Something Old, something New, something Borrowed, something Blue: is ‘Blue Labour’ part of the left response to the rise of UKIP?

Posted on May 7, 2013

It is a commonplace for commentators to say following the recent success of UKIP in the shire elections, that it poses a threat to Labour as well as the Tories. There is some truth in this, but a strand of thinking in the Labour Party has been grappling with some of the issues UKIP poses from a left perspective for several years. This is referred to as ‘Blue Labour’. Essentially it is a critique of both Old and New Labour. It understands that the relentless progress of the last Labour Governments caused many Labour supporters to feel as if their communities had been left soulless. It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of government and is critical of its neo-liberal view of the world – globalisation understood entirely on terms set by finance capital. Instead it focuses on a different approach to socialism, stressing communitarianism, self reliance and mutuality.

‘Blue Labour’s’ message has ironically been most clouded and exposed to ridicule, by the pronouncements of its most prominent exponent, Maurice Glasman, the founder of the campaigning group ‘London Citizens’, ennobled by Ed Miliband in 2011. He has, to say the least, raised hackles by some ill-chosen words on immigration which he carefully and thoughtfully reframed in a ‘mea culpa’ in the New Statesman (“I didn’t go into politics to be a hero to the Mail” 1 August 2011) but has largely been lost from view since. It is perhaps inevitable that breaking out of the straightjacket of traditional ways of thinking about party politics leads to a discussion about positions that a lot of people find challenging and uncomfortable. As political commentator Andrew Rawnsley put it “’Blue Labour’ became fashionable because it offered a fresh critique of where the party has gone wrong.” and in doing so has a penchant to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable.

More grounded than Glasman, are the contributions to the debate made by Labour MP and Milliband’s policy review chief, John Cruddas and cultural studies professor, Jonathan Rutherford, who sets out the Blue Labour stall thus:

“…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no one. It champions humanity in general but no one in particular. It favours multi-culturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific. Over the past decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion”. (Glasman M et al (eds) The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox. Compass 2011)

A lot of people on the left can relate to that and the ‘Blue Labour’ argument is essentially that the loss by Labour of over five million votes between 1997 and 2010 is a reflection of this, encapsulated in Tony Blair’s famous 2004 comment “Leave the past to those who live in it”. The problem with that mind-set is that this view of Labour supporters certainly does resonate with UKIP recruits from Labour. Recent focus groups of UKIP supporters, when asked what they did like (after rehearsing a lengthy catalogue of things they didn’t like about current Britain) reportedly responded, ‘The past’. Cruddas’s summary of the trajectory of New Labour over that period is:

“At its best New Labour encompassed both the progressive and the traditional, captured in Tony Blair’s, early recognition of the need for a ‘modern patriotism’. Over time however, it became all about the ‘progressive new’. By the end it embraced a dystopian destructive neo-liberalism cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour”. (NS 4 April 2011).

‘Blue Labour’ is trying to articulate a direction of travel that is different from a ‘progressive’ politics that uncritically embraces globalisation, neo-liberalism, consumerism and a market economy that leaves great swathes of the population behind and whose guiding principles were graphically exposed by the banking crisis of 2008.

But is challenging this just nostalgia for a past that never existed? There is a difference between a respect for tradition and nostalgia. Unfortunately a lot of the left conflate the two and scorn tradition as conservative and nostalgic. Morris, Ruskin and other nineteenth century thinkers are often dismissed for precisely this reason. Cruddas is good at teasing out the difference between tradition and nostalgia and placing it in its contemporary context. He cites the Clarionettes who is the 1890’s became the greatest extra-parliamentary socialist movement in English history. Their leader Robert Blachford expressed loss and dispossession in terms of fellowship and solidarity, in contrast to the scientific approach of those on the left at the time who were dedicated to the notion of ‘progress’. As Cruddas puts it:

“While the latter were sentimental about the future, Blatchford – influenced by William Morris – drew on Romanticism as an essential part of English culture and history”.

In the twentieth century, E P Thompson was accused of being unthinking in his Englishness, ‘romantic’ and ‘nostalgic’. But Thompson articulated that conservative strand in English socialism, the love of home, of place, of the local, and its resistance to the dispossession of the uncontrollable forces of capitalism. It seems to be this which is giving ‘Blue Labour’ some traction intellectually and politically.

The current Government is a constant source of dismay to its supporters as it takes its admiration of all things ‘Blairite’ to new heights, with its attempts to flog off parts of English common life to the highest bidder, forests, waterways, parks, the Post Office, sport and culture, not to mention that national institution, the National Health Service – hence the mass defections to UKIP. By contrast ‘Blue Labour’ is attempting to create a polity through a set of values rooted in relationships – reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity and co-operation rather than the managerial, the bureaucratic and the corporate.

It is not just a critique of New Labour though. It is not that keen on Old Labour either. As long ago as 1952, Richard Crossman in an article entitled “Towards a philosophy of Socialism” recognised that the post-war project, the creation of the Welfare State, the triumph of Fabianism, took for granted that politics was the business of maximising general happiness through social planning. A welfare state administered centrally in Whitehall sapped the life blood of the Labour Movement.

“Before 1945, for hundreds of thousands of active trade unionists and party workers, socialism was a way of life and a vocation”.

Now (and this was in 1952!), it seemed that it was exclusively the business of politicians at Westminster acting through an unreformed civil service. Those activists who had previously helped run municipal “gas and water socialism” were given “no vision of new socialist responsibilities”. ‘Blue Labour’ takes a similar view and indeed a deep scepticism of the Welfare State seems to be one of its defining features.

Navigating a credible path between a critique of the Welfare State, hostility to globalisation and neo-conservative economics, and a potentially reactionary nostalgia, isn’t easy. Labour’s traditions of solidarity, at their best, have been cross-class, cross-generational, cross-gender and cross-national. That’s why the bust ups over immigration hurt. It is also true that the ‘flag, faith and family’ tag has more than a hint of not just nationalism, but patriarchy. Some have denounced its perceived conservatism as a ‘Janet and John’ 1950’s style approach to family life. But the Labour Movement has a ‘tradition’ that embraces feminism, internationalism and more recently, multiculturalism. ‘Blue Labour’ needs to be a lot more nuanced than current public perception of it on these issues.

It has also been criticised for having no coherent economic policy. Certainly talk of limiting the market, bemoaning the “commodification of human beings” and the promotion of regional banks and ‘city parliaments’, doesn’t constitute an economic policy. But unlike the “Big Society”, a shameless Tory ‘borrowing’ of the narratives of community and mutuality, ‘Blue Labour’ is not utterly silent on the market.

Whatever we think of the specific prescriptions that have emerged so far, what we are seeing with ‘Blue Labour’ is a return of something that was repressed under New Labour. We are once more talking about class and ideology and from that, some constructive new thinking and a credible response to the UKIP threat, should emerge.

This article is a modified and updated version of  a piece that appeared in the Autumn 2011 Newsletter of the William Morris Society. A shorter version also appeared as an INLOGOV blog on 14 May 2013