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Blue Labour: broadly good, but don’t lose the party’s identity in the process

In Ideology, Party politics on June 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

We live in an era of slippery political language. We have a coalition government which is Conservative but not conservative, very liberal but with too little Liberal input, and politicians of all colours skirmish over the mantle ‘progressive’. The latest thread of opposition thinking is a similar misnomer: Blue Labour, whose philosopher-in-chief is Lord Maurice Glasman, and whose primary figures hail from very different wings of party, from Progress’ James Purnell to Compass’ Jon Cruddas. It also, perhaps unusually for a fledgling movement, has attracted the attentions of the leader Ed Miliband. Both movement and leader have had no qualms about an unsentimental appraisal of the party’s record in office, and both have been keen to give a voice to traditionally Right-wing concerns, such as the cut in police budgets or the prevalence of benefit fraud. I would argue that Blue Labour offers a broadly positive and constructive vision for Britain, but its problem, paradoxically, is its over-willingness to jettison some of Labour’s greatest triumphs in pursuit of Right-wing populism.

Contemporary Left-wing thinkers such as David Marquand have identified two major threads in Labour’s ideological inheritance, which might be termed ‘rational’ socialism and ‘ethical’ socialism. Rational socialism is rooted in science, and linked to the intellectual Leftists and the Fabian Society of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries – socialism, in this model, is scientifically superior to capitalism. This corresponds to what Sidney Webb once called “democratic collectivism” – power is centralised with a managerial state apparatus, which administers socialism from above. This had been the dominant thread since the 1945 landslide victory, manifested primarily in the NHS, the welfare state and the nationalised industries. Furthermore, this rational socialism transcends the apparently cavernous divide between Old and New Labour. Under both, power was (bar some of Blair’s constitutional reforms) centralised and administered from Westminster. Blair and Brown might have been in thrall to the market, but their attitude to power was remarkably similar to that of Wilson and Callaghan – a technocratic liberal elite of ministers, civil servants and business leaders operates the market-state mechanism from on high, and the country is managed in pyramid formation.

The second thread, ethical socialism, has been an undercurrent for the latter part of the 20th Century. It can trace its origins back much further than the last century to iconic English radicals such as John Milton, Thomas Paine and William Morris. Rather than claiming scientific improvement on capitalism, it instead stresses its moral superiority. Whereas rational socialism at its worst treats humans as mechanically as capitalism, ethical socialism stresses the importance of human relationships, reciprocity, mutualism and community. As opposed to the top-down centralised state model of the Webbs, it grew out of grassroots civil society movements – the trade unions and cooperatives, and Christian socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist groups. Equally, its leading figures, Keir Hardie, R. H. Tawney, George Lansbury and their ilk, were not social scientists but humanitarians. This was not an ideology of a liberal elite, but of ordinary citizens taking action for the betterment of themselves and their fellows. It was Lansbury who described socialism as “love, cooperation and brotherhood in every department of human affairs”. It is this ethical socialism which the Blue Labourites are in the process of recalling from the historical abyss.

Glasman’s vision of the ‘good society’ – a direct response to the Cameron’s and Philip Blond’s ‘big society’ – seeks to re-elevate this tradition of mutualism and grassroots activism above the statist approach which has been overarching from Atlee onwards. He traces Labour’s heritage back to a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” which finds its expression in, amongst other aspects of British history, the Magna Carta, the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt and the radicalism of the 17th and 19th Century democrats such as the Levellers and the Chartists. He also looks to vindicate the role which religion has played, both historically (the alliance of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in the 1891 London Dock strike) and contemporaneously (Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign). In ideological terms, cooperation and the valuing of local culture and legacy comes before abstract egalitarianism. In policy terms, mutualised banks and public utilities come before nationalised or privatised ones.

