By Matthew Barrett
Blue Labour – the new thing in left-wing politics – is interesting. It combines left and right-wing values, it criticises the record of Labour governments – most especially the last – it emphasises values the left publicly abandoned some time ago, and it poses a threat to both Labour and Conservatives.
Blue Labour is about the Left rediscovering "fraternity": For some months, Conservative politicians mocked Labour as having no response to the Big Society. Blue Labour could be seen as that response – Blue Labour is, for example, supportive of Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke's idea of making the port of Dover a "people's port". It understands that the relentless "progress" of the Blair and Brown governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of governing, and stresses communitarianism, self-reliance and mutual societies. It is critical of the neo-liberal economic approach of both Labour and the Conservatives. Socially, it is, in many ways, conservative, and has been characterised by some on the left as "flag, faith and family". It is in favour of preserving institutions – the local post office or pub, but also the local hospital or Sure Start centre. The big dilemma for Blue Labour-ites is the 1945 welfare state. On the one hand, it is a war-time, feel-good, "we're all in this together" idea that is supposed to represent solidarity and fraternity in our society. On the other hand, Blue Labour agrees with what thinkers on the right have been pointing out for many years – the welfare state destroyed a lot of the spirit of self-reliance that made Britain great.
Blue Labour is a realisation that the "progressive majority" doesn't exist. There is a short term reason for Blue Labour, and a long term one. The long term reason is that between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost five million voters. Last year, it had more voters defined as middle class than working class. Some of the sharper Labour thinkers have realised that their party's decline in core working class support is not necessarily advantageous. The short term (and indicative of the long-term struggles Labour faces) reason for Blue Labour is a couple of clashes between the progressive middle class left-wingers and those who vote them into office. The first clash was Gillian Duffy – a "do our supporters really think that?!" moment for many Labour politicians. The second clash was the AV referendum. The supposed "progressive majority" was found to be a few boroughs of London famous for intellectual left-wing politics, and some student areas.
Who are the Blue Labour-ites? The main thinker behind Blue Labour is Maurice Glasman – or, Baron Glasman, of Stoke Newington and of Stamford Hill in the London Borough of Hackney – a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, and a "community organiser" with London Citizens. He was made a peer by Ed Miliband at the end of 2010, and is now referred to in the press as a "guru" to Miliband. A fellow Blue Labour-ite is Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, who has been talking and writing about the need for Labour to return to socially conservative, pre-1960s values for some time – and also emphasising the importance of Labour understanding England, rather than "the UK", or "the British". His kind of England includes Levellers, Chartists, Radicals, Tolpuddle Martyrs, and well-established common law rights. There are other proponents of Blue Labour, including James Purnell, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. He is one of a few Blairites who are called supporters in the media, but this seems a misunderstanding of the situation: Blue Labour is fundamentally against the economic neo-liberal and socially liberal approach of Blairism.
Glasman defines Blue Labour as distinct from New Labour: "Blue Labour has no nostalgia for old Labour and no illusions about the shortcomings of the new. Both Blair and Brown were recklessly naïve about finance capital and the City of London and relentlessly managerial in their methods. Blair developed a political alchemy that Brown failed to recreate, and it was between tradition and modernity. The problem was that his conception of tradition was superficial and his concept of modernisation verging on the demented: a conception of globalisation understood entirely on the terms set by finance capital." (For the Guardian)
Blue Labour doesn't mean Capitalist Labour: Blue Labour is divisive within Labour – understandably, not everyone is going to take to a political tendency which challenges much of both Blairism and Brownism, the adherents of which make up the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – but Labour MPs are not quick to attack it. At the same time, some on the left of the Party are suspicious, because some have misinterpreted the "blue" of Blue Labour. The main public clash so far was instigated by Billy Bragg. Bragg wrote "For many, the problem with New Labour was that it was already too blue – too pro-market – to be believable when it went looking for support among traditional voters". That understanding of Blue Labour is comically wrong – it is precisely the rejection of neo-liberal economics that Blue Labour is based on! Most attacks on Blue Labour are similar to Bragg's: a knee-jerk reaction, and prejudice against anything conservative.
