Blue Labour needs a dose of realism and a spin doctor

by Dan Hodges

Blue Labour has been getting a bad press. First, there was Billy Bragg in the Guardian:

“Labour is already too blue. Blue Labour won’t win back voters. The party must remember it stands for ordinary workers and oppose globalised capitalism”.

Then David Aaronovitch in the Times:

“Dreaming of Merrie England wont help Ed. Blue Labour feels like Blackadder without the jokes”.

Finally, we had Progress, the in-flight magazine of Blairforce One. “Blue Labour isn’t the way forward for New Labour or for our party”, wrote Stephen Bush. A “political promise that offers a defence of yesterday, not a better tomorrow”.

Maurice Glasman, blue Labour’s architect, might be forgiven for thinking that if he’s got both Billy Bragg and David Aaronovitch gunning for him, he must doing something right. I think that would be a mistake. Blue Labour contains a narrative with much to offer. But it’s also in need of a good spin doctor.

OK, some of the criticism is relatively easily dismissed. Billy Bragg’s portrayal of blue Labour as a capitalist Trojan horse, attempting to breech the walls of the new Jerusalem, is a gross caricature. Maruice Glasman is not without his faults, but when he writes, “In everything I have ever written or done I have criticised the domination of capital and argued for the democratic renewal of the Labour movement to resist its power”, he does so with legitimacy. Maurice is many things, but he is no neo-Thatcherite entryist.

Much of the fire coming from the right is also easily deflected. According to Stephen Bush,

“Blue Labour is, avowedly and unashamedly, based upon conservatism; a pessimistic philosophy based on the idea that the best any government can offer is a defence of yesterday. When Blair railed against the ‘forces of conservatism’, he was attacking the notion – from any side of the political spectrum – that our best days were behind us, or that the best hope of government is to return to a mythical yesteryear”.

Come on. I’m all for a bit of Blairite revisionism, but Tony’s attacks on the “forces of conservatism” weren’t aimed at the institutions of the establishment, but perceived obstructionists on the left. No sooner had he delivered the speech containing that phrase than he was on the phone to Paul Dacre assuring the Mail editor that he hadn’t been talking about him. And arguing that Britain’s social and political history may provide some building blocks for the future is not in itself a counsel of despair.

But blue Labour needs some work. First, it’s got  a branding problem. “Faith, family, flag”, is not a good  strap line. It sounds like something Sarah Palin could have dreamt up. In fact, it’s something Sarah Palin did dream up. America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag was published by the  Tea party pin-up last November, revealing to a stunned world “her deep love of country, her strong rootedness in faith, and her profound love and appreciation of family”. Of course, Palin could have nicked the idea after watching with mounting admiration Maurice Glasman and John Cruddas’  fight to protect the fish porters of Billingsgate. But I suspect it was probably all her own work. Or at least her own ghost writers’ work.

There has always been more of an overlap between traditional socialism and conservatism than either side would happily admit. But this subliminal association with the politics of the neo-conservatives isn’t doing the blue Labourites any favors. Nor, even if addressed in isolation, do concepts of flag and faith make blue Labour easily accessible to many on the progressive left.

Of course, its advocates would argue, that’s the whole point. Blue Labour is about reacquainting the left with those traditional working class values that were trampled under foot in the dash to occupy middle England and subsequent backlash towards liberal intellectualism.

Indeed, that’s blue Labour’s USP. Encouraging the party to take its first tentative steps into the scarred no-mans land of class politics. Reengaging with those millions of working class Labour voters who came to see Labour as standing only for “the rich and the immigrants”. Starting the process of erecting a basic ideological framework around which a new political identity and strategy can be constructed.

All of these things are what makes blue Labour a worthy and worthwhile enterprise. But it also leads to the second problem. Which is that the utopian vision of the past painted by its champions is just that. Too utopian. Their advocacy drifts too easily towards sentimentality.

To listen to Maurice Glasman’s talk about working class Britain is to conjure up a vision of street parties, unlocked front doors and dirty but happy young scamps playing hopscotch and cowboys and indians until all hours under the eyes of a benevolent community. Yes, there’s a political edge there somewhere; about structural social imbalances, and the comodification of labour; but it’s obscured behind a golden haze of reminiscence.

If we want to reconstruct the historic compact between the Labour party and the working class, it’s going to be a challenging process. For everyone. Yes, the richness, warmth and vibrancy of working class culture identified by Glasman is real and tangible. But there are also aspects of working class culture that are intolerant and reactionary.

If Labour wants to be a modern, progressive party, we are not going to be able to build our immigration policy around the views of Mrs Duffy. Nor, if we want to reconstruct our relationship with the working classes, will we able to build criminal or penal policy around the views of Sadiq Khan. What’s needed is a genuine process of reengagement, with all the elements of negotiation, trial and error that entails. We cannot afford blinkers; nor can we afford rose tinted spectacles.

But it’s a process we are going to need to engage in, because, like it or not, blue Labour is currently the only game in town. It is clear that Ed Miliband has no intention of pinning his colours to any ideological or philosophical masts for the foreseeable future. Blairism, by common consent, has run its course. Brownism never made it to the start line. “The good society”, the great red hope of the movement, has disappeared within a maze of abstraction and introspection.

Which leaves Maurice:

“Renewing relationships, institutions, the practices of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, organising people to resist the power of money. Labour is not the liberal party. It resisted that fate. It understands finance capital as a power and promotes the democratic resistance to its domination. That is why it is Labour, and it is Labour alone that can once again generate a politics of the common good”.

Personally, I’d prefer “Blue Ed Guru In People Power Election Pledge”. But there’s plenty of  time to polish it.

