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Labour’s Blues – anti-secular, anti-rational, more radical conservative than socialist?

BlueLabourCoverWith the 2015 general election almost upon us everyone knows that, even with the boosting effect (for the big parties) of our first past the post system, Labour is unlikely to win a majority of seats. The outcome of the election is especially unpredictable due to the decline of the major parties and the rise of the SNP, the Greens and UKIP. We don’t know what the political landscape will look like on 8 May.

Speculation is rife as to the consequences for Labour of various outcomes of the election. These will not be discussed here. But what can be said is that the battle for Labour’s soul is clearly under way and the recently published Blue Labour – Forging a New Politics (publisher I.B. Tauris) is a major statement of position in this process.

It would appear to be a sign of less than total commitment to Labour’s electoral chances that this book with its often strident criticisms of Labour policy has been published so close to the vote. Statements about Labour veer from near embrace (“Blue Labour is the crucial factor in the emergence of One Nation Labour”, p.27) to superior hostility (“Had the leadership given serious thought to Blue Labour, its worry, if not annoyance, would have quickly turned to alarm”, p.51).

The book was edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst and the contributors include Maurice Glasman, Jon Cruddas, Frank Field, David Goodhart, Arnie Graf, David Lammy and Tom Watson. At least fourteen of the eighteen contributors are religiously active. This helps to explain the strongly pro-religious, anti-secular and anti-rationalist tone. In particular a strong affinity is expressed by many of the authors with Catholic Social Thought (/Teaching) (CST) about which more later.

In his introductory chapter, Adrian Pabst sets out the Blue Labour stall in general terms. He is concerned to defeat “secular ideology”, “the forces of technocracy”, “rationalist, utilitarian and transactional” politics, “materialist” politics and even “abstract ideals such as progress and freedom of choice”. In their place he seeks to put a “moral economy”, a politics that is “romantic, principled and transformative”, an “ethic of virtue” and an approach that is “first and foremost poetic”. He says, further that “Labour’s roots are much less to do with ‘Victorian liberalism‘ than with ‘High Toryism and the cooperative movement‘ “. Moreover “Blue Labour seeks to recover and renew the radical conservatism that defines England” and “Blue Labour repudiates the old politics of both the secular left and the reactionary right which are categories that were bequeathed to us by the French and American revolutions”. Readers, by this point, may start to sense the tone. Such remarks run throughout the book as leitmotifs.

According to Pabst, Blue Labour appeals to the “perennial principles of the common good, participation, association, individual virtue and public honour”. Its aim is to “craft institutions that can translate them into informative practices of mutual assistance and cooperation across the country”. And as if to make it clear that Blue Labour’s foot is firmly in Labour’s door he quotes a New Statesman editorial: “the Blue Labour faction has emerged as the dominant intellectual influence on the Labour Party”.

Maurice Glasman, in his chapter (“The Good Society, Catholic Social Thought, and the Politics of the Common Good”) says that Labour can find “no more fertile terrain out of which to begin to fashion a politics of the common good than Catholic Social Thought”. He even refers to the notoriously anti-socialist defence of all private property in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 as a source for Blue Labour ideas. What emerges is a mystique of labour as the source of all wealth which may attract some until they realise that “labour” in CST means the work of a company executive as much as that of a bricklayer.

So what is it specifically that characterises the Blue Labour brand? The overriding characteristic, it seems to me, is an intense anti-theoretical, anti-rational and anti-secular localism. According to this veiw we are not abstract beings but real concrete individuals who have come to adulthood in a specific environment in a specific community and with specific attachments, obligations and ways of understanding. Society must be seen to grow outwards from that allegedly fundamental fact.

In his preface to the book, Rowan Williams argues that current politics works against the grain of our humanity with its assumption that first there were individuals who then come together to make society. Instead, he says, we need to start from where people actually are: we should give “due weight to supporting what is already supportive, nourishing what is already nourishing, in the primary communities that make up society”.  On this basis we should see that “The state as a ‘community of communities’ is … as relevant now as it has ever been …”.

Jon Cruddas repeats this line of thought saying that we must challenge the idea of “abstract, rootless individuals that governs neoclassical or neo-liberal thinking…”. We must do this with a “true market economy which genuinely pursues the common good. The good of each and every one of us, individually and combined.” He suggests that to do this we can benefit from the teachings of Christianity and other faiths which help us to understand:

  1. that human beings are “partial, rooted creatures who live in concrete, inherited conditions” and that we are in search of “universal, transcendent principles such as justice and kindness …”;
  2. the common good concerns the relational. Not lone egos, not an anonymous mass. But instead shared bonds that are both convivial and sacrificial”;
  3. most people naturally and rightly seek mutual recognition – a fulfilling of themselves alongside others. They want to be at home in the world, but they do not usually want to destroy the other home-dwellers”.

The suggestion that we need to turn to Christianity or religion in general for instruction about our connections with others suggests a rather limited grasp of the high degree of secularisation of the UK. Non-religious people do not live in a moral vacuum for want of church guidance or organisation. The handling of religious thought is also entirely uncritical throughout the book and therefore pays no attention to some of the remarkable downsides of the religious thought referred to.

