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Blue Labour and the Church of England: on class, ethnicity and politics

Archbishop of CanterburyThe recent pastoral letter of the Church of England bishops (Who is my neighbour?) is an effort to inject ethical considerations into a pre-election process in which they are seen to be in short supply. Jon Cruddas, head of the Labour policy review, wrote an article in the Guardian welcoming the letter in glowing and entirely uncritical terms as a “profound contribution” to political debate.

The bishops regret the sanitised, on-message and evasive talk which dominates current Westminster politics (and beyond). Instead they want a “… trajectory for a new kind of politics – one which works constructively with a ferment of different ideas and competing visions”:

  • They say that political life would be enhanced if we discussed openly not only the creative potential of markets but also their tendency to entrench inequality and diminish human sympathies.
  • They argue for the decentralisation of power where this leads to greater efficiency but add that it depends on the facts of the matter and should not be treated (as it is in Labour and Tory documents) as a panacea.
  • They want an adult discussion about immigration that recognises both our obligations and that there are legitimate concerns.
  • The time has come, the bishops say “to move beyond mere ‘retail politics’, where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority” – and we can all think of examples of that.

Even more specifically, the letter raises concerns about Trident renewal:

Shifts in the global strategic realities mean that the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining. The presence of such destructive capacity pulls against any international sense of shared community. But such is the talismanic power of nuclear weaponry that few politicians seem willing to trust the electorate with a real debate about the military capacity we need in the world of today.”

These and other points will be easily recognised as being of value on the left – even if they break no new ground, but at over ten thousand words it is a long letter and covers many issues only some of which I can consider here. I will ignore the purely religious arguments which I guess will not have much traction with most voters: we are all made in the image of God; seeing the “image of God in our neighbours”; “God’s unconditional offer of love” and so on. Much of the letter consists of bland appeals to people to think more of the wider social consequences of their actions – as one would expect from such a source. But there are more concrete points like those above.

It is therefore natural that a Labour leading figure should welcome them. Jon Cruddas says: “I have read the letter and learned a great deal from it. I will read it again and reflect on its teaching …”. One must hope that this includes persuading Labour to have an intelligent discussion about taxation, Trident and the purely psephological justification for policies (e.g. Labour says that the 11+ exam is harmful to all children but that it will not abolish it for alleged electoral reasons). But beyond that, Jon Cruddas’s uncritical endorsement of the document raises broader issues for Labour:

Firstly, after raising the issue of inequality (point 76) and of the appeal to class interest in politics (point 77) the bishops decry any attempt to see society in terms of “us” and “the other”. They say that this may sound as if one is  “talking about communities and significant social groupings – the opposite of individualistic politics.” In reality, it represents no actual class or community but appeals to the individual’s ignorance of those who are different” and then goes on to discuss issues of ethnic prejudice. This conflates two entirely separate motivations for identifying groups in society. Identifying someone else as “the other” on grounds of skin colour is deeply harmful. Identifying the self-aggrandising 1% who enrich themselves at the expense of the 99% is quite another matter. The bishops, like Labour, clearly do not like to talk about class.

Secondly, the letter asks us to consider the nation as a “community of communities”. This may sound innocent enough at first glance but is, I suggest, deeply reactionary. We should not want people to think that their contribution to society is made as members of this or that community (however much some “community leaders” might want to have it that way). People should contribute to the social process as citizens who can speak their minds freely independently of their background and with the interests of the nation as a whole as their concern. The idea of the body politic as a community of communities has been tried and tested in the Middle East and elsewhere. It doesn’t work. It is a poisonous idea. A little of that poison is detectable in the bishops’ attempt to claim that the wider community is served by having children divided into different schools on the basis of their parents religious beliefs.

This is an idea that floats around in Labour circles. In One Nation Labour – debating the future, published by LabourList and edited by Jon Cruddas, Tariq Modood wrote “multiculturalism may be the basis for supplementing electoral representation (if minorities are under-represented) and in creating new attitudes of inclusivity and in rethinking national identities,” which appears to be hinting at reserved seats for ethnic minorities. This is not the way to build “one nation”.

