Blue Labour is a red herring

by George Bevis

Maurice Glasman’s work on the increasingly popular Blue Labour concept is a feat of brilliance; it echoes even the cleverness of Keynes.   I think it’s correct, but I also think it’s a distraction.

The problem with Blue Labour isn’t what it says, but what it is.  It is another political philosophy based primarily on growing social capital, reminiscent of the big society, stakeholder capitalism and many other more-or-less communitarian philosophies before them.

Such social capital approaches have proved problematic in that they can be too slow to solve many major socialist concerns: building enough hospitals; paying enough teachers and bringing enough people out of poverty. Although it may seem vulgar, Labour proved in government that the only kind of capital able to achieve those things quickly is financial capital.

Labour’s defining philosophy for government must therefore start with economic growth.  Growing social capital is very important, but it won’t achieve enough without a buoyant economic foundation.  And in the current period of austerity we cannot expect Britons to be enthusiastic about any philosophy which doesn’t primarily promise to alleviate the squeeze they feel.

Labour should be the natural party of growth economics.  Under Harold Wilson it was just that; the political champion of innovation and industry.  Labour’s argument back then remains valid today: we recognise and address the externalities that our extremist free-marketeering opponents refuse to acknowledge.

My favourite insight of Glasman’s is his definition of socialism as “sustainable capitalism”.  The most effective approach to addressing inequalities might be called “bottom-up capitalism”.  This is very different to the top-down, statist approaches favoured by armchair redistributors.  We should plan economic intervention not just as sustaining but stimulating activity, proven to result in recipients improving their own outcomes.   We should not be afraid to stimulate any segment of the economy where we calculate that the positive externalities will significantly outweigh the cost.

The private sector is not necessarily pro-Tory.  It is pro-growth, and pro-competence.   The current government is not scoring particularly highly on either of these measures.  There is every opportunity for Labour to outflank them with policies that are articulated imaginatively.

Labour could support investment in industries that have greatest positive externalities. Often those which create most jobs are paradoxically least attractive to private investors wary of overhead costs.

It could launch an enterprise policy designed by entrepreneurs not politicians, training and relocation programmes proven to actually work, a plan to end the “squeeze”, with Britons promised 50% more discretionary cash (after necessities and housing costs) than they have now after a full term of a Labour government .

If we really want a chance to create the country envisaged by the Blue Labour thinkers, we first need to make sure that we are the party of a balanced and robust economy. Social justice costs money. If red Ed is willing to become enterprise Ed, we might have a good chance of winning – and deserving to win – again.

George Bevis is an entrepreneur and Labour party activist in Islington South and Finsbury

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