There are few things more fashionable in the media at present than celebrating beleaguered and put upon 'white working class men'. Pundits who once despised barrel-chested toilers have, of late, had a seemingly Damascene conversion to proletarian agitation.

To not put too fine a point on it, there has been an upsurge in this particular strand of prolier-than-thou sentiment because of disgruntlement with socially mobile women and ethnic minorities. When the white working class go out on strike or demand higher wages, you can be sure that the people suddenly taking an interest in their cause will start damning them again as 'Luddites'.

As with many things, however, there is a grain of truth underneath all the verbiage and posturing. Class has dropped out of most political discourse, and therefore white working-class men sit fairly low down on the totem of left-wing identity politics because of their whiteness and maleness. For many activists, rallying against 'white men' has become a stock in trade; the bloke who used to work down the pit has gone from salt of the earth to scum of the earth.

Yet class-blind activism does not take away from the sheer phoniness of the 'anti-elitist' right's new found affection for the working class – or at least the white section of it. Enter Ukip and their newly-elected leader Paul Nuttall.

Nuttall, a former history lecturer with a Northern accent, has already positioned himself as a champion of this beleaguered group. On receiving 62.6% of the vote from the Ukip membership, he immediately declared war on the 'North Islington set', promising to "move into the areas the Labour Party has neglected".

With Ukip now fronted by someone who speaks in the unvarnished tones of north-west England, many are heralding Nuttall's victory as Labour's death knell. The latter is, after all, led by a bearded caricature of the so-called 'Islington set' which Nuttall is rallying against – a man who always recalls George Orwell's tirade against fruit-juice drinking, pacifist, sandal-wearing cranks.

And while the Labour Party obituaries are probably premature, Nuttall does spell trouble for the party. As is now widely recognised, a gap – in reality more of a gaping chasm – has opened up between Labour's socially liberal wing and its working class vote. The gap has been growing wider for some time, but has really put the wind up Labour MPs since the EU referendum, where seven in 10 Labour constituencies voted Leave. A party with an activist vanguard which favours immigration, Europe and globalisation is trying to win the votes of Eurosceptics who want fewer immigrants. This was always going to be a challenge.

A gap – in reality more of a gaping chasm – has opened up between Labour's socially liberal wing and its working class vote

As to how Labour might respond, a good deal of it revolves around work and the contemporary economy. Mr Nuttall seems to recognise this, for he has said already that Ukip will "ensure that British people are put to the top of the queue in the job market". Yet this is pure conspiracy-mongering. I have spent the past six months working undercover in low-end jobs and my Britishness was never a bar to getting in. This sort of unacknowledged discrimination may well go on in some unscrupulous corners of the agricultural sector, but for the most part it is about as unsubstantiated as stories about Muslims wanting to ban Christmas.

Paul Nuttall
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) interim leader Nigel Farage celebrates with newly elected leader Paul Nuttall in LondonToby Melville/ Reuters

Yet part of the reason Mr Nuttall finds himself with such opportunity is because understanding the effect that immigration has on the contemporary workplace has become synonymous for many on the left with wanting to bolt the door tightly closed. Migration is good for Britain, both economically and culturally. Yet it throws up fresh challenges. Simply shutting down criticism with the latest stats on how migration doesn't undercut wages by all that much is not, on its own, going to win many arguments.

For Labour to avoid being squeezed out of those areas where voters are flirting with Ukip, it will have to recognise that high levels of migration are changing the dynamics of work. I recently interviewed a young man from Blackpool who for a year and a half had tirelessly worked to unionise the warehouse of a major employer. He got there eventually, but getting the Eastern Europeans to sign up to the union was near enough impossible. "We were all scared of losing our jobs," he told me, "now you imagine what that's like when you're in a foreign country as well".

I have spent the past six months working undercover in low-end jobs and my Britishness was never a bar to getting in

Similarly, I spoke to domiciliary care workers who were sinisterly warned by their employer that if they ever complained about the conditions of the job there were plenty of pliant eastern European applicants who would take their place. I was also told of instances of foreign workers administering the incorrect medicine dosages to clients because they were unable to read the English instructions on the medicine boxes. These were not isolated cases: I heard similarly grim and frustrating stories almost everywhere I went.

The answer to frustration of this sort is not Paul Nuttall and his fraudulent anti-elitism. Nor is it the cry of 'British jobs for British workers'. For Ukip, the working class is merely a useful rhetorical tool to bash people they like even less.

But the left does need to get out more. It needs more journalism and fewer columns; more conversations and fewer lectures. As the great popular sociologists of the previous century recognised, lifting the curtain on working class life does not mean endorsing everything you find behind it. But forging a democratic left fit for a twenty-first century voter does mean getting a handle on what really goes on in the warehouses, call centres and supermarkets which dot the land.

If instead the left chooses to stay in its ideological comfort zone of statistical bulletins and think-tank papers – as opposed to two-way conversations with flesh and blood human beings - then Ukip may well have just anointed the man who will dig Labour's grave.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.