Labour’s support base can be divided into two broad groups, both economically Left-wing but differing in other aspects. The first are the traditional working class – blue-collar C1s and C2s, typical readers of The Mirror, and socially authoritarian. The second are middle class service workers – the educated white-collar Bs and C1s, typical readers of The Guardian, and socially libertarian. The first group tends to be more homogenously white, whilst the latter is more ethnically diverse and incorporates many socially mobile immigrants. Blue Labour, as opposed to New Labour, might be seen to favour the former over the latter, drawing back electoral support from those supporting the BNP and EDL in protest. But it also has tremendous electoral potential because it reaches out beyond these groups to those in rural communities who have never voted Labour before – who saw, and still see, the party as the haven of unionised urban workers and their liberal elite leaders, with no respect for nation or tradition. This potential is if anything strengthened Cameron’s pathetic inability to form any kind of critical judgement on the free market. New Labour, with its historic majority, was ultra-liberal – Blue Labour, with its fusion of socialism and conservatism, may paradoxically be more successful. In fact, ConservativeHome’s review of Blue Labour thinking identifies it as a potentially fatal threat to an ultra-liberal government which has more in common with Ayn Rand than Enoch Powell.

This, at least to me, sounds pretty good in theory. The problems come, however, when one begins to consider the practical applications of some of this ideology. Firstly, a break from New Labour’s particular kind of liberal elitism is certainly welcome, but how conservative is Labour to become? Since 1945, Labour has been the praetorian guard of social liberals in promoting gender equality, legalising homosexuality, ending discrimination in the workplace and housing, and, more recently, ensuring the environment is a concern of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “family, faith and flag” feel of Blue Labour strays dangerously close to the territory of the American Tea Party movement, with its exceptionally reactionary approach to civil rights. If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see regressions unpalatable to many progressives, such as a very hard stance on immigration and a punitive crime policy. New Labour was notorious for triangulating policy decisions based on the stance of the Tories and tabloids: might we, under Blue Labour, see the same done for the BNP and EDL? Even Marxists are under no illusions about the need, in some respects, to educate in the working class rather than pander to bigotry. One of the defining features of socialism is that it views liberalism as necessary but not sufficient to building a good society: what happens, then, when liberalism is thrown out of the mix entirely?

Secondly, if the new vogue is localism and British historical culture, what is to become of the guiding beacon of socialism: equality? Former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley was quick to criticise Blue Labour for forsaking the party’s historic commitment to evening out the “postcode lottery” brought by arbitrary birth and market. The belief in the redistribution of wealth has been the most persistent aim of party policy, whether through Old Labour universal welfare payments or New Labour targeted tax credits. In searching for a lost British (or, in Cruddas’ case, English) identity, the Blue Labourites may lose Labour’s one.

Thirdly, where does internationalism stand in the Blue Labour vision? From social democracy to communism, a responsibility to the oppressed of other nations has been central to the concerns of the European Left throughout its history. This is a tradition which still holds strong, with, most recently, British trade unions campaigning in solidarity with the Arab Spring revolutionaries. In a globalised world, most social-democratic policy must have some kind of international dimension if it is to succeed, yet Blue Labour has yet to contribute a position on, for example, environmental degradation. In a similar vein, the Blue Labourites want their party to be much tougher on immigration. A contentious issue already, this is likely to enflame a rift within Labour between those who want “British jobs for British people”, and those who feel the UK has a duty to those from less prosperous nations looking for work or asylum. Multiculturalism has been an iron-cast commitment of Labour’s for decades now – the party being by far the most ethnically diverse of all three – and there are those who are understandably wary of a renewed national and local pride returning some of the spectres of white racism. Cameron’s vacuous “muscular liberalism” may yet be surpassed by a far more solid “muscular conservatism”.

Nevertheless, as the latest renaissance in British Left-wing thought, Blue Labour has a lot to offer. Its vindication of grassroots activism and alternatives to a managerial statist approach are its most welcome aspects, and a respect for national and local cultural identities has arguably been too long neglected by the party. But the Blue Labourites have been too quick to reject three traits which have guided Labour through opposition and government in the last century: liberalism, the commitment to equality, and internationalism. Unless it forms a less hostile response to this trinity, Blue Labour risks treading perilously near the territory of the BNP.

  1. “If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see women returned to the household, homosexuality recriminalised, and immigrants expelled from Britain in their thousands.”

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with your assessment of working class opinion here, with regard to the middle point — do you really think the average working class opinion on those two issues is that extreme?

