The big monkey and the emperor’s new rainbow

by Dan Hodges

Enough now. We’ve had our fun.

Blue Labour. Purple Labour. Green Labour. A veritable kaleidoscope of renewal.

Each, in their own superficial way, has been easy on the eye. The force of nature that is Maurice Glasman, the Labour party’s very own Norman Mailer. The defiant defence of the Blairite bunker, and the refusal of the last tiny band of hard core New Labourites to march quietly into the night. The Compass-ite left’s touching unwillingness to relinquish their dream of a progressive realignment, even as Nick Clegg smashes it to pieces in front of them.

But now the colours which dazzled have become garish. Where once they complemented, now they clash. There is no structure, however abstract, emerging. We are simply producing a mess.

Too harsh? Go and dig out Sunday’s Murnaghan. Relive the spectacle of two Labour shadow ministers, Caroline Flint and Diane Abbott, knocking lumps out of each other as they scrap over Maurice Glasman’s latest pronouncements on immigration policy. It was like watching an episode of the Jeremey Kyle show; “Maurice has been flirting with both Caroline and Diane, and they’re not happy. So we’ve brought them all together to fight it out. Live”.

Blue Labour has provided a valuable contribution to the discussion about the party’s future direction. At a time when Ed Miliband was preparing to embark on a madcap expedition into the wilderness to hunt for a non-existent “progressive majority”, it provided a much needed dose of realism. But Maurice Glasman’s prospectus is now being undermined. By Maurice Glasman himself.

The accusations of sexism, or dangerous nationalism, are well wide of the mark. Blue Labour is partly about confronting taboos, and, despite our radical pretensions, that’s not something that we as a party welcome when those taboos are our own.

But Glasman’s increasingly erratic media appearances are providing ammunition to his enemies, and alarming his friends. In the past few weeks he has identified Aristotle, Miles Davis, Aldo Moro, the Pope and Lionel Messi as inspirations behind his programme. At the same time, he has metaphorically decapitated David Miliband: “David’s totally unrelational. I used to meet him and it was as if he took off his head and put it on the table”; attacked Gordon Brown:  “If you want to know everything that was wrong about Scottish Labour and Labour, just look at [his] career”; piled into Tony Blair and New Labour: “craven, contemptuous, with a loathing of Labour voters”; had a swipe at Neil Kinnock: “prone to moralistic cynicism”; and dismissed Harriet Harman and her programme as “a vote loser”.

This is not a debate, it’s a political drive-by. And many MPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to hold the wheel while Glasman hangs out of the window, brandishing his intellectual Uzi. It was significant that Jon Cruddas, perceived until recently as a Glasman ally, last week spoke publicly about his growing wariness of the Blue Labour brand.

But if you think Maurice is on a trip, take a peak at the latest edition of Progress. Last month I was told that the Blairite pressure group was conducting a far-reaching review of how it operates, culminating in the launch of their much vaunted purple book. Well operating like a serious political organization, rather than a teenage fan-club, would be a place to start.

Their latest offering is beyond parody. The front cover of the signature magazine features a tanned and open necked Tony Blair, doing what appears to be a passable imitation of David Hasselhoff. With the headline – I kid you not – “Don’t stop believing”, Progress assails us with its own unique vision of Hoff-Labour.

“New Labour is right for Labour”, intones the editorial. “New Labour, [Ed Miliband] declared during the leadership contest, is “dead”. We disagree – and not simply because it would be foolish to think Labour has nothing positive to learn from a politics which delivered the party three historic general election victories”.  At times Hoff-Labour struggles vainly to hide its youthful longing for the ageing former lead singer of the Ugly Rumours – “None of this, of course, makes us blind to the failings of the last government” – before capitulating completely, and emitting one final, high pitched scream of infatuation, “But many of the errors committed by the last government were because it was not new enough, not because it was not Labour enough”.

I’ve written before about the party’s paranoia over Blairite ghosts lurking beneath every progressive bed in the movement. But that paranoia is not going to be helped by Progress supporters donning a sheet, then leaping out and screaming “booo” at every unsuspecting party member. If Blairism is to have a place in shaping the politics of the future, then it will have to do what Tony Blair told everyone else they had to do – make a clear, clean break with the past.

Not that everyone is gripped with inertia. Leading centre-left campaign group, Compass, is certainly moving on, with lemming-like enthusiasm. One reluctant delegate to last month’s Compass conference summed it up like this, “There are only 700 people in the country who think like this, and they’re all sitting next to me”.

Compass were once the driving force for a new model of centre-left politics. Now they have become Labour’s version of the Tea party. Though that’s not entirely fair, because the Labour party no longer seems to feature all that highly in Compass’s thinking.

“An enormous and dangerous gap is opening up between politics and the people”, Neal Lawson told the faithful, but “British politics feels unable to bridge this gap”. Some are trying, “The Greens have a great programme with as much emphasis on equality and democracy as sustainability. And Caroline Lucas is wonderful”. The Lib Dems? Compass has, “a great deal of sympathy for what’s happened to them – a small, well organised right wing clique take over your party and make it do all kinds of things which you profoundly object to. Sound familiar“?