It would be easy to point to the nonsense in these essays, the false historical claims, the contradictions between the different writers and the virtual total absence of meaningful reference to our real environment of corporate capitalism. Instead, I want to give an idea of the moral tone and the basic assumptions which I think (stripped of their religious garb) could have wide appeal. This is all the more so when it is realised that many of the contributors to the book rail against neo-liberalism as well as against “statism”, that they praise the virtues of mutualism and participation and that they argue for the organisation of institutions on a human scale. Attractive though much of this may seem at first one may find cause for reflection when one understands that many of the same arguments can be found in The Purple Book published in 2011 by Progress.

I believe that theses ideas are deeply flawed at every level starting from the view of human nature, the nature of Catholic Social Teaching, the location of our economic and social problems and the version of localism that is presented as the solution to our woes. But before considering some of the objections to these views I want to look, in a second article, a little closer at the CST vaunted throughout this book. Finally in a third article I will outline some objections but also suggest that the book raises some real issues to which the left needs to provide a clear response. In other words I think the left should use the book as a challenge rather than simply rubbishing it (not difficult) to prove its own intellectual superiority. The fight for a Labour Party able to meet the challenge of our times requires no less.

9 Comments

  1. John.P reid says:

    I know Lammys Protestant and Cruddas Catholic,whether the Co-op has links to religion is new to me,the socially conservative, doesn’t mean economical,y right wing view ,has been pushed for 5 years,I’ll defend any corner of the Labour Party from being misinterpreted,the anti local secularism, is something the co-op unions or Fabians could fall into,more the working class who aren’t this radical brand who will led labour to. Liberal elite utopia, or the working class who bought their council homes, but still feel aligned to labour up north, would relate too,

    I have to grudgingly accept that the purple boo, could have similar arguments, but that was more specific details rather than a overall picture of how we can work together to fix things

  2. James Martin says:

    “…many of the contributors to the book rail against neo-liberalism as well as against “statism”, that they praise the virtues of mutualism and participation and that they argue for the organisation of institutions on a human scale.”

    This is where the lack of debate on what has been going on in the Cooperative Party for some time hampers the necessary understanding of how the right wing will use mutualism from the right to attack socialisation. Take the strong support for academies and NHS foundation Trusts, both of which are falsely held up as examples of worker and community participation when in reality they represent fragmentation, part-privatisation and loss of democratic control of services. Not surprisingly New Labour never died in the Cooperative Party, but is stronger than ever.

  3. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

    I have met John Cruddas twice. Once at a talk he was giving to Clare College students where he spoke home counties, and once at labour group where union reps were present, wherein the cockney accent was on display.
    I think the blue labour religion and mutulism is just like that, a different face for a different audience.
    A cloak hiding a capitulation to capital and rent seeking multinationals at the expense of the rest of us.

    1. John.P reid says:

      Cruddas cockney voice he puts in shouldnt distract from , the co-op, church community, Fabians, unions, that blue labour is based on

  4. Barry Ewart says:

    I admire David’s socialist strength for engaging with trivia but I will read parts 2 & 3.
    I don’t support ONE NATION – not because it is ONE CAPITALIST NATION but because I want working people in every country in the World to be pursuing radical democratic socialist policies at the same time – guess I am A ONE WORLD SOCIALIST!
    Love, peace & international solidarity!

  5. David Ellis says:

    The Labour Party is a party of empire designed for the funnelling of the super profits of that enterprise to the labour aristocracy and the trade union bureaucracy. Empire is dead. The profits have dried up. In fact since the collapse of 2008 it has become apparent the Britain is bankrupt. Under those circumstances the layer of workers imbued with a sense of entitlement that comes from empire are heading for UKIP whilst others move to the left. Blue Labour is an attempt to pander to the elements heading for UKIP.

    1. James Martin says:

      David, please read up on actual history rather than whatever you imagine in the mornings and then clearly assume it is real. Key unions formed the Labour Party due to Taff Vale, which was as far away from the workings of the British Empire as you could imagine. As for the nonsense about the aristocracy of labour, that was a plainly daft idea when Lenin thought it up, particularly as those who he deemed ‘privileged’ and ‘aristocrats’ such as the engineers turned out to be the most radical sections of the working class in the pre-WWI spike in union struggles that were influenced by Syndicalist ideas and those that held them (Tom Mann etc.), and afterwards in the post-Russian revolution radicalism that led to the formation of the Communist Party.

      Meanwhile the recent rises in employment, wages and living standards indicate that while it may be based on the illusion of QE, bankruptcy in any meaningful sense it is not, which is why in turn the Tories may yet win this election if the economy stays at the centre of political debate.

    2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      No really.

  6. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    I can still remember sitting watching the UK election (which for once I hadn’t been following,) on television in the basement of an Irish Bar in Prague.

    At that point in time the Czech Republic was a lively and interesting place to visit; with considerable opportunity, (or it seemed that way to me, talking to the various ex pats that I met, who were living there at that time,) and after Thatcher and Major and what they’d done to the UK, (and for personal reason’s as well,) I was seriously considering leaving the UK either for good or staying there for an extended period.

    But then some guy that I’d never heard of before called Blair got elected, I didn’t know anything about him except that he was a socialist, (or in retrospect that he claimed to be one,) which was good enough for me; so after traveling for a while longer I came home again.

    I firmly believed that now we’d finally got a Labor government back in again, (at last,) we would start to, “put thing right.”

    It was an understandable mistake; but nothing could actually have been further from the truth.

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