by Jonathan Todd
No less an authority than Lord Mandelson has declared New Labour dead. Dan Hodges has called time on blue Labour. But the revisionist principles driving New Labour long predate it and will surely outlast it. They stretch back to Eduard Bernstein via Tony Crosland and are timeless. As Lord Mandelson certainly knows, they cannot die. And the quest for belonging in a globalised age that underpins blue Labour shows no signs of losing its resonance as we continue to live through globalisation’s biggest economic crisis since the 1930s.
If the revisionist principles of New Labour are un-dead and blue Labour retains significance, perhaps Labour’s future, as both David Miliband and James Purnell have postulated, lies in some fusion of New and Blue Labour.
Labour’s future, in other words, is Cumbrian.
New Labour made Labour’s peace with business; reconciling Labour’s values of social justice with a pro-business attitude at ease with globalisation. Little could be more open for business than a national park which welcomes around 12 million visitors annually, the largest concentration of nuclear expertise in Europe and a vital production facility for BAE Systems, the third-largest defence manufacturer in the world. If New Labour means being pro-business, then New Labour is Cumbrian.
But as Cumbria has opened its doors to the world and traded upon the skill and ingenuity of its people, it has never lost that most precious commodity that blue Labour says New Labour misplaced along the way: a deep and defining sense of community. Cumbrians never need to ask: am I my brother’s keeper? This is instinctively known. If blue Labour means community, then blue Labour is Cumbrian.
Of course, Cumbria is as unique as it is special. It would be absurd to generalise too much from such a particular place. Withnail and I discovered that Penrith is not Camberwell. But nor is Cumbria so remote as to be without wider relevance. It would be closer with stopping HS2 trains, but it’s just up the M6. Cumbrians are inspired and frustrated by the same things as the rest of the country.
Cumbrians preserve what is good and change what is bad. The good includes the kind of community pubs that CAMRA exists to sustain, serving real Cumbrian ales like Jennings and Hawkshead; sports clubs that are beacons of pride and breeding grounds for competitors like Emlyn Hughes and Grant Holt; and a manufacturing base that has long allowed successful careers to begin with apprenticeships.
If bonds of community of Cumbrian strength are thought in the public interest, public policy should seek to deepen the roots of such pubs, clubs and manufacturing beyond the county. Such clubs include bowling clubs and Cumbrian MP John Woodcock recently became “sports Parliamentarian of the year” for his campaign to preserve them. Sometimes radicalism means facing up to necessary change. Sometimes it means resisting unnecessary change. Bowling clubs are a part of the fabric of our communities that should be retained.
There is no reason for such fabric to come at the expense of openness to the global economy. Either explicit or implicit in some recent debate has been the suggestion that we must choose between this openness and strong communities. But Cumbria exposes this fallacy.
Until New Labour came to power, the bad in Cumbria included a lack of higher education (HE), crumbling school buildings and questions over the viability of community hospitals. The university of Cumbria, building schools for the future (BSF) and innovative use of practice-based commissioning brought change. Conservative government has been regressive: access to HE limited, BSF cuts to six Cumbrian schools and an assault on the NHS that threatens to undo all gains made by Labour investment and reform.
This is undoubtedly bleak but the community spirit of Cumbria has been as indefatigable as ever. Thousands have signed a petition to maintain services at West Cumberland hospital. Government moves to privatise publicly owned forests resulted in demonstrations in Grizedale and Whinlatter that defiantly said: “We don’t want to buy what we already own”. When Question Time came to Workington earlier this year, an audience member drew applause by pointing out that Cumbria has always been a big society, but it’s being dismantled by this government.
In spite of David Cameron’s recklessness and Alex Salmon’s foolish petition for divorce, Britain remains a family, with the wrong members in charge. We await our first Cumbrian prime minister. This should be a man who grew up in the heart of New Labour, nurtured Blue Labour and in summer 2010 drew the biggest crowd to a Labour meeting in Carlisle since the days of Harold Wilson: Ed Miliband.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.