The Labour left can no longer afford to ignore Blue Labour

Theo Freedman

Of the many tragic missed opportunities over the last five years, the failure to build a political bridge between supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-energised social democracy and the tendency sometimes called Blue Labour is one of the less noticed, but one of the saddest. Despite the towering intellect of its chief theorist, Maurice Glasman – a British-Jewish intellectual steeped in the most radical traditions of democratic socialism – Blue Labour is probably the most maligned and misunderstood in the entire labour movement.

If Labour’s already fragile coalition is to hold, an earnest engagement with Blue Labour from the left is vital. Despite impressive organisational achievements, the Bennite/Corbynite tradition that dominates the culture of the Labour left has emerged from its period of ascendancy battered, humiliated and toothless. This is, no doubt, in large part due to the relentless hostility it faced from external forces determined to destroy any spark of the progressive tradition left in the Labour Party, but this is hardly the whole story. 

The Labour left was sabotaged from within, not just by internal enemies and agents provocateurs, but as a direct result of its own deficiencies, contradictions and profound misjudgments. If the left in Labour wishes to have even a limited voice within the party, let alone wrest back political ascendancy from the intellectually bereft Starmerist right, it can no longer afford to deliberately marginalise itself by ridiculing, deliberately misunderstanding or ignoring the arguments for civic pride, politics of place and sovereignty espoused by Blue Labour.

The politics of spite

Despite being endlessly misattributed to them, the Vichy-sounding “faith, flag and family”  motif has never actually been uttered by anyone in Blue Labour, let alone Maurice Glasman himself, whose pride in his international roots runs deep. There has been a deliberate and malign campaign by those on the left of the party – mostly, it must be said, on social media – to absurdly lump together the politics of Blue Labour with the politics of the far right. Despite being morally and intellectually suspect, this false equivalence between the politics of communal belonging and the politics of xenophobia and hate represents a crucial missed opportunity.

The intellectual vanguard of the Labour left, overwhelmingly well-educated and cosmopolitan, squandered every opportunity to build useful working relationships with Blue Labour, who represent a worldview far more harmonious with that of the general public than some of the more outlandish pet causes of the left’s most garish outriders. 

Whether they are proposing greater austerity for police budgets (with a view to eventually defund them entirely) or calling for the abolition of national borders, there are sections of the left that seem to actively delight in turning themselves into pariahs, maintaining outlandish, fringe and often entirely neoliberal positions whilst being openly scornful of the plebeian masses. In many cases, we are rightly mocked and shunned by a general public whose worldview and experiences we often utterly reject.

Overcoming divisions

Any provisional unity between Blue Labour and the Labour left must, however, contend with genuine differences in political positions and accept these as a necessary part of the broad coalition that the Labour Party represents. There are certain Blue Labour figures who have gleefully provoked hostility and resentment from the left with their fevered “anti-woke” posturing, which ironically replicates the kind of identity politics that they claim to oppose.

In response to the antagonistic behaviour of a minority, the Labour left allow themselves to respond with equally disproportionate rhetoric, treating every inane online conflict as a wedge issue of the utmost significance. Instead of alliance-building, both sides of the divide create an atmosphere of such toxicity that every protagonist becomes a faction of one.

On the international front, important anti-imperialist causes like solidarity with the Cuban and Palestinian struggles are not universally accepted amongst Blue Labour ranks, who often combine a more rose-tinted view of Britain’s inglorious imperial legacy with an inability to see the struggles of decolonised societies in the specific context of their own devastating histories. 

However, this contest over the meaning of Empire and the role of international solidarity is hardly new to the party of both Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Anti-imperialism is an important and principled argument to make within the Labour Party, but if working constructively alongside “social-imperialists” is a red line for someone in Labour, we’re entitled to ask why they joined the party in the first place.

The Labour Party has always hosted odd bedfellows and facilitated cooperation across contradictory political lines. Given much of the Labour left’s enthusiasm for throwing its lot in with the People’s Vote empire, headed up by anti-socialists of every stripe, it can hardly be claimed that we have not seen more troubling coalitions in the past.

Fetishising identity, ignoring community

Another popular misconception from some quarters of the British left, imported from the campus culture of American student radicalism, is the assumption that a person who has experienced some form of marginalisation must represent some inherent radicalism. Although lived experience is an important conditioning factor to someone’s personal politics, it isn’t some kind of automatic gateway to political relevance. Rather than creating an inclusive political space, certain dominant trends in racial discourse – which treat huge swathes of the electoral base as either insufficiently knowledgeable to be “allies” or, plainly, racist –  have actually created a deep condescension towards people of colour in left circles. It has re-energised the sordid legacy of ‘white saviour-ism’ in the name of ‘allyship’ and led to a contorted reconfiguration of the noble pursuit of antiracism. 

This is morally wrong, of course, but it is also electoral suicide. Addressing issues that ultimately stem from the inequities of our socio-economic system in the language of individual privilege (or lack thereof) is a deeply antagonistic analytic framework that substitutes the unifying politics of class for the divisive politics of subjectivity. Suitable for a highly sectarian left subculture perhaps, but fatal for a broad-based mass political party.

It didn’t have to be like this. Labour’s connection with its ‘heartland’ communities in post-industrial Britain could have been reignited had the 2017-era insurgent Corbyn moment ignored the temptations of radical liberalism and reached out to Blue Labour in a more significant way. Maurice Glasman had a close relationship with John McDonnell in the lead up to the 2017 general election and had voiced support for a radical, social democratic economic programme that proved enormously popular with voters up and down the country. The ‘levelling up’ agenda that swept Boris Johnson’s Conservatives into power into 2019 was implicit, though never fully apparent, in Corbyn’s own campaign to rebuild Britain’s social fabric alongside its industrial capacity.