Thirdly, the bishops ask us to ditch talk of “right” and “left”. We need to go “beyond” that, they say, to reach:

a way of conceiving and ordering our political and economic life which can be pursued in a conservative idiom, a socialist idiom, a liberal idiom – and by others not aligned to party”.

They want a way of thinking about society which is equally valid in a conservative or a socialist “idiom”. This is to imagine that there are no deeply-entrenched forces in society with interests to protect and that if only the right way of speaking could be adopted all differences could be accommodated. At root this is refusal to recognise that society contains groups with mutually incompatible interests. It is therefore an argument for the status quo with respect to economic power and the political power that flows from it. It looks uncomfortably close to Labour’s restriction of its goal to that of developing “responsible capitalism”. Both approaches implicitly assume that capitalism is the last word in human history.

All these points appear to receive Jon Cruddas’s adulatory praise as a “profound contribution” to political debate. There is clearly a great overlap with the thinking of Blue Labour and if this marks the limit of Labour thinking then those who believe that fundamental social change is required will increasingly see Labour as a lost cause. Can the Labour Party even launch an open and honest debate without the control freakery decried by the bishops? The history of the last four years of the Policy Review is not encouraging in that respect. The importance of sustained discussion on non-sectarian websites like Left Futures is more important than ever. It is vital that we keep the discussion going on key ideas even when there is little or no room in the Labour Party for such discussion. But this needs to involve rather more than the handful of usual participants.


  1. John reid says:

    Those that believe fundamental change will see labour as a lost cause..
    A small minority that exist will, that is

    I was waiting for the blue labour link, yes Cruddas supports blue labour, and this is similar,but blue labours use of charity and communities to help fund government projects are an addition, not an alternative mould the it be better to have additional funding to things like the NHS with st Johns ambulance helping, the territorial army etc

    As for comparing countries where religion as part of the community funding,in the middle east to the UK, the Labour Party was partly funded out of things like charities and Fabians and the Co-op who all did voluntary work

    1. Robert says:

      You thought about that one John of course like the bloke you are you missed the Unions out.

      Never mind.

      1. John reid says:

        I didn’t say everything, I don’t think the unions were founded to act as charities, never mind

  2. Jon Lansman says:

    I think this is a good piece and agree with most of it. The one section I have difficulty with is that on the nation as a “community of communities” which is in my view much too simplistic.

    The problem with identity politics is that identity is complex and self-defined. The concept of a “community” rides rough-shod over both the complexity and the self-definition.

    If you treat “communities” as a set of roughly defined groups of people with neither clear boundaries nor clearly defined leaders, the concept makes good sense, as does the notion of a nation being a “community of communities”. If you define them as clearly defined groups with community leaders who speak for them, you enter much more dangerous territory.

    I was born into a “Jewish community”, based on how my parents identified themselves. I do identify as a Jew, and even to some extent as part of a jewish community but the Chief Rabbi does not in any way represent me or people like me though it is widely assumed that he does.

    Strictly speaking he only represents one group of 50-odd synagogues, and doesn’t even represent their members especially well since many of them are not particularly religious, rarely attend synagogue and are often members primarily for the funeral rights. However, he does represent something and some people want him to “represent” them.

    This does not make it a good idea to have “community” representatives in parliament but let’s not throw multiculturalism out with the bathwater.

    1. David Pavett says:


      Great typo in your first sentence! (now corrected to good from god! – Ed)

      in such a short piece covering several issues clearly my arguments had to be brief. My argument about community may be right and it may be wrong but I think it is not simplistic. It is a question I have given a lot of thought to and read some really outstanding material dealing with it by such people as Amartya Sen (Identity and Violence), Ali Rattansi (A Very Short Introduction to Multiculturalism), Kenan Malik (From Fatwa to Jihad) and the great French Orientalist Maxine Rodinson (La Peste Communautaire).

      The essential point is that the if a nation is to have any integrity as a unit then its members need to belong to it by virtue of what they share directly with each other as a function of their nationality. This is not at all to decry adhesion to communities but to say that belonging to a nation should not come via community membership. It should make no difference to national adhesion whether people join or leave communities. (It is clear that in your case you do not consider yourself by virtue of your Jewish background.) It is therefore entirely inappropriate and fundamentally misguided to think of nationality as a super community constructed out of lower level communities. It is in fact a highly destructive idea and can only help those who would use their community status to enforce their views on other community members. I guess that you don’t need me to give examples of this.

