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Blue will never be the new Red

The “Blue Labour” agenda associated with Maurice Glasman has generated considerable discussion, and the recent interview with Progress shows that there is an element of iconoclasm from Glasman himself, where he expresses deliberately provocative positions, for example lamenting that the current generation of trade union leaders don’t match up to Sir Ken Jackson, or suggesting that EDL supporters could be embraced by Labour.

There is an unfortunate history in the Labour Party of leadership cliques promoting their own factional position without recognition of the need to respect the coalitional nature of the party. The behaviour of Blairites prepared to destabilise Gordon Brown regardless of possible electoral damage to the party is a clear recent example; but Hugh Gaitskell was also completely convinced that his revisionist perspective was the only foundation for a Labour victory, and ironically the resulting polarisation inhibited radical ideas from the Croslandites finding an audience on the left.

It would be a shame though if a serious attempt to reappraise the intellectual and social legacy of labourism was derailed by bad branding; and the left should also be confident in the value of constructive debate, even where we have fundamental differences.

The starting point of the “Blue Labour” debate is to orientate the Labour Party to win a general election; by spreading the party’s appeal across broader social, generational and geographical demographics, and Chuka Umunna has usefully suggested that “One Nation Labour” is a more accurate description.

Obviously there is a danger that this feeds into the destructive narrative that talks down recent electoral gains. Jonathan Rutherford surely cannot expect to be taken seriously when he argued only yesterday:

Labour is close to catastrophic electoral defeat, particularly in England

In reality, as Luke Akehurst has explained, Labour’s results in the recent local elections against the Conservative Party saw real progress:

Of the 837 Labour gains, 415 were from the Conservatives. In the councils with new wards there are now 72 more Labour councillors than before, and six fewer Conservatives.

So we should resist emotional arguments from “Blue Labour” supporters that adopting their approach is the necessary and only route to Labour revival.

Nevertheless, there are some substantive arguments which need to be engaged with. Jonathan Rutherford argues that Labour needs to be more conservative,

a contemporary Labour politics can create a new language for itself, drawing on the traditions of ethical socialism and radical Toryism. It can choose a social politics rather than a progressive politics.

Again we must regret that Rutherford seeks deliberately alienating language: appeals to Toryism are going to create obstacles to rational debate in the labour movement.

In modern political vocabulary Toryism is a synonym for the Conservative Party.

Rutherford is presumably referring to classical Toryism, with its defence of the moral economy of social obligation, and the legacy of mediaeval organicism against the Whiggish ideals of liberty unconstrained by duty and the pursuit by each individual of their own self-interest as the guarantee of the common good.

There could be no purer synthesis of liberal political theory than Margaret Thatcher’s statement that there is “no such thing as society”. But the electoral coalition represented by the modern Conservative Party rests not only on this strand of liberalism, Hayek and Friedman, but also on habits of social deference, nostalgia, conservative social attitudes and the iconography of British identity. It is itself an unstable mix, and the radicalism of the Conservative Party in eroding British social institutions sits uneasily with some of their supporters, which is why UKIP has gradually eaten into the Conservative’s voter base.

Rutherford is wrong to suggest that historical Toryism has any contemporary traction, but he is correct to emphasise the ethical socialist tradition which also drew on concepts of social obligation; and those obligations were based upon an experience of shared community.

It is this area of identity and community where Blue Labour has proven controversial, with its association with flag, faith and family. Terms which are likely to provoke a reaction from the left.

However, most people do feel conscious of being part of a national community, identifying with the specific characteristics and signifiers that have arisen in a particular and unique historical and geographic context. Religious faith also has historical roots in providing ideological and institutional expression to the collectively developed rules which have held societies together.

Benedict Anderson’s thesis of “Imagined Communities” stresses the degree to which in modern industrial societies the face-to-face bonds of trust have been replaced by a national consciousness of shared community with strangers. This is a powerful form of consciousness, but it is also one where the content can be contested; and for example if values of egalitarianism, solidarity, tolerance and cooperation are associated with Englishness or Britishness, then to deviate from those norms can be characterised as unpatriotic.

Glasman recognises the social impetus behind faith communities; but I have yet to see any acknowledgement from “Blue Labour”, that the specific foundation of communities of solidarity in the labour movement are the trade unions.

Controversially, Blue Labour seeks to open debate about immigration; which is a complex area. The last Labour government played a dangerous game here, of operating a de facto open border for immigrants from the EU accession states which sustained a layer of low paid employment in service industries and the more marginal parts of manufacturing. However Labour did not argue a defence of the benefits of immigration, and instead allowed some figures close to the government to engage in dog whistle demonisation of migrants. What is more, population migration had its biggest impact on communities that were already under-resourced.

This was a toxic brew, which allowed immigration to be encountered by many people as a threat to the cohesion of their community, and to their personal economic security and that of their family; while they did not share in its economic and cultural benefits, which accrued elsewhere.

