It was the 2001 general election. I had been selected as the Tory candidate for Harlow 18 months earlier, and Tony Blair was coming to town. I parked my battle van in a disabled bay in the town centre, my blue badge fully on display, to make it much harder for the Blair battle bus to park up.
However, upon seeing the response to Blair and Alastair Campbell as they walked into a business centre, my small gesture of defiance seemed unimportant. My Labour opponent held a majority of nearly 11,000 and Blair’s Labour Party appeared impregnable.
Roll forward to the 2019 election, and the Harlow Conservatives, who gained the seat from Labour in 2010, had won again with a majority of more than 14,000 and 64 per cent of the vote. Moreover, in May 2021, for only the second time in the town’s history, the Tories took control of the council.
What had happened over two decades that transformed Labour from an election-winning powerhouse into a party all but deserted by blue-collar voters from Harlow to Huddersfield? As the MP for Harlow, I’d like to think my successive victories are partly down to my campaigning and hard work for the constituency. But as David Skelton’s book makes clear, the reasons go much deeper than the efforts of an individual. He argues that Labour’s move from Blairite moderation to Corbynism did not just take the party ever further to the left, but allowed its attitude towards working people to be perceived as inverted snobbery.
This move, Skelton writes, led to the party’s desertion of the working class and the rise of identity politics, here disparagingly termed “metro-politics”. To many voters, Labour had forgotten the fundamental rule that what people care about most are the cost of living, housing and access to decent public services.
The New Snobbery takes readers through the key societal, educational and economic elements of metro-politics. Whether it was Emily Thornberry’s 2014 Rochester tweet – a picture of a house flying St George’s flags and a white van parked outside – the “gammon” label attached to middle-aged men, or the cult of “woke”, these served to alienate working people further.
Skelton also draws attention to the Remain campaign as a classic example of this new snobbery. Remainers would constantly appear on television alongside an alphabet spaghetti of acronym organisations, such as the OECD or IMF, predicting the end of the world as we knew it if people voted to leave the EU. In reality, many people knew little about these organisations and had low trust in “predictions”. Life was tough enough already, and disillusionment grew in the years after the Brexit referendum as people felt politicians were doing everything to frustrate their vote.
Where Skelton misses a trick is in failing to see environmentalist activism as part of this new snobbery. While of course we must cherish and conserve our natural environment and tackle climate change, this activism can feel like rich elites telling working people what cars to drive and what heating pumps to use. In short, there is a danger that environmental measures are being loaded on the backs of working people without appreciating the impact this will have on the cost of living for those just about managing.
Ironically, I think this book is more of a warning to the Tories than a description of where the left went wrong. Reflecting on the failures of modern capitalism, Skelton argues that people don’t want a libertarian free-for-all when basic living standards are unobtainable, taxes continue to rise and it is difficult to access decent public services. Moreover, executive pay continues to race ahead despite no link to actual performance: the average FTSE 100 chief executive is paid 119 times as much as the average UK worker. If the Tories don’t deal with this inequality, then I believe Skelton’s next book will be about Conservative decline.
Although Skelton does offer solutions to solve this particular problem, some of them come over as technocratic (he suggests, for example, placing workers on company boards). Really, the way to empower working people is to cut taxes, lower utility bills and provide affordable housing and quality public services.
Perhaps, if there is to be a sequel, Skelton could focus more on policy solutions. Nevertheless, I hope readers from across the political spectrum pick up this book. It has lessons for us all.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow
The New Snobbery
Biteback, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance