Opposition is the most intellectually creative time for any political party. But Blue Labour has been the only significant movement of new ideas to emerge during the last five years. It began with Maurice Glasman’s anger one evening about Phillip Blond’s act of intellectual larceny, stealing ideas central to Labour’s tradition to forge his ‘Red Tory’ political brand. Blond had a point of course. Glasman and many of the rest of us believe the Labour Party had been taken over by technocrats and neoclassical economists, and had abandoned its historic purpose of organising people to challenge the unrestrained power of capital.
In a series of conversations between politicians and academics from 2010 onwards, Blue Labour developed into a rich and well thought out set of political propositions. Its point was to reassert the place of reciprocity, solidarity and, above all, friendship and conversation to Labour politics. Never quite breaking through into the Labour mainstream, Blue Labour nonetheless simmers on. There are annual conferences in Nottingham, and a strong network of supporters and sympathisers, most importantly the head of Labour’s policy review Jon Cruddas. The volume of essays edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst published next week – Blue Labour. Forging A New Politics is a good summary of the place the movement has ended up. For serious ideas capable of renewing Labour’s politics, Blue Labour is still pretty much the only game in town.
Blue Labour too often gets reduced to a bid to win back Labour’s traditional working class, or to ‘family, faith and flag’. Both, as Rod Liddle points out in his comments on the book’s cover, fundamentally miss the point. Blue Labour is more than a pitch to disgruntled voters or a pithy slogan. It is an attempt to fundamentally renew our political community.
Let me put it like this: it isn’t just that politics in Britain now is unpopular and out of touch. It’s far more serious than that. Life in this country is good for many, ok for most, tough for lots; we get on with our everyday lives as usual, in many cases we have better living standards than thirty, forty, fifty years ago. But we have no sense of being able to shape, collectively or individually, our own destiny. Much of the time, what we now call ‘politics’ are a series of trivial arguments about minor differences in the rules the state uses to manage public institutions and distribute resources. Let’s be honest, the difference between an Academy and Free School are marginal; Labour’s plans on the NHS are not radically different from the Tories. Britain is stuck in a low-wage, low-skill economic trap, and there’s no sign institutions to get us out are going to come soon. Every kind of organisation, whether big business or the public sector is governed by a kind of amoral managerialism that leaves no room for public discussion or argument.
The end of political community in Britain came with the extinction of places in which it was possible for different interests to meet, to debate, and from their differences forge some kind of common good. Blue Labour wants that political community to be renewed through a reconfiguration of political and economic institutions, so our schools and hospitals as well as businesses and banks are ruled by negotiation between otherwise conflicting interests. The Blue Labour ‘vision’ is of a polity ruled by conversation in which the sense of mutual responsibility can develop. For me, the key Blue Labour ‘policy’ is worker representation on company boards. If a third of directors in big firms were elected by employees, a lot that’s wrong with the British economy would come right. As David Lammy puts it in his piece in the book, it’s about creating institutions where a mutual sense of obligation can emerge: ‘Workers taking responsibility for the success of firms. Firms taking responsibility for the well-being of workers.’
Blue Labour’s greatest challenge comes with its critique of the belief that a supposedly enlightened elite (from the left or right) can dominate the rest of the population for our own benefit. Blue Labour’s radically democratic instincts means it takes seriously what’s close up, and that often means the ‘conservative’ themes of work and family. Most of us don’t want an abstract idea of progress, we want things more immediate and real: we want to be treated like free, dignified human beings, to have a satisfying job that enables us to make our own course in life to some extent, to have fun and have the chance to look after our families. Having your school assume that your child can do as well as the posh kids, not being humiliated by your boss, and instead having your firm invest heavily in vocational training all take negotiation by people who share our interests nearby. The Blue Labour argument is that you can’t have collective action without conversation. Britain’s institutions need to be rebuild so elites manage them in dialogue with the rest of us.
If the question was merely to persuade a mythical lost demographic to change parties, all Labour need do is release a few reassuringly socially-conservative sound-bites. That isn’t Blue Labour, it is a far more important challenge. At its core is something that matters beyond the missing C2s – the renewal of Britain as a political community, in which people are collectively capable of shaping our destiny, through debate, conversation and argument. If politicians are bold enough, that surely has far wider appeal.