Matthew Partridge reviews an e-book based around papers by Maurice Glasman and others, with contributions from Ed Miliband and key Labour figures, on how the influence of “Blue Labour” continues to grow.
The Labour Tradition and The Politics of Paradox: The Oxford-London Seminars 2010-11. Edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, and Stuart White. The Oxford-London Seminars. Soundings Journal.
Find this book at: Scribd
In the aftermath of Labour’s unexpected defeat in the 1992 General Election, there was a concerted attempt to philosophically reinvent the British left-of-centre. The intellectual figure at the forefront of this was the then LSE Professor, and later Director, Anthony Giddens, whose idea of a “Third Way” was constantly cited as inspiration by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and others. Nearly two decades later, and once again out office, Labour has turned to another theorist, Maurice Glasman. The Labour Tradition and The Politics of Paradox is an edited collection based around three papers delivered by Glasman, John Rutherford and Mark Stears, with responses from various figures including Ed Miliband, James Purnell and others.
Glasman’s “Blue Labour” philosophy is based around two main arguments. Firstly, he believes that Labour has undervalued the importance of religious belief, the family and tradition in binding society together. He also believes that it needs to focus on activism, especially at a local level, not just as an electoral imperative, but also as a means by which policy change can be achieved and implemented. Indeed, Glasman even questions whether winning power at a national level should be Labour’s primary goal at all, arguing that electoral victory in 1945 “was the trigger for its long-term decline… in the name of abstract justice the movement was sacrificed”.
John Rutherford focuses on the former part of Glasman’s thesis noting that in the past “individual self-control, hard work and a willingness to delay or forego reward and gratification provided a social glue”. For his part Stears urges the Labour Party to emulate the community organizing of Barack Obama, stating that it should create organisations that can ”engage winnable local campaigns. It is when people come together locally to save a library, help set up a new day care centre, or clean up decaying public spaces, that they begin to feel bonds of solidarity with each other that do not currently exist”.
Both of these arguments have some merits. During the Brown administration and the final years of Tony Blair, there were moments of cultural overreach. The coalition with Nick Clegg, and other “Orange-book” Liberals, has undoubtedly helped David Cameron to extend spending cuts to areas, such as the military, that more traditional Conservatives consider sacrosanct. It is also undeniable that until another election is called, Labour’s best chance of delaying Cameron’s agenda lