Glasman’s Blue Labour overlooks the unions

Maurice Glasman’s introductory essay in the recent book about “Blue Labour” is quite an entertaining read, where he visualises the Labour Party as the son of a working class trade union father, possibly a non-conformist Christian; and a middle class professional mother, with radical ideals. Glasman therefore seeks to locate the paradox of the party in an experience of mutuality and collectivity in uneasy partnership with a statist intellectual project.

There are a number of areas where this is problematic. Not least because the much more tangible real world paradox of trade unionism is left out of his account, collectively organising against the power of the employers, but simulatenously unable to transdend the mutual co-dependence between labour and capital. The envelope of Labour Party politics has been delimited to left and right by the experience of trade unionism, not only through institutional links, but through the broadly social-democratic expectations of millions of voters. The Party has therefore always contained within it both those who want to use government power to end class struggle in the national interest, with those who wish to use state power to prosecute working class interests more effectively.

Glasman is also incorrect in thinking that the trade unions produced no intellectual leadership themselves, after all Keynesianism was introduced into the Labour Party not by Oxford Dons but by Ernest Bevin of the TGWU and AJ Cook of the Miners Federation.

Glasman’s account is historically inaccurate in seeing a tension between statism and mutualism as being a defining one throughout the history of the party. Glasman refers to Crosland’s revisionism in the 1950s as representing a break with mutualism, but in fact victory of the statist version of nationalisation as Labour policy had been closed a generation earlier with the triumph of Morrison’s vision of state owned corporations, argued as early as 1932.

By the time of the rise of revisionism, around figures like Durbin, Jay and Crosland, the whole party was already committed to a consensus about state ownership and state led reform; and indeed the 1945 government had largely enacted the party’s programme of corporate nationalisation. There was perhaps a minor dispute in the party during Attlee’s government between those like Shinwell who wanted to continue with more and deeper state ownership, and the majority of the party who accepted that this was electorally unpopular and offered no substantially greater control of the economy; but the biggest rupture in the party at that time was not about state ownership but on attitudes to the Soviet Union, and to the rising independence movements in the Empire. This was the issue used as a litmus test between left and right.

Crosland was not regarded as a right winger due to his domestic policies, but because he was an enthusiastic pro-American Atlantacist. At that time the labour movement was really having two different conversations and dialogue had broken down, exacerbated under Gaitskell’s divisive leadership, but the terms of those debates were very different to how Glasman presents them.

There was really only a difference of emphasis between say Bevan and Crosland over the necessity of a substantial state sector in the economy; the difference was between the Bevanites seeing deepening nationalisation as an end in itself; and the revisionists having a vision of a sucessful mixed economy being harnessed towards social justice.

Indeed in 1958 a collection of essays edited by Norman Mackenzie under the title “Conviction” both echoed concerns about building a sense of community and of solidarity that would not be out of place alongside Maurice Glasman’s own writings, and also aligned themselves with the Croslandite revisionists.

Left and Right have always been terms within the Labour Party open to redefinition and contest; and the tension between communities of solidarity and a more intellectual tradition seeking reform through the state has not been a defining argument in the Party since the hay-day of Guild Socialism in the 1920s, and even then as preceptive a figure as RH Tawney saw no contradiction in being both a Guild Socialist and a Fabian

So Glasman is not presenting us with history, but a fairy story designed to give moral instruction for the present. But the omission in his fictional account is the driving power of trade unions; and in particular the recognition that as mass voluntary membership organisations rooted in the contemporary world of work, then trade unions have to be inherently modern organisations, constantly reinventing the culture of mutuality and solidarity to attract and retain members in the world of Lady Gaga and Twitter as well as delivering for members in defending their economic security.

If Labour wants to reconnect with communities of solidarity and mutuality then we don’t need nostalgia for the past, but a reinvigorated relationship with the unions.

  1. I have to say that I find the “blue Labour” project infinitely depressing. However, I accept that my tastes are perhaps not those of the mainstream.

    Whilst Andy Newman makes a fair point, it is only half a point without an analysis of how TUs interface with workers in globalised casualised labour markets.

    Ed Miliband’s real problem is not only that but also how to reach out to “centre” (in reality, mildly right-wing) voters whilst retaining Labour’s base.

    Presumably, from a “Blue Labour” perspective, losing Camden, Islington and Haringey to the Greens at the 2014 London elections would count as a step in the right direction.

  2. Your take on Unions is a bit sentimental – the union i am involved with has a lot of managers and senior supervisors in it and on the branch committee.

    Votes are taken on a majority basis of which managers and supervisors form that block – the lower admin staff and junior supervisors are held captive to managerialism and its wishes and desires for an easier life, usually pushing more work down onto the junior staff. There is a tendency for the union officials and management to work hand in glove when it suits. There is no hope of accountability nor transparency when they both lock out the agenda and keep information to themselves.

    In the old days unions were about workers – the modern union has fallen victim to oppressive managerialism itself simply because a lot of its members are managers!