It is a commonplace for commentators to say that the recent success of UKIP in the shire elections poses a threat to Labour as well as the Tories. There is some truth in this, but a strand of thinking in the Labour Party has been grappling with some of the issues UKIP poses from a left perspective for several years. This is referred to as ‘Blue Labour’.
Essentially it is a critique of both Old and New Labour. It understands that the relentless progress of the last Labour Governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of government and is critical of its neo-liberal view of the world – globalisation understood entirely on terms set by finance capital. Instead it focuses on a different approach to socialism, stressing communitarianism, self reliance and mutuality.
The debate has been driven by the credibility of many of those leading it, most notably the Labour MP and Milliband’s policy review chief, John Cruddas and cultural studies professor, Jonathan Rutherford. They set out the Blue Labour stall thus:
“…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no one. It champions humanity in general but no one in particular. It favours multi-culturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific. Over the past decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion”.
A lot of people on the left can relate to that and the ‘Blue Labour’ argument is essentially that the loss by Labour of over five million votes between 1997 and 2010 is a reflection of this, encapsulated in Tony Blair’s famous 2004 comment “Leave the past to those who live in it”.
The problem with that mind-set is that this view of Labour supporters certainly does resonate with UKIP recruits from Labour. Recent focus groups of UKIP supporters when, after rehearsing a lengthy catalogue of things they didn’t like were asked what they did like about Britain, reportedly responded, ‘The past’. Cruddas’s summary of the trajectory of New Labour under Blair is:
“At its best New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s, early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end it embraced a dystopian destructive neo-liberalism cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour”.
What ‘Blue Labour’ is trying to articulate is a direction of travel that is different from a ‘progressive’ politics that uncritically embraces globalisation, neo-liberalism, consumerism and a market economy that leaves great swathes of the population behind and whose guiding principles were graphically exposed by the banking crisis of 2008.
By contrast, the current Government is a constant source of dismay to its supporters as it takes its admiration of all things ‘Blairite’ to new heights, with its attempts to flog off parts of English common life to the highest bidder, forests, waterways, parks, the Post Office, sport and culture, not to mention that national institution, the National Health Service. Hence the mass defections to UKIP from the Tories
By contrast ‘Blue Labour’ is attempting to create a polity through a set of values rooted in relationships – reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity and co-operation rather than the managerial, the bureaucratic and the corporate. It is not just a critique of New Labour though – Blue Labour is not that keen on Old Labour either.
As long ago as 1952, Richard Crossman in an article entitled “Towards a philosophy of Socialism” recognised that the post-war project, the creation of the Welfare State, the triumph of Fabianism, took for granted that politics was the business of maximising general happiness through social planning.
However a welfare state administered centrally in Whitehall sapped the life blood of the Labour Movement. “Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation”. Now (and this was in 1952!), it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had previously helped run municipal “gas and water socialism” were given “no vision of new socialist responsibilities”. ‘Blue Labour’ takes a similar view and indeed a deep scepticism of the Welfare State seems to be one of its defining features.
Navigating a credible path between a critique of the Welfare State, hostility to globalisation and neo-conservative economics, and a potentially reactionary nostalgia, is not easy. Labour’s traditions of solidarity, at their best, have been cross-class, cross-generational, cross-gender and cross-national. That is why the bust-ups over immigration prompted by the comments of the original exponent of ‘Blue Labour’ Maurice Glasman (enobled by Ed Miliband in 2011), hurt. It is also true that the ‘flag, faith and family’ tag has more than a hint of not just nationalism, but patriarchy. Some have denounced its perceived conservatism as a ‘Janet and John’ 1950’s style approach to family life. But the Labour Movement has a ‘tradition’ that embraces feminism, internationalism and more recently, multiculturalism. In this regard, ‘Blue Labour’ needs to be a lot more nuanced than current public perception of it.
It has also been criticised for having no coherent economic policy. Certainly talk of limiting the market, bemoaning the “commodification of human beings” and the promotion of regional banks and ‘city parliaments’, doesn’t constitute an economic policy. But unlike the “Big Society”, a shameless Tory ‘borrowing’ of the narratives of community and mutuality, ‘Blue Labour’ is not utterly silent on the market.
Whatever we think of the specific prescriptions that have emerged so far, what we are seeing with ‘Blue Labour’ is a return of something that was repressed under New Labour. Labour is once more talking about class and ideology and from that, some constructive new thinking and a credible response to the UKIP threat, should emerge.
Martin Stott has been an INLOGOV Associate since 2012. He joined INLOGOV after a 25 year career in local government, both as an elected member and as a senior officer.