Labour Party leaders generally don’t like bothering to set out socialist philosophy. The very idea is considered a bit vulgar, and likely to put off voters. Traditionally they have tended to presume that all that was necessary was to show people that Labour had plans for a better, more prosperous Britain than the Tories.
Labour just said it would usher in “a new Britain” . Ideological debates were unnecessary luxuries.
But when it is in opposition, the party has a tendency to return what is usually referred to as “the ideological foundations” of Labour.
The party was created in 1900 as a result of an uneasy compromise between individual socialists, trade union leaders and various politicians from the upper middle class.
The desire for change from below meant the allegiance of workers went to Labour. But from the beginning, the party was dominated by the parliamentarians and conservative-minded union officials.
This is one reason why the Labour Party has always been short on theory. Much of its politics has been pragmatic and chameleon-like, hatched in committees with one eye on the share prices and the other on the polls.
But when Labour loses, it often reaches for its ethical socialist strand as an emotional reflex, in the hope that it will rediscover its social purpose and perhaps even its soul.
Today, sections of the party are making concerted attempts to come up with a new ideological direction after its defeat at the last election.
Philip Collins in the Times wrote recently that at the moment Labour leader Ed Miliband is “any Labour”.
That is the context in which Miliband decided to write the preface to a new e‑book, in which he praises the concept of “Blue Labour”. It also lies behind the politics and the tone of his latest relaunch party to “own the future”.
The book, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, is the result of seminars attended by the group calling themselves Blue Labour. They think the party must push its traditions of “family, faith and the flag”.
And some Blairites, who are looking for a way to dominate the party again, came along too.
The idea of Blue Labour has been around for a couple of years. It was intended as Labour’s rejoinder to “Red Toryism”, the ideas that most famously spawned David Cameron’s “big society” rhetoric.
The man behind Blue Labour is Baron Maurice Glasman.
He argues that to regain lost working class votes, Labour needs to come “together to forge a common good in their communities, workplaces and across the nation”.
He does reject New Labour’s love of the City and the markets, and has a distaste for finance capital.
But there is a poisonous sting in the tail. It suggests that those at the top of the Labour Party should get back in touch with the “grassroots”, as they like to call the working class, by being much harder on immigration and pandering to racism (see right).
So Jonathan Rutherford, an architect of Blue Labour, has a contribution in the book that is a hymn to “community, work, country and a sense of honour”.
Labour’s future, he argues, is conservative or it is nothing—because workers are fundamentally conservative.
Meanwhile, Glasman’s technique is to dig out something from medieval or 18th century history, and then assert that it is in fact the foundation of “Labour Party traditions”.
He pushes cliches like “the common good” and the “good life”, torn out of whatever historical contexts may have given them meaning. Then he proposes that these, rather than political concepts, drive the Labour Party.
Glasman combines a bad misinterpretation of George Orwell’s socialism with an “aspirational” vision of public services run by the Co-op.
Blue Labour quite likes trade unions as long as they don’t do anything. It is, as even Roy Hattersley pointed out, cloyingly sentimental both in its view of the working class and in its presumption that platitudes can provide a focus for clear thinking.
Glasman writes, “Labour values are not abstract universal values such as ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’. Distinctive labour values are rooted in relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life.”
When this is expanded on, the shallowness of vision becomes clear.
“The economic and democratic regeneration of local economies requires a reciprocal partnership between capital, state and society. You could call it socialism in one county,” he writes. But what’s socialism?
“Socialism is a condition of sustainable capitalism, in that universities, schools, libraries, vocational institutions, the rule of law and democracy, all provide public goods that are necessary for its flourishing and growth.”
In Glasman’s view, Labour is the offspring of a trade union and co-operative movement father and a moderate Fabian mother. The Blue Labour claim is that the marriage failed—and it was the mother’s fault. (The ridiculous analogy is Glasman’s, not mine.)
It argues that the “dead end” of nationalisation was succeeded by the “illusion” of state planning.
Glasman aims his fire at the “state-driven, redistribution-driven, equality-driven Labour tradition that comes straight out of 1945”. In other words he fully accepts neoliberalism.
New Labourite James Purnell and Blue Labourite Jon Cruddas represent two strands of the debate. They agree that the old aspiration of Labour to reorder capitalism in workers’ favour is now impossible.
They think that left-right divisions are a thing of the past—and they are desperate to get back into office. Glasman provides them both with pseudo-intellectual ballast.
RH Tawney was an important Labour theorist and historian in the 1930s. As such he is an important reference point and oft quoted by the Blue Labourites. While this seems to provide them with a sense of tradition, they actually reject Tawney’s central idea.
He argued that there was an essential contradiction between capitalism and democracy. He called for elected Labour governments to challenge capitalism and take control of it.
The notion of government control of the economy was the central idea of Labourism for most of the 20th century. This was a credible notion only in so far as it was believable that it could be put into effect by a Labour government.
After three terms of neoliberal New Labour governments, the argument has lost its force. The Blairites didn’t believe it was desirable to control the economy, while for others in the party it was desirable but impossible.
That left Labour with three potential alternatives. It could either accept it could do nothing, move to a vision that encourages a radical transformation of the economy in the interests of workers instead of capital—or come up with something else.
Labour is floundering around looking for something else. That’s why Blue Labour has got some purchase.
It hopes that with enough intellectual gymnastics it can make conservatism sound radical. It gives left cover to neoliberalism and privatisation.
But Labour could only recover if the Tory government is defeated by the activity of ordinary people—not by using a series of platitudes tinged with a pandering response to racism.
‘Involve’ EDL supporters, says Glasman
After 13 years of attacking the working class, Labour has decided that white workers are all racist—and so they lost votes by not being hard enough on immigration.
Instead of looking at the millions who feel betrayed by Labour’s move to the right, they chase the support of Tory and even British National Party (BNP) voters.
In Glasman’s Blue Labour, this is made more overt. He says he wants to embrace the racist English Defence League (EDL), which organises protests against Muslims.
He argues, “Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration ... and there’s been a massive rupture of trust.”
He has said that Labour needs “to build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party.
“Not dominant in the party, not setting the tone of the party, but just a reconnection with those people that we can represent a better life for them, because that’s what they want.”
But immigration is not to blame for low wages, unemployment or bad housing.
Labour refuses to accept the real reason it lost the last election—that it abandoned its working class “core vote” by cosying up to the rich.
Now the rich have gone home to the Tories, Labour knows it needs the support of workers to fight and win elections.
The problem is that the party holds a stereotypical view of the working class as a reactionary bloc.
Pandering to bigots will only encourage the right, not beat them.