Blue Labour by numbers

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half red half blueBy Carl Rowlands

I’m not sure that Ian Silvera’s interpretation of Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman’s work is a fair reflection of the original authors’ intentions. Yet, as with the ‘Big Society,’ the devil is in the detail. To some extent, any misinterpretation results from the authors unwillingness at this stage to spell out what this all means in terms of policy. So, unofficially, and without the authors’ blessing, what would a ‘Blue Labour’ economic strategy look like? What could we expect, if we take Glasman’s theories as a starting point?

I infer that the trade unions are going be placed in a central role, as representatives of working people, and as organisations which carry the potential for transformative change in everyday life. This expansion of trade unions’ role should involve revision of some of the UK’s most draconian anti-union legislation. But it should go further than this.

Blue Labour demands a higher degree of economic democracy. Trades unions, long-thought to be an electoral millstone, could provide a platform for building up workplace democracy and ensuring the rebalancing of the worker-employer relationship, which has been unbalanced in the UK for so long – to the detriment of the economy as a whole. The values entailed in meaningful skilled work, run contrary to the cut-and-run philosophy of the pre-2008 economy.

Secondly, as in Sweden, there is a strong argument that union membership should contain elements of unemployment insurance, in addition to the restoration of the basic state benefit to a more humane level. Therefore, joining a union can exist as a combined insurance: both something that can protect against workplace injustice, as well as an extra protection against unemployment. The state may need to do little more than underwrite and enable this union-based unemployment protection. Adding to the unions’ resources would enable them to further build up union membership levels and begin to challenge the casualisation which has become rife in the UK’s short-termist labour markets.

Not only is economic democracy in the workplace crucial, but the very forms and structures of Britain’s economy need to be challenged and re-examined. Should water companies, for example, be owned by the communities which they serve? How can this be combined with the large-scale infrastructure requirements, so neglected by the heavily subsidised and privatised utilities of water, transport and energy?

All political parties profess their attachment to the idea of co-operatives, yet surely a ‘Blue Labour’ economy would demand that a well-funded regional and community infrastructure exists. Finance and support is needed to nurture creativity and invention, ensuring that such enterprises should not be exposed to market forces before they are ready to develop, and that the taxation system should recognise the social and economic benefits from co-operatives.

The possibilities for ‘Blue Labour’ therefore run very deep, and challenge the existing framework of laws and customs underpinning the current economic model. For opening up an unorthodox discussion which has such profound implications for the economic sphere, I think the authors deserve some credit.

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