New Labour failed because it became all spin and no substance. Blue Labour is in danger of stalling for precisely the opposite reason. I understand that Andy Coulson and Alastair Campbell are both free at the moment. Lord Glasman should given them a ring.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


Tags: , ,


14 Responses to “Blue Labour needs a dose of realism and a spin doctor”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    No substance at all – Blue Labour is the priveleged few caricaturing working-class people as a bunch of knee-jerk Express readers, who just need the right kind of marketing “narrative” to get us back in line. It represents not only a failure to acknowledge Labour’s managerially oppressive, anti-democratic and illiberal tendencies of recent years, but an assertion that More Of The Same is needed to win elections.

    For those of us that want to see Labour kept out of office, Blue Labour is, frankly, awesome. More, please.

  2. I like the piece – but “New Labour failed because it became all spin and no substance” is an absurd assertion without further argument.

  3. Interesting. Have responded in detail – too much for a comment so put it on the blog; http://s.coop/bluelabourbrand

  4. doreen ogden says:

    Cobblers !

  5. Dan Hodges says:

    Matthew,

    That would have taken a whole separate article…

  6. Toque says:

    Blue Labour gets an airing in Sounding Journal, though not mentioned by name.

    http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/articles/s47rutherford.pdf

  7. Tom says:

    In these austere times, Blue Labour is about as welcome as an extra, unwanted litter of kittens in a financially pressed household.

    They both may provide a little comfort in their infancy, even some pleasure, eventually they are another unwanted burden and the realisation that they should have been put in a sack and introduced to the local canal dawns.

    What the electorate, the young, the old, those dispossessed, those who feel disenfranchised, the “squeezed middle” and the others want, yearn for is a radical leftist, some might be as bold as to suggest socialist, party that offers a clear distinct alternative.

    A party of the Left, for the people not for the Capital, A Labour Party, Red in name, thought and deed!

  8. iain ker says:

    “The party must remember it stands for ordinary workers and oppose globalised capitalism”.

    Oi, Billy, the 1970s just called. They want their bankrupt political philosophy back. And while you’re at it could they have their tedious protest songs and their clothes back as well.

    Bee tee double yew – what *is* globalised capitalism? Is that like Glaxo selling HIV drugs in Africa? Ooh how nasty. Stop it at once.

  9. M says:

    Hey Dan,

    Not usually a fan, but then again, not usually a reader. A really thoughtful, insightful article. Although, if we want to get into the intellectual weeds on this, I refer you to H M Druker’s Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party. I think what Glasman talks about mostly is Ethos – no bad thing – how that translates into policy/doctrine is a different matter

  10. james says:

    Blue Labour – is that what people working in the Red Light district do?

    Seriously, though…

    I think you make a good argument here, Dan. Just as Oliver Letwin and Phillip Blond provided the green and “Red Tory” ideas, Andy Coulson and before him Steve Hilton translatated these into bite-size chunks. If “Blue Labour” was filtered in the same way, the community organising approach would be emphasised.

    Ian – you ask “what *is* globalised capitalism. Is that like Glaxo selling HIV drugs in Africa? Ooh how nasty. Stop it at once.” No, that’s *trade*. The “capitalism” bit is about ownership and corporate governance – existing primarily to provide the greatest possible financial return to its owners. If you go to his website (http://www.billybragg.co.uk/) you’ll find Billy’s views on enterprise in his own line of work on the front page.

  11. Jason Wassell says:

    Great piece.

    Faith Family and Flag just makes me flinch. Even the tag of Blue Labour – which is just a label that comes from trying to contrast with the Red Tories -doesn’t really describe what this is about. All it does is allow some lazy commentators are just taking a quick glance and criticising this as a move to the Right. Whilst others keep going on about this being a nostalgia trip.

    There is the need for a modern narrative for social democracy that makes sense to voters. As someone who works in PR, I like the idea of linking the polices back to family, workplace and community.

    Make it ambitious, but also make it tangible and real.

  12. Carl says:

    I enjoyed this article – and if red toryism is anything to go by, even if Ed took blue labourism on lock, stock and barrel, he would have to drop it when actions speak louder than words (i.e. when he’s in office – one can but dream!).

    In the case of Cruddas, with his link between Barking and Raymond Williams, I thought he’d be the perfect person to lead such a movement – and I’m sure he knows Campbell.

  13. AmberStar says:

    Blue Labour…… good grief.
    😎

  14. cashado says:

    Blue Labour needs to be clear and unequivocal on a number of positions. At times its spokespersons can come across as being deliberately obtuse.
    It is not, as I understand it demonising the big state. However, it does appear as though it is promoting the democratisation of the state and believes that organised civil society has an essential role to play in this. Otherwise state apparatus will inevitably become self-interested, inaccessible and managerial if citizens remain disorganised, fatalistic and suspicious.
    Citizens need, therefore, to understand power, they need to organise themselves into civil society groups, build relationships with other like-minded organisations and coordinate action. And. this is precisely where Camersham’s bog society falls down and Blue Labour’s project is at least intellectually coherent:

    1. In the bog society the state withdraws and the public sphere is constrained. You cannot have an active, well organised civil society (especially amongst the working class) because it will oppose attempts to privatise health and education, it will demand more social housing and organise itself into trade unions to demand fair pay and job security. It will essentially de-rail your neoliberal projects because your vision of the common good (if you have one) is incompatible with theirs.

    2. In the blue labour society the state is made responsive and accessible by an active citizenry, often in broad single-issue coalitions made up of trade unions, faith groups, students and other community organisations at a local, regional, national and supra-national level. This ‘organised’ civil society holds the powerful (business and the sons and daughters of entrenched and indefensible privilege) to account and exercises extreme pressure on intransigent and uncooperative elites.

    can we expect the state to do this in the 21st century?

Leave a Reply