By Ben Folley
On Monday night Helen Goodman MP debated Blue Labour’s leading thinker, Maurice Glasman, on Newsnight (which you can watch again here or read the transcript here). Whilst I thought Glasman failed to make a coherent case on the night, he and the other leading thinkers of Blue Labour have written reams of essays, which Goodman appears to have read extensively.
Many people I know have expressed concern with Blue Labour’s backward-looking social policy agenda, best expressed by what has become known as ‘Family, Faith and Flag’. But many have also assumed that alongside this Blue Labour had a more progressive agenda on the economy, with its occasional rhetorical flourishes against neo-liberalism in its articles.
But Goodman also helped to dispel this myth by pointing out Blue Labour’s hostility to state involvement in the economy and rejection of aspects of the 1945 settlement that saw the creation of the welfare state. As Goodman said of Blue Labour on Newsnight, ‘I think the rejection of 1945 is a really big mistake’.
Blue Labour has taken it upon itself to challenge the politics of Attlee and the Labour government that created the NHS and modernised the British economy through nationalisation after the Second World War.
On the programme, Glasman said ‘the problem with 1945 was the nationalisation model,’ and in Labour as a Radical Tradition, he wrote:
“The big rupture with the dominant Labour narrative…came with the victory of 1945, which was the trigger for its long-term decline. It could be said that this was when, in the name of abstract justice, the movement was sacrificed.”
Explaining the idea further Glasman has said that:
“Nationalisation, and its direction by state appointed experts, was but one form of the social ownership that was discussed by the labour movement for three decades before 1945. For most of the time before that, co-operative firms, worker and passenger owned railways, mutualised waterways and worker-run mines were Party policy. This was all but abandoned by the time Attlee became prime minister.”
And in specific reference to the NHS, the BBC wrote:
“Lord Glasman believes that, in the post-war period following the creation of the National Health Service, Labour developed a top-down model of government that became “remote, bossy and managerial”. “1945 was a wonderful achievement of solidarity,” he told Radio 4′s Analysis programme. “But the sting in the tail of 1945 was that it broke all the mutual solidarity – the ways we took care of each other – and handed them over to the state.”
In short, Glasman believes that Attlee and post-war Labour was ‘too statist’.
Another key Blue Labour thinker who Glasman has called ‘a very important colleague in developing the idea,’ is the Oxford political historian Marc Stears, who has said:
“we need to get away from this obsession with absolute fairness, with material equality… we need to be experimental …. If that means private sector operators working in collaboration with the providers and the recipients of services in a more relational, more democratic way, then we have to be prepared to say that that’s the right move forwards.”
In prefacing his point, he specifically says:
“We’ve gone for many years now in a state-driven, redistribution-driven, equality-driven Labour tradition that comes straight out of 1945.”
I believe it is totally inconsistent with the reality of the Labour movement history and the gains made for working people by the 1945 government to suggest this period was one of decline in our movement. Helen Goodman rejected this interpretation of history on Newsnight saying:
“Maurice has criticised nationalisation. My mother-in-law came from a mining village, when she was a child she’d frequently she’d go to the pit when there was an accident. How many people were being killed in the pits? Horrible things were happening. Once you’ve got nationalisation you’ve got massive improvements in health and safety standards, massive improvements in people’s standards of living. Or my own grandmother, between the wars she was collecting subs for a voluntary ambulance scheme and great in terms of community building which is what Maurice is talking about, but actually people prefer to dial 999.”
Similarly Roy Hattersley has rejected Blue Labour’s undermining of the welfare state as something that would exacerbate inequality. He said:
“Before the creation of the welfare state, we all died of illnesses early on because all the things that the state provided were not available in those days.”
One consequence of the undermining of the welfare state by Blue Labour is that it has emboldened the more free-market wing of the party. In the latest Blue Labour pamphlet, ‘The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox‘, James Purnell writes that Maurice Glasman is correct to identify ‘the 1945 government as the problem’ and that until Glasman’s paper “Labour’s default setting has been that 1945 was paradise lost…That’s what gives the keepers of the scrolls the right to denounce anyone who doesn’t privilege equality…”
To claim that anyone thinks 1945 was paradise lost is clearly fanciful, but there is no question we should defend the enormous gains made for working people in the post-war period.
And we should do so more than ever at this particular juncture, with a Tory government attacking public services and the welfare state.
The real risk of the spread of Blue Labour’s ideas is disarming the Labour movement as we face the real battle over coming months, stopping the Tories from carrying out the irreversible destruction of basic services that are vital to people’s everyday lives.