      This is all entirely separate from the issues connected with multiculturalism. As I said, seeing a nation as something existing in its own right irrespective of the nature of the communities that exist within in it is not to wish those communities away. All I will say about multiculturalism is that it is a term with so many incompatible meanings associated and which has been given so many shoddy and uncritical treatments by writers on both the left and the right that it is useless as a policy term and should be abandoned. It has no clear meaning in terms of social policy and, as Kenan Malik and others have spelt out in detail has been used for some highly dubious purposes in Labour circles. Time to stop thinking through slogans on this question and to get down to careful critical examination. I think that is what the writers I have mentioned help us to do.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        I’ve liked the article; but I haven’t really got a bleeding clue what on earth you think you’re on about.

        I doubt if anyone else will have either.

        The (post Blair,) Labor wing of the Tory party is now so far up it’s own rectum that I doubt anyone in there has seen daylight for the last decade.

        1. David Pavett says:

          I didn’t think I was so obscure.

          Here is the argument reduced to one sentence.

          The bishops’ letter is well meant and makes some good points but on the major issues of class, national interest and what makes a nation they try to sit on the fence and that is not a good position for Labour even though John Cruddas appears to think that it is.

          1. Robert says:

            Well Blue labour is better then a red one because red looks to much like Blood and Miliband has a poor stomach when it comes to blood.

            In the end people will be voting for the party that suits them, and I think many will be thinking they are all to much like the same.

            Red labour Blue labour what the hell is that about I just watched Miliband speaking with a wall which was pink…Pink labour not Red labour.

            Bugger it I will sit at home and let the other choose.

      2. David Pavett says:

        Correction. A sentence in the above response got truncated somehow. The sentence in brackets

        (It is clear that in your case you do not consider yourself by virtue of your Jewish background.)

        Doesn’t make much sense. It should have been

        (It is clear that in your case you do not consider your political views/allegiances to be determined by virtue of your Jewish background.)

        1. Jon Lansman says:

          Thanks for clarifying that David and you’re right. Except perhaps for a general suspicion and distaste for nationalism.

          1. David Pavett says:

            John, I do indeed have a general suspicion of and distaste for nationalism. I am rather surprised that you find that to be an obvious weak point (‘obvious’ since you do not feel it necessary to explain).

            The nationalism of oppressed nations can be, in certain conditions, a progressive factor. However, it is a mistake not to recognise that all forms of nationalism have a dark underbelly in terms of exclusion and rejection of ‘the other’.

            Unqualified/uncritical support any form of tribalism is to take a step backwards. (I hate to hear Labour Party members describing themselves as “tribal Labour” as if that were something positive.)

            Rational politics begins in the public space where people accept that it is the quality of the argument that should determine conclusions and not the circumstances of birth of the participants. (This is beautifully illustrated in its historical origins by the French Marxist Jean-Pierre Vernant in his book The Origins of Greek Thought in which he argues that rationalism has its origins in the space of open public debate in the agora.)

    2. Shirley Knott says:

      When you mentioned the Jewish community and the Chief Rabbi I thought you’d cottoned on to where the bishops were coming from…the Upper Chamber! Maybe they’re also (in that part anyway) trying to provoke thoughts about how it could be changed (I won’t suggest that commumity representation would be a good reform, since it’s far too clunky to ever be defined!)

  3. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    In any remotely sane world IDS alone should already have won the next election for Labor.

  4. James Martin says:

    Personally I wish the bishops would go away and stop bothering us with all their hand-wringing. We don’t need them, we don’t want them, let them attend to their dwindling flocks in the empty churches. The real obscene nature of what they are up to is to try and maintain the connection between (their) church and state while they sit unelected by anyone (even the believers) in the House of Lords. Clear the lot of the unelected rabble out, god-bothers or not, and let’s get back to fighting for socialism.

