by Jon Bloomfield
In Britain and across Europe, the social alliances that sustained progressive politics for a century are disintegrating. The financial crisis of 2007–8 showed that Labour and its ‘third way’ European followers had got the economics of modern capitalism wrong. With the mainstream left compromised, it has been the nationalist right that has benefitted, re‐defining politics around issues of nation, culture and identity. What is surprising is the number of influential voices across the centre and left of politics who have accepted much of this far‐right analysis and adopted its language and terminology.
These trends, especially post‐Brexit, have crystallised in the UK around the label of ‘Blue Labour’. They have bought into this binary divide: the choice is either neoliberal hyper‐globalisation or a patriotic nationalism. The Brexit argument has served to crystallise and harden these divisions. The possibility of any different types of globalisation has been denied. Rather, there has been a variant of the Thatcherite mantra: there is no alternative to globalisation, the only option is to reject it.
As popular doubts about the UK’s headlong embrace of neoliberal globalisation grew, elements of left opinion such as Maurice Glasman shaped their critiques within this nationalist framework. Whatever its initial concerns, this new way of framing politics quickly gave primacy to cultural and national identity rather than the economic or social. The initial flurry of interest within Labour waned, as did its brief ‘Red Tory’ counterpart, Phillip Blond. However, the Brexit debate, with its focus on national sovereignty, has given the label new vigour and a purchase stretching well beyond Labour’s ranks. David Goodhart has been the leading protagonist. His 2017 book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics ,develops this argument and provides the bedrock of Blue Labour thinking post‐Brexit.
For Goodhart, the world is basically divided between the ‘Anywheres’, ‘the upper professional class’ with their global world outlook and the ‘Somewheres’, with their preference for place, stability and nation. These are Britain’s ‘two value blocs’ and the book is a paean of praise for the preferences and prejudices of the latter. Paul Collier, a development economist, articulates similar views as does Matthew Goodwin and they find increasing space in the New Statesman.
My recent article in Political Quarterly examines the fallacies and flaws of the Blue Labour tendency in four key areas—class, economy, family and race. To take one example on the family. Blue Labour asserts that there is an essential, unchanging bedrock of common sense and small “c” conservative views on social and cultural issues at the core of the working class, which Anywheres do not understand and that this marks a key fault line between the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the working class living in industrial towns. It is a frequently repeated but false assertion. The reality is that vast swathes of the population have shifted their attitudes over the last half‐century and that the key determinant has been age.
I take two indicators from the last census: the numbers of people co‐habiting and the number of lone parent households and look at the figures for the big metropolitan cities and their smaller industrial neighbours. They are broadly comparable. In Birmingham, co‐habitation stands at 8 per cent of all households, a little below the figure for Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley. In Manchester, the co‐habitation rate of 10.9 per cent is below that for Wigan at 11.4 per cent, while in Leeds, at 10.6 per cent it is below that of Wakefield’s 11.5 per cent. The figures for lone parents tell a similar story. The Birmingham rate 14.6 per cent is slightly higher than its neighbours, notably Dudley at 10.6 per cent, but similar to Wolverhampton’s 14.0 per cent; while Manchester’s at 14.0 per cent is slightly above Oldham at 13.1 per cent and Wigan at 12.1 per cent. Leeds at 10.9 per cent is a touch below Wakefield at 11.0 per cent. What this data suggest is that the trends towards greater variety of family forms, people living together outside marriage, more divorce, separation and single parent households are broadly common across urban England. The Blue Labour story that there is a gulf between the hedonistic big cities and the socially conservative, working class industrial towns is a myth.
I challenge Blue Labour claims similarly on class, the economy and race, explain how Brexit has crystallised these arguments and led Blue Labour into the welcoming arms of the hard Right. I conclude by suggesting that alternative ways forward should seek to forge rather than disrupt alliances between the working class and new social movements.
Those interested in the full read can find it here.
Jon Bloomfield is an INLOGOV Associate. He is an expert on a range of European issues including cities, climate change and migration, who advises European agencies, carries out research in the EU and contributes to post-graduate programmes.