‘Blue Labour’ is the latest faintly ridiculous-sounding political buzz-term to briefly excite the national commentariat, be myopically hailed as having seismic potential, before promptly going the way of the do-do.
As ever, ‘the debate’ is one that’s blazed between about 12 people in North London, without much in the way of impact outside the Comment section of the Guardian. But, unfortunately, it’s the only sign of ideological life detectable from the cadaverous Labour Party. And, as such, is probably worth taking half-seriously, since Labour is far too important, and potentially dangerous, for this kind of thing to be ignored.
Largely the work of the likably bohemian academic and activist Maurice Glasman, an increasingly rare example of a British political figure with a personality and a sense of humour, Blue Labour sells itself as a radical traditionalist alternative to Labour’s prevailing ethos.
In essence, it’s an attempt to make Labour address the concerns of its traditional working class support-base. Glasman and Blue Labour’s other luminaries believe that working class voters have been scorned and neglected by the distant metropolitan-liberalism of New Labour. But, more controversially, they’re also critical 1945-style Welfare State-socialism. The Blue Labourites have a nostalgic fondness for the co-operatives, mutuals, and building societies of the early Labour movement, seeing centralised, bureaucratic welfarism as distant and inflexible, and as having taken power from workers and placed it in the hands of middle-class technocrats.
An obvious question: why ‘Blue’ Labour? It signifies Glasman and co’s attachment to a brand of small-c conservatism. They believe that post-Attlee Labour, regardless whether Old or New, was scornful of tradition, a vital part of the way in which individuals find meaning in their lives. Therefore, it emphasises the importance of family and community. It seeks to pick out a neglected thread of the Labour tradition, encouraging self-reliance and community organisation in the fight to resist the worst excesses of capitalism – hence the ‘radical conservative’ label.
‘Blue’ also denotes a kind of weary post-industrial sadness, ‘Blue’ in the Miles Davis sense. Glasman feels that ‘society as a functioning moral entity has, in effect, disappeared’. Answers on a postcard as to what that actually means, but he laments the state of modern Britain, dominated by the managerial arrogance of a technocratic elite who have allowed finance capital to trample over and commodify ordinary working people.
Blue Labour actually critiques something, a marked departure from the political banality of the Blair/Brown years. It states the bleeding obvious about capitalism – that corporations exist to maximise the returns on their investments, and that more often than not they don’t care who or what they trample over to achieve this. Since New Labour only ever mentioned the c-word in glowingly positive terms, stating the bleeding obvious has, horribly, become relatively radical.
Liberalism also takes a pasting from Glasman and his Blues Brothers. Liberals, in a broad, philosophical sense of the word, rigidly focus on individuals and their rights while denigrating the communities and traditions that glue these individuals together. Worse, they put up little or no resistance to rampant capital. Paying lip-service to wooly and ambiguous ideals like fairness, freedom, and choice, they cheer capital from the sidelines as it smashes through these crucial ties between individuals.
At very least, Blue Labour does provide a hopeful first flicker of a left-wing bare minimum returning to the political mainstream – criticising liberalism, capitalism, and acknowledging the fact that poor people exist should be pathetically basic elements of any sane political culture, but they’re only just returning to ours after a prolonged absence.
It also highlights the conservative characteristics present in a lot of grassroots politics, socialist or otherwise – when communities resist a Tescos, they’re engaged in a positive conservative endeavour, attempting to preserve the customs and character that make an area bearable to inhabit from the damaging effects of unaccountable capitalism.
But Glasman has caused problems for himself and his nascent mini-movement by bursting into the immigration debate with his magnum drawn. Recent eyebrow-raising pronouncements have included calls to halt all immigration, and for Labour to involve EDL supporters, which have both been cited as evidence of Blue Labour’s noxious social conservatism. The resulting media brouhaha appears to have shut down the Blue Labour operation, at least for now.
Glasman is an avowedly anti-racist trumpet-playing soft-left intellectual living in Stoke-Newington, and is clearly not North London’s answer to Nick Griffin. The potential Blue Labour danger has very little to do with the man at the top. It has a lot to do with what could happen in the (admittedly unlikely) scenario that his vision managed to work its way into the political mainstream. Complex ideas don’t survive very long in mainstream British politics, and there’s a risk that a crudely simplified version of Glasmania could see the Labour Party slide rightwards into xenophobia and a nasty social conservatism.
Whether Glasman’s pre-Attlee mutuals and co-operatives can be resurrected remains to be seen. Given the country’s profound political apathy, it looks incredibly unlikely. Preoccupied with dubious ‘faith and family’ politics and untroubled by gross inequality, Blue Labour is a flawed, eccentric potential direction in which British social democracy could travel.
That said, we might not have to worry. Ultimately, it’s probable that Blue Labour will never amount to anything more than an idiosyncratic soft-left thought experiment that was quite interesting to read up on for about five minutes in 2011.
This one’s for Maurice: