Labour has not been shy in commencing numerous self-renewals. In fact the Labour leadership contest was perceived to be one great cathartic exercise to promote fresh ideas and reject certain aspects of the past. It was for this reason Blue Labour was captivating when it began its intellectual rise and seeped into popular mainstream debate. Here was a political project as backward looking as it was forward. To quote one of its architects and lead thinkers, Maurice Glassman, it was re-engaging with the party’s history when Labour’s renewal lied dormant.
Blue Labour was re-launched and popularised by the publication of The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox in 2011 with a foreword from the Labour leader. It was primarily concerned with community not commodity. In this respect it was not too dissimilar to the Big Society and Red Toryism which aimed to detoxify a political brand and suffered similar intellectual booms followed by busts. Commentators and academics were willing to engage with it because it offered a critique of Labour on markets and globalisation and attempted to appeal to voters lost at the 2010 election. According to Glassman, the opposition to traditional Labour values in politics always see “the benefits but not the distress, the efficiencies but not the disruption, the choice but not the coercion of markets whereas Labour has always understood both”. Blue Labour lamented New Labour for being recklessly naïve and aloof about finance capital, but too draconian and managerial when it came to the State.
Aside from presenting Ed Miliband with an exceptional opportunity to appeal to centre-right voters without committing himself to excessive public sector reform agenda, Labour intellectuals believed ‘Blue’ could be the new ‘New’ when it came to achieving cross-class support. However, Blue Labour offered an implausible construction regarding the identity and values of the working classes. Equally, it claimed to appeal to concerns that transcended working and middle class boundaries including austerity, immigration, identity, housing, and ‘a something for nothing’ welfare culture.
It suffered a catastrophic and potentially fatal PR disaster – Lord Glassman. Comments made between April and July last year by Glassman suggested that Britain should freeze immigration and broker a common good with English Defence League supporters. Labour quickly distanced itself from Lord Glassman and the Blue Labour project subdued.
Blue Labour’s restitution can be linked to its key mantra of supporting ‘Faith, Flag and family.’ Another of its architects, Jonathan Rutherford claimed Blue Labour was interested in “a new kind of patriotism, in the value of family and community”. Ed Miliband gave a speech amidst the Diamond Jubilee hype to criticise the parties historic approach to ‘Englishness’ and vowed to do more and talk more about it. He also demonised those on incapacity benefits in a speech on responsibility in June last year in pursuit of the support of the honest family (whatever that means). More recently, in a speech to IPPR he recognised Labour’s detachment with voter’s immigration concerns. He disregarded studies that found Eastern European migration from 2004 had no impacts on native unemployment or wages or those that found that the new migrants made a substantial and disproportionately positive contribution to the public finances. Instead he chose to acknowledge the political reality of public perception (that hard working families are destabilised by migrant work and New Labour was in-part, responsible). His response was positively Glassman – a re-evaluation of the nature of our economic model. It appears the Blue Labour project (and its perceived political merits) are not easily forgotten.
It is perhaps unwise for Ed Miliband to continue down this tract. One frequent criticism of Blue Labour was that it was too nostalgic, an accusation quickly repudiated by its supporters. A significant amount of its thinking was entrenched within the early history of the Labour party and how the politics of then is fitting for the politics of today. I agree that Blue Labour has no nostalgia for post war old Labour or New Labour. However the presence of nostalgia altogether is undeniable. It flirts romantically with the parties past, constructing politics of virtue and utopian English socialism. It wrongly criticises the doers of post 1945, idolising forgotten heroes and thinkers. I always believe there is a place for history in contemporary politics but Blue Labour remains a construct confused. ‘Small c-conservatism’ mixed with socialism. Against a managerial state but proud to campaign to keep the forests in state ownership. Establishing a particularly English tradition based upon a German model of high levels of democratic interference in the economy. Blue Labour has been useful in getting Labour talking but that is where its utility ends. Blue Labour is more about a ‘politics of anti’ – an intellectual distaste with a great number of issues with little or no competent alternative programmes and Ed Miliband should be wary of trying to re-introduce its romanticism.