the recent example of Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, who made a simple slip in a meeting with politicians, and had to resign. Ironically, he was talking about the need to overcome discrimination in football and said something that nowadays is deemed to be offensive. He clearly did not mean any offence by it. In a sensible society, he would have earned at most a mild rebuke. But it is not a sensible society anymore. If you are in a position of authority, even the merest slip means people want your head on a platter and your reputation is destroyed.
Senior politicians are simply not brave enough to do the job for us on this. Like many things in life, it is going to fall to other people to do it.
Paul Embery was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:
Paul Embery’s book, Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, is published by Polity. Buy it here.
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