    1. David Pavett says:

      @James Martin. That is all well and good, I hold no brief for the bishops. My point however was the similarity between their position/arguments and those of Blue Labour and Labour more generally (as indicated by John Cruddas’s comments). Dismissing the bishops and their arguments is one thing but dealing with the same arguments in the Labour Party is quite another.

      1. Robert says:

        well said new labour Blue labour Progress labour the one thing I notice labour is not is red, even the van is pink the wall behind Miliband is now pink.

        Looks like the socialist labour movement is dead, new labour did not die the labour party did.

        1. raydavison says:

          Well you are certainly dead comrade and your pickled pronouncements in no way advance our causes. Put your tongue in aspic and just shut up, please.

  5. Rod says:

    “It is vital that we keep the discussion going on key ideas even when there is little or no room in the Labour Party for such discussion.”

    Yes, it is vital but “the discussion”, if sincere, will lead you away from a Labour Party that can only achieve credibility by keeping quiet on intentions if elected (i.e. pro-TTIP, pro-Trident, pro-military intervention, pro-austerity etc.)

    Life isn’t a thousand years long, time is limited. Better to let the penny drop now, join those who “increasingly see Labour as a lost cause” and begin the hard work of forming an opposition to Tory policies.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Discussion should lead where the logic of discussion leads it, without determining in advance where it must end up. It may or may not lead away from the Labour Party. The problem, in my view, with most of these sorts of exchanges on platforms such as Left Futures (which is one of the best) is that most participants have just such an end goal already in mind (e.g. Labour can be transformed into a socialist party, Labour cannot be transformed into a socialist party) in mind before contributing to discussion.

      It is more useful by far to engage in the particulars of each given discussion rather than to reiterate pre-determined general conclusions.

      My own view is that the likelihood of Labour becoming a socialist party is more remote than ever. However (1) politics, as history shows, is full of unpredictable factors and (2) the majority on the left are not convinced of Labour’s inability to become a socialist party. That is why entering into the details of each debate is what is required and not using each separate debate to repeat general conclusions which are fixed in advance of the particulars.

      What I find most worrying is that (1) the number of people participating on on-line discussion on left-wing websites is incredibly small and (2) a great deal of that tiny level of debate consists in endless repetition of general positions which have nothing to do with the particular issues under discussion. While this remains the reality of left-wing debate there is no chance of changing anything fundamentally.

      Some people think that left-wing goals can be achieved by getting the ‘right people’ elected to key positions even in the absence of detailed analyses and correspondingly detailed policy platforms. I don’t believe that and I think that 100 years of Labour politics, and left-wing politics more generally, is a good reason not to do so.

      1. Rod says:

        “endless repetition of general positions”

        Particulars: Let’s take Labour’s conference vote to take the Royal Mail back into public ownership. The vote was immediately over-ruled by the elite. “The conference is entitled to its view but we will do the right thing. It won’t happen.” said a Labour spokesperson.

        Where do we go from here? Billy Hayes welcomed the vote as a success and went on to say that, in view of the elite’s over-ruling, the next step must be to elect a Labour government as the best way of ensuring the decision can be reversed.

        Of course, when you elect a Labour government that is pledged not to take the Royal Mail, or any other privatised service, back into public ownership, you have strengthened, not weakened, the policy position of the elected government. Therefore, as there is no democratic policy-making mechanism, it becomes even more difficult to influence or change the elite’s preferred policies.

        I’m very much in favour of opened-ended discussion which, hopefully, leads to new thinking, new strategies and new tactics.

        But those most guilty of “endless repetition of general positions” are those who, perhaps driven by emotion and habit, reach the same perennial conclusion: we must elect a Labour government. Even when it is pledged to impose policies contrary to our interests.

        1. David Pavett says:

          I seem not to have explained myself clearly. None of the things you mention relate to the debate about the view of society embraced by John Cruddas in his uncritical praise for the bishops’ letter.

          I don’t disagree with the particular points you raise but they aren’t the particulars of the debate I tried to start. They therfore function as a support for a pre-determined general position with respect to that debate.

          I do not advocate the “perennial conclusion” that you refer to – as I have explained in other exchanges on Left Futures.

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