Glasman’s argument is outlined in the Progress interview:

It is here that that Glasman’s ‘paradoxical position’ is once again apparent. He has, he believes, ‘no concerns that the future of the country’s going to be pluralist’ and is himself from a family of immigrants but believes there has also ‘got to simultaneously be solidarity, and there has been an erosion of solidarity’. The party’s conception of equality is problematic, he suggests. ‘There have to be ways of honouring the common life of people who come [as immigrants],’ he believes, but it also not the case that ‘everyone who comes is equal and has an equal status with people who are here’.

Similarly, desert and history, not just need, have to be factored in to Labour’s conception of fairness. Citing the argument that ‘I’ve paid my taxes all these years and yet I get bumped out by people who’ve just arrived on the basis of need’, he argues that the party has ‘got to not view that as reactionary [or] bigoted but as a real violation of what people actually mean by fairness. We’ve essentially devalued our language by making things the opposite of what they mean, and losing “fairness” – which we did at the last election – was actually a catastrophe for us because when we said “fairness” people thought we meant privilege, privilege for the new, privilege for people who don’t work, everything calculated on need and nothing done on desert.’

We could charitably acknowledge that Glasman is struggling to find a solution to a difficult political issue; but there is a danger here of abdicating responsibility in favour of populism.

It is a perversion of the language of equality to complain about parity of status between migrants and the indigenous community divorced from a discussion of the real inequalities of economic and political power in our society. Had arriving migrant communities brought with them a proportionate increase in state investment in education, health, transport and housing infrastructure, then immigration would not have been experienced as destabilising.

The concept of privilege is the exercise of a right or entitlement without corresponding social obligation. It is another perversion of language to describe providing housing or welfare to the most needy as granting a “privilege”. The failure to meet social obligations has come from those who failed to provide sufficient jobs and sufficient social and affordable housing. The critique of privilege should be directed against the unelected and unaccountable corporations who wrecked the economy; and to the unelected and unaccountable mass media which promote misinformation and prejudice against migrants.

There is no reason why an ethical socialism embracing concepts of the common good should not also embrace the concept of multi-culturalism, but to do so requires that we acknowledge the necessary role of the state, as well as civil-society institutions, in ensuring that social resources follow population migration, and in diffusing social tensions.

The thinking of Blue labour seems particularly muddled when it comes to the issue of the state, firstly by tilting at a windmill of their own creation, a mythologised version of fabian statism, and secondly by promoting a mish mash of mutualism, cooperatives and employee ownership, without locating this change in any larger political project.

As Jonathan Rutherford puts it:

A left conservatism defends the commons against commodification and exploitation by broadening and deepening democracy, such that economic, political, social and cultural power and capital is more effectively held to account and much more widely distributed.

It promotes an ethical economy organised for productive investment, and wealth creation aimed at common prosperity. Its principles are equality, technical innovation, recycling, durability and ecologically sustainable wealth creation

Not a smaller state but a democratic state that plays a major role in investment and infrastructure development, and provides a guiding hand for a new green industrial revolution and for the development and regulation of new markets.

A state which distributes power, capital and wealth across society and the economy through partnerships, mutuals, different forms of ownership and greater employee control of companies.

Rutherford is correct to ask what social purpose the economy should be organised for, and also to argue that it needs to be democratically accountable. But his argument is completely divorced from the actual global economic context, of multi-national corporations, and the need to access high technology and capital for growth. Only a strong state with a substantial economic footprint can negotiate with multi-national corporations for a win-win relationship.

The idea of dispersing economic power is utopian if it doesn’t also address the concentration of that power in corporations, and how those corporations reside outside national jurisdiction. How for example would Honda employees in Swindon have greater control under a “Blue Labour” government of their small part of a transnational corporation run from Japan? How would greater levels of mutualisation have protected the UK economy from the global storm of banking collapse in 2008?

Given their disdain for the high-handedness of Fabianism, it is ironic what a sulphurous smell of intellectual elitism comes from the camp of “Blue Labour”. The almost adolescent desire to shock by identifying with “blue” and “Tory” values suggests attention seeking, and also an aggressively combative attitude to the more traditional foundations of Labour support.

Nevertheless, there is substance to some of their ideas that needs to be debated; and it should be noted that the argument that Labour should position itself as a hegemonic national party, based upon promoting the common good, is a break from both the idea of a coalitional “progressive majority”, and from triangulating around swing voters.

But promoting the common good doesn’t mean reflecting the prejudices of those affected by economic and social insecurity; it means removing the insecurity itself by using the state to stand up to the selfish interests of the economically powerful.

The “Blue Labour” project yesterday published its most substantive elaboration of their ideas in an e-book from Soundings magazine, edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, Stuart White. Its contributors are Stefan Baskerville, Hazel Blears, Phillip Collins, Jon Cruddas, Graeme Cooke, Sally Davison, Maurice Glasman, Ben Jackson , Mike Kenny, David Lammy, David Miliband, Duncan O’Leary, Anthony Painter, James Purnell, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, Jon Stokes, Andrea Westall, Stuart White and Jon Wilson. It also has a foreword from Ed Miliband, who guardedly welcomes the debate without endorsing the contents. Download a pdf of the booklet here.

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