David Lammy is an admirer of Blue Labour's emphasis on family and stable relationships: Support within the Parliamentary Labour Party is not widespread, but those supporters who do come forward write thoughtfully about the mistakes and problems with the legacy of the Blair and Brown years. Former Minister, David Lammy MP is an admirer, and he wrote about Blue Labour for Labour Uncut: "It understands that when people see their job become more insecure, when they see their family less and when they feel they no longer know their neighbours, this doesn’t always feel like progress. It cautions us not to fetishise “change” for the sake of it and respect the things people value in their lives. This is an insight shared by small ‘c’ conservatism and those on the Labour left. Blue Labour also cautions about excessive individualism. It reminds us to value not just in the rights of individuals, but also the quality of relationships between people. It understands that there is something between the individual and the state that is important to people’s lives. That Labour stands not just for liberty and equality, but also fraternity. This is why we worry about the family as a unit – stable relationships, good parenting and care for the elderly – not just children’s rights or women’s rights, important though they are."
The failings of New Labour: From a Blue Labour perspective, Jonathan Rutherford, Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University and editor of Soundings, writes very well on the failings of New Labour (see page 88 of this Soundings e-book, which is based on a series of seminars on Blue Labour, from 2010-11): "The early years of New Labour – the pluralism, the ethical socialism, the stakeholding economy, the idea of a covenant of trust and reciprocity with the people, the emotional language that reignited popular hope – created a powerful and successful story. But today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and of the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no-one. It champions humanity in general but no-one in particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values but nothing specific. Over the last decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and to defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion. The achievements of Labour in government were considerable, but we have to address the failures, and these go beyond policy and are foundational in nature. For all the good it did, Labour presided over the leaching away of the common meanings and social ties that bind people together in society. It was its apparent indifference to ‘what really matters’ that incited such rage and contempt amongst constituencies which had once been traditional bastions of support."
Ed Miliband put Glasman in the Lords and has, occasionally, made Blue Labour noises: It's not Ed Miliband's primary ideology. Miliband does occasionally espouse Blue Labour ideas – for example, during the Labour leadership election last year, Miliband set out his Southern strategy in the Times (£), and sounded authentically Blue Labour: "…we need to be clear that part of the job of social democratic politics is to conserve those things in society that free-market Conservatism would destroy. Our communities are too precious to be dictated to by markets. Take the example of how our towns have changed. If you travel through the market towns of the South, too often you find them dominated by late-night bars, clubs and betting shops, even when local people want a more family-friendly place to live."
Blue Labour… Red Tory?: Blue Labour and Phillip Blond's Red Tory are undoubtedly related tendencies. On the presentation side, there is not only the obvious name link, but the founders, Glasman and Blond, were both lecturers at small universities. On a more substantial note, just as Red Toryism adopts ideas that have, in recent years, been seen as the preserve of the left – mutualism, co-operatives, etc – to promote a conservative agenda, Blue Labour emphasises the importance of patriotism, Church groups and the family. The two ideas both boil down to socially conservative communitarianism with a sense of nostalgia. One important difference is that Red Toryism emerged after Cameron had become popular and after groups like the Centre for Social Justice had done the hard work in the wilderness years. Lord Glasman is helping at the beginning of Labour's time in opposition.
Blue Labour's relationship with working class populism: Blue Labour has the potential to gain support amongst white working class voters who usually stay at home on election day, by articulating populist themes. Glasman has even suggested engaging with those sympathetic to Labour within the English Defence League, and acknowledges Labour is responsible for a rise in votes for the far-right – exactly what many on the right know to be true, but Labour politicians have denied. But regardless of talking to the far-right, Blue Labour's potential to engage working class voters, and to be "on my side" is an obvious threat to the current Conservative leadership, which failed to attract "Essex man" – working class voters who want to get on in life and live without fear of crime – sufficiently in 2010. This is especially relevant because, as Lord Ashcroft's most recent polling showed, the Conservative leadership is perceived as being for the rich, and not "on my side".