Labour? Well, “Labour has yet to come to terms with its own relentless decline. Of a political economy based on pumping up the City, house prices and personal debt – and then saying we’ve ended boom and bust. Cutting a little less a little slower is not an alternative, it’s just a plan A-lite”.

Is this it? Is this really the foundation on which the next Labour government will be constructed? An eccentric appropriation of Miles Davies, an obsessive crush on Tony Blair and an irrational faith in Caroline Lucas.

Actually, I’m doing Maurice Glassman, Neal Lawson and Richard Angell a disservice. They’ve been invited to participate in a debate, and they’ve accepted the invitation.

But where in God’s name are the politicians? Where, more to the point, is the leader of the Labour party? For the moment it looks as if every crank, conjuror and snake oil salesman in Westminster is beating a path to his door, peddling their own pet theory about what should be filling that infamously blank piece of paper.

Blue Labour. Purple Labour. Green Labour. We are not witnessing the construction of a political masterpiece. Instead we are like one of those art critics who enthuses about the lines, form and meaning of a new work, only to be told that they were in fact random splotches hurled onto the canvass by a group of chimpanzees.

It was an enjoyable spectacle. But now it’s over. Someone pass Ed Miliband the mop.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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6 Responses to “The big monkey and the emperor’s new rainbow”

  1. Hazel says:

    Once again really good article Dan, but I still think you give too much credit to Blue Labour. While it clearly doesn’t promote ‘dangerous nationalism’ it has sexist undertones and is generally backward looking. Labour cannot win if Blue Labour has an impact on its policies, some may be popular individually, but the whole tone of Blue Labour is so off I honestly don’t know why it has as much credibility as it does.

    I’ve seen Lord Glasman speak and was completely unimpressed. I had expected him to be charismatic and at the very least a good speaker, since he had gained so much attention within Labour. I found him rambling, incoherent and he didn’t even articulate what Blue Labour actually is, so I left more confused than I went in.

    You say Blue Labour is good as it is a bulwark against the progressive majority argument, which I agree is pretty non-existent. I think Labour should appeal to peoples’ progressive instincts, but the idea of more or less constant coalition with Lib Dems/ Greens etc as promoted by Compass is so far off the mark it is laughable.

    Luckily Ed M doesn’t seem to be taking either of these ideas seriously, I just wish he would be a little more forthcoming about what he does believe so these pointless and ridiculous arguments would lose attention.

  2. Don Gately says:

    “But where in God’s name are the politicians?”

    Less “where” but more “what”. Progress within the last govt was made on the basis that ministers were on message and could manage delivery. Someone else did their thinking for them and they just put that into action. That’s what I used to think the permanent civil service was for. There was no incentive to analyse and think – that’s why the thinkers in the labour movement are not tied closely enough to the party heirarchy and senior positions as there was increasingly no role for them – especially when brown just put a halt on every area of reform.

    The politicians are there but they’re the wrong politicians for the roles that are needed. Miliband is focusing too much on getting back into power and trying to game the current position than trying to develop a direction the party can unify behind. He’s saying stuff but nothing coherently and is not developing any consistant message. Those that are able to think and analyse have too much freedom and too little influence – as a result they’re all over the place, engaging in intellectual exercises rather than trying to apply their abilities to the problems at hand with a little more focus

    the party needs to turn this around – put the managers in charge of operational campaigning and the thinkers in charge of strategy. For that to happen the current tier of senior politicians needs to be eroded by failure – they won’t go of their own volition.

    This will be a long road

  3. William Norton says:

    Welcome to Opposition, Mr Hodges. See you in 2028.

  4. Chris says:


  5. Roger says:

    Good stuff.

    Glasman’s issue is that he is the very embodiment of the academic in politics – he loves a good digression (the extended Milesian riff on how the LSE is the root of all evil delivered at an LSE event recently was a particularly good example being both largely true and of no relevance to the matter being discussed) and as an activist in London Citizens sees to be quite unable to comprehend that not all ‘community groups’ should be welcomed with open arms just because they are citizens and in London.

    He is however one Labour figure who must qualify as his own worst enemy – you really can’t imagine any modern day Morrison or Bevin growling ‘not as long as I am alive he ain’t’ in his case.

    Where are the politicians?

    Well there’s Dr Cruddas who sincerely believes that pacifist arch-appeaser of fascism George Lansbury was Labour’s greatest leader who had he not been stabbed in the back by Bevin would have won the 1935 general election and instituted the socialist millennium.

    Anyone else remember that line from Seinfeld ‘just when I think I’ve realised how shallow you are you go and drain the lake just a little bit more…’

    If Jon is one of its leading intellectuals then the PLP lake must be very shallow indeed.

    And Ed Miliband I think could have made a real intellectual contribution to a ‘Whither Labour’ debate but has managed to land himself the one job in politics where he can’t ever say or do anything that plays to his strengths and must instead constantly display all his weaknesses.

    Wrong Ed, wrong Miliband – so much for AV.

    So when and where is this great debate?

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