On questions of patriotism, amidst betrayal narratives and concocted tabloid tales of Soviet espionage and terrorist sympathies, Corbyn himself firmly asserted that to be patriotic is to safeguard public services, fight for the impoverished, strengthen workers’ rights and get homeless veterans off the street with the support networks that they need. All the while, key left commentariat figures were hand-wringing over the acceptability of the notion of patriotism, invoking a kind of post-nationalist globalised identity that was utterly antithetical to the general public and actually echoed the desires of global capital. Bernie Sanders, who did understand the need to formulate a populist left-wing politics through the vehicle of the nation-state, wryly quipped that “open borders was a Koch Brothers idea” and his analysis would do well to be imbibed by anyone on the British left who ever wants to see progressive politics win in Britain.

Love your country to change it

Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, correctly claimed: “If the left wants to change this country because it hates it, then the people will never listen to the left and the people will be right. Socialists must sense the seed beneath the snow; to see, beneath the veneer of corruption and meanness and the commercialisation of human relationships, men and women capable of controlling their own destinies.” There was a decent semblance of patriotism in both Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020: slick communication, a focus on national in-sourcing of jobs and excellent guarantees of a fair deal for veterans.

There was a powerful undercurrent during both Sanders’ campaigns of a genuine ‘love’ of America but not an uncritical, jingoistic ‘love’. As Harrington points out, to love one’s country is to try and mould it in the image of justice, equality and prosperity. Here, real parallels are to be drawn with Blue Labour, which describes itself thusly in its founding statement: “Blue Labour is patriotic, internationalist and European. But we are not globalist, nor universalist, nor cosmopolitan in outlook. There is a distinction between internationalism and globalisation that is profound. People have a culture, language and history. They have homes and attachments to places. Humans need a sense of belonging which is the task of living together. Membership of specific solidarities is our entry point into humanity. We build solidarity with one another not in believing everyone is the same, but in recognising the difference of others, and where there is estrangement and conflict overcoming them through dialogue.”

Lukewarm overtures to “progressive patriotism” have been floated on the left for some time, including notably in Rebecca Long-Bailey’s unsuccessful leadership campaign. While Long-Bailey’s excellent industrial politics and vision for the country would no doubt have put the party on better footing than it is currently, her appeals to a half-hearted patriotism fell flat amongst her left-wing base who seem to oppose even broaching the topic of the nation-state – or worse, reject it out-of-hand as nativist.

It is not good enough to merely propose patriotism by invoking E.P. Thompson, Billy Bragg, the Levellers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Of course Labour must keep this radical tradition close to its collective heart, but this approach to reorient patriotism towards the left is putting the cart before the horse. It must engage with current discourses around patriotism, not reject them instantly until they manifest in a left-wing image. Labour should be the voice of ordinary people in power, not the voice of power over ordinary people.

Brexit’s killing blow

The modern Labour left is itself a coalition, composed of a plurality of activist cultures, all of whom have differing opinions and legacies. Many do contend with the contradictions described above and do avoid the pitfalls of Trotskyite sectarianism or ultra-liberalism. However, there is no critical mass on the Labour left able to squarely confront and articulate arguments around sovereignty and civic pride. As such, it is falling into a trap of believing that it must, as a matter of principle, die on the hill of an unwinnable culture war fought on comfortably right-wing territory. It finds itself incapable of formulating a more compelling vision of patriotism for the ‘nativist masses’ and as such abandons them to the political temptations of the right.

This is utterly patronising and delusional, and was fatal in endless warfare over Brexit. Labour left figures could and did identify issues with the European Union, even professing robust Eurosceptic politics, but ended up falling four-square behind Remain on the proviso that not enough of the country were as ‘right-on’ as them and that a vote for Brexit was therefore an inherently racist act. In the end, they found liberal bankers more comfortable allies than embittered manual workers.

Some on the left even went on to say that they would vote Leave in a future referendum but that “now was not the time”. It was, however, “the time” for the right to swoop in on various national insecurities and almost entirely own the Brexit narrative as a right-wing project. After all, while people make their own history, they do not do so in conditions of their own choosing. Despite the fact the left had a rich Eurosceptic legacy in the Bennite tradition, they failed to make the argument at the right time, and the right capitalised on this to maximum effect.

Labour, the party that rebuilt Britain after the devastation of the Second World War, creating many of the institutions that defined us as a nation throughout the last century, must learn once more to engage with place and sovereignty. Rather than hectoring voters for not understanding that workers, actually, have no country, we need to reflect and represent their deep sense of connection to their locality and its cultures. If the left ever wants to win again, it must orient itself to embody a progressive answer to the need for national self-belief and civic pride. Blue Labour can help us do this.

No longer can we be the party of untethered globalisation, a process as alienating as it is destructive. We must make the case that domesticating the economy and putting the brakes on the internationalism of the billionaire class is both a patriotic and progressive pursuit. As the party of trade unions, we must make the case that democratised workplaces and better conditions are a source of local and national pride. As stewards of the economy and environment, we must make the case for in-sourcing, and rejuvenating British manufacturing alongside a Just Transition to green jobs where British citizens can be proud of their labours as well as their spoils. As antiracists, we should take pride in our historic role in defeating fascism, and in our multicultural societies today – a stance that will make the urgent need to reassess the legacy of empire an easier path to tread.

If we are afraid to make these arguments, we know full well that the vacuum will continue to be filled with far-right opportunists. But we cannot just make these arguments only to ourselves and on our own terms, nor can we excommunicate those whose views we deem to be incompletely socialist. An earnest attempt from the Labour left to extend a hand to Blue Labour is a necessary step in formulating a left populist programme that can speak to the country and win elections again. And if we cannot even manage to put differences aside to form this intra-party coalition, do we really deserve to command the state and economy anyway?

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