Uncut Review: Blue Labour, Forging a New Politics, edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst

by Jonathan Todd

This book is reviewed in advance of the launch event at 7pm tonight in Portcullis House

Blue Labour was a useful vehicle for Ed Miliband. He wanted to move on from New Labour. Blue Labour helped him to do so without backing into too many left-wing cul-de-sacs. But Maurice Glasman, the original Blue Labour guru, grew frustrated with Miliband, having probably already alienated the party leader with his predilection for colourful comment.

Reflecting on this in Blue Labour, Forging a New Politics, a new book edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, Glasman laments that “in a rationalist, tin-eared and ungenerous Westminster village” he has fallen “into trouble” as a result of a fondness for “paradox, something that sounds wrong but is right”. While the book contains chapters from Labour’s Policy Review Co-ordinator (Jon Cruddas), as well as potentially the next Labour London mayor (David Lammy) and next deputy leader (Tom Watson), it is uncertain whether Blue Labour can again be the Westminster village force that it appeared when Miliband was elected leader.

Appropriately for a public philosophy propagated by Miliband, it is ceded within academia. Four book contributors are current holders of academic positions, while the University of Kent’s website indicates that Pabst’s “research focuses on contemporary post-liberal politics”. It’s not so long ago that I was commenting on drafts of a Demos Quarterly essay by David Goodhart, who also appears in this Blue Labour collection, on post-liberalism, never having previously encountered post-liberalism as a term. Now post-liberalism is subject to academic research, while Blue Labour, Pabst claims, “emerged as part of a wider ‘post-liberal’ turn in British politics in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and the 2011 London riots”.

The financial crisis, of course, wrought deleterious consequences. Through its analysis of the interactions between globalisation and financial liberalisation, Martin Wolf’s latest book provides a powerful account of how this happened. Wolf was caustic at an IPPR seminar last autumn on what he perceives as Labour’s failure to provide policy solutions big enough to meet the challenges that he poses.

These challenges play out on a global scale, while except for obliging nods toward the German economic model, Blue Labour is more parochial. Given his abiding concerns with trade imbalances, which Germany contribute significantly toward, and Euro mismanagement, which Germany sustains, Germany tends to be a source of Wolf’s scorn, not admiration. Whether we should revere or despair of Germany, Wolf, I suspect, is right that if durable solutions to our economic malaise are to be found, they’ll play out on more international vistas than Blue Labour appears attuned.

Dearth of international solutions is an elite failure. In Greece, this failure has been so pronounced that Syriza has emerged. But the Euro is a special dysfunction, only indirectly relevant to UK economics and politics. The financial crisis of 2007/8 was a staging post on the Greek journey to Syriza but whether it profoundly changed what British voters want from their political leaders – whether we really took a ‘post-liberal’ or any kind of political turn – remains debateable.

As much as we hear a lot about a lack of working class, female and BAME political representation, we have an even more pronounced absence of leaders able to deliver the solutions that Wolf hankers for. As most voters want leaders capable of delivering incremental improvement at minimum cost and fuss, what Wolf wants is an elite version of what voters wanted before and after the financial crisis. There will be no electoral embrace of Miliband if voters judge him less able than the incumbent government of so delivering.

Blue Labour has had some role in shaping Miliband’s prospectus. It has encouraged him to harden Labour’s stance on immigration, though Goodhart’s chapter seeks a further toughening. It has applauded the revival of the contributory principle under Rachel Reeves at DWP. Nonetheless, Frank Field’s chapter calls for the welfare state “to be reconstructed away from means testing onto a National Insurance basis”, while I recently co-authored a Policy Network pamphlet with him that sought to help toward this.

“We need,” Watson notes, “to build a party that sets out a sense of long-term national purpose and mobilises broad political support”. Such a party would community organise, as Arnie Graf’s chapter describes (but the best CLPs always were); be pro-family, as Michael Merrick’s encourages (but anything else would be contrary to the self-evident reality of what, other things being equal, best nurtures all of us); be pro-business and pro-worker, as Watson argues (but Labour has always succeeded when it has been so); be ‘small c’ conservative, as Rowenna Davis puts it, in “honouring the civic institutions, the localities, stories and relationships that allow us to build (change) together” (but, at least in Cumbria, that isn’t a new string to Labour’s bow).

Much of this seems to me not so much the politics of paradox that Glasman celebrates but common sense. It doesn’t answer all questions, not least those posed by Wolf. But it contains plenty of useful nuggets. And having recently speculated on fusion between Blue and New Labour, I continue to follow Glasman’s route to a common good: “Stay in the room and represent our interests and explore how we can be reconciled with others”.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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3 Responses to “Uncut Review: Blue Labour, Forging a New Politics, edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst”

  1. Vern says:

    I stopped reading at the point where you suggested Watson as next deputy leader.

  2. Vern says:

    I gave up reading at the point you suggested Watson for deputy leader. The party needs the credible people to be taken seriously, not a serial quitter and someone who is evidently out for number 1.

  3. Tafia says:

    You omit that UKIP also want to change the way the figures are calculated, such as not counting foreigners here in university.

    You did know that yes?

    Chalk and cheese.

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