    I’m also not entirely sure how you’re using the word liberal here. Clearly it refers to economic liberalism, but does it refer to (negative liberty) social liberalism as well? I’m not entirely sure whether I would personally describe the Coalition as “very liberal” socially, although it does seem a little more socially liberal than the previous Labour government.

    I must confess that I’d got a very different impression of Blue Labour from the articles I read in the Guardian. I had no idea Jon Cruddas was involved, and I assumed it was very much to the right of where Labour was in general at the moment, trying to outflank the Tories on traditionally Tory issues. I haven’t been following Labour politics much recently, and though I’ve had a number of emails (mostly unread) from Compass about “the Good Society”, I hadn’t realised that was connected with Blue Labour. It’ll be interesting to see where this leads.

    Enjoyable reading as always.


  2. Hi David,

    In terms of liberalism, the government is certainly very economically liberal, and in some respects very socially liberal too. True, we’ve (rightly or wrongly) lost the authoritarian liberal atttitude towards, for example, positive discrimination and human rights, but we’ve gained a more liberal stance on crime and positions on, for example, homosexuality to match that of New Labour. It becomes more complex when discussing “muscular liberalism” – does Cameron mean liberalism or conservatism? He is clearly not referring to New Labour liberal multiculturalism. Another example of slippery political language…

    I’ve been at the Compass conference today, where I heard Glasman defend social conservatism with regards to crime and immigration. He seemed to acknowledge the liberal victories in gender and sexuality rights, and I accept public opinion seems to recognise and safeguard these, even if some of the more odious tabloid columnists don’t. I’ll change what I wrote there because it’s probably a bit too sensationalist, but it’s certainly true that Miliband was unpleasantly surprised by the social conservatism shown in recent polling.

    Thanks for reading, when’s your next one coming?


    • You don’t have to edit the article, I wasn’t being critical, although of course if you want to that’s fine. Generally, it’s best to avoid too much editing post-publication if possible, and if it occurs significantly later than publication, it’s best to put a footer in explaining the change (unless it’s for stuff like SPaG errors and typos).

      How did Glasman defend social conservatism with regards to crime and immigration? Was it purely justified by public opinion and democracy, or did he also make moral arguments?

      I’m not sure yet what my next article will be on. I’ve written one in defence of David Willetts, but that story has died down again, mainly because I thought I’d look to see if anyone wanted to express an opposing opinion and left it too late to publish. Maybe if the story heats up again I’ll publish that. Something which will probably come sooner is another Question Time Column. I’ve also had thoughts about trying a multi-author response to QT, similar to the AV debate article, if there’s interest from other authors. I’d probably want 3, ideally 4 people to contribute. Let me know if you’re interested.

      • Both he and Cruddas (who spoke separately) seemed to be justifying it on the grounds of reconnecting with disenfranchised voters, and so, I suppose, that counts as public opinion. I haven’t heard any moral-centred arguments on either of those. It’s a difficult call: I think most people would agree politics has become too inert, real moral and ideological oppositions seem to have been synthesised into a centrist/liberal/technocratic/authoritarian mould which Cameron’s Conservatism, Orange Book Liberalism and New Labour all fit into. I’d certainly want to see the public taking much more of an interest in politics, and the return of oppositions and definitive ideological dissonance may well help this. But is using populism as the sole marker for this really the way forward? I’m not sure many people of any political colour are happy with the creed ‘if a lot of people want it, it must be right’.

        I’d be interested in getting involved with a debate article, if there’s a particular topic you can think of. Keep me posted.

      • The idea I have at the moment is to try and do a panel discussion of Question Time, either next week or the week after. This could either take the reform of retrospective analysis of anything interesting thrown up by the debate (if anything), or live feedback — the latter would be more tricky to regulate, but is probably do-able.

        I’m also planning some podcasts again, which you’d be welcome to participate in, and I’m thinking of trying out Stephen Wan’s initiative again, and creating “season” on a particular topic, probably for the silly season. Let me know your thoughts.

  3. […] Bartholomeusz has written on this site before about Blue Labour, which I categorised above as ‘Old Labour’. It is not quite ‘Old Labour’, […]

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