Blue Labour: A plea for clarity

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Blue LabourBy Alex Canfor-Dumas

Like most contributors to (and readers of) LabourList – and no offence to those who aren’t – I’m a political nerd. I follow the minutiae of intra-Labour debates with a possibly unnerving degree of interest; I’m the kind of person for whom Dan Hodges, Will Straw and Sunder Katwala are ‘celebrities’. I also happen to be a postgraduate student of political philosophy. I mention these facts not in a bid to ensure that no girl is ever interested in me again, but rather to provide the context for the following statement: I genuinely cannot understand what ‘Blue Labour’ is all about.

What’s more, I really want to understand what it’s about. As a Guardian-reading middle-class liberal I’m pretty sure I’m not Blue Labour’s target demographic, but I certainly want to be able to engage in the debate – not least because I’ve been taught by Marc Stears, one of the ‘godfathers’ of Blue Labour, and found him a hugely intelligent, passionate and inspiring figure. But despite all that, I’m confused. At first it seemed that BL is based on the idea that Labour needs to focus on the actual concerns of ordinary working-class voters, rather than impose an elite, top-down notion of fairness that is alien to the very people we are trying to help. But then I read Maurice Glasman arguing (in the Guardian – where else?) that, actually, Labour should concentrate on “resistance to the commodification of human beings.” Show me a working-class voter who’s worried about the commodification of labour, and I’ll show you a working-class voter with an unusual exposure to the writings of Karl Marx. So, which is it to be: an overriding concern for people’s real worries, or a central focus on the domination of capital?

Puzzled, I did what any self-respecting nerd would – read more. Soon I was confronted by former Blairite minister and BL convert James Purnell declaring that markets are “inherently exploitative.” This was contrasted with the (apparently disowned) ‘progressive’ New Labour view that “markets are the best way of generating wealth and tax revenues.” This confused me further: was this really James Purnell? And does he (and by extension BL) seriously think that markets are not, ultimately, the best – indeed, only – way of generating wealth and tax revenues? If so, it looks like we might have to have the debates of the 1980s all over again. Not that I actually had the power of speech during the 1980s, I hasten to add.

But what of a positive, constructive account of the values and virtues that BL seeks to promote? Purnell tells us that Labour needs to promote “responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory.” I half expected to see “motherhood and apple pie” tagged on to the end here; I’m in favour of everything on Purnell’s list, as, I’m sure, is every paid-up member of the Conservative Party – and the Lib Dems, and the Greens, and just about every other person on the country. That’s fine from a marketing perspective, of course, but we need to see some flesh put on these somewhat platitudinous bones if a Labour vision of “love and loyalty” is going to mean anything at all beyond a shallow branding exercise.

Last but not least, we could do without straw men arguments. I don’t doubt Lord Glasman’s intentions for one moment, but the implication that anyone in the Labour Party would think that “you could have three generations of one family on welfare in the same house and that’s seen as a good society” is not only mistaken, but also deeply damaging to the party given how we are currently perceived by the public.

As a student of political ideas I’m delighted that Labour is having these debates. If we are going to get anything positive out of them, however, we need to make sure that they are conducted with balance, honesty – and above all, a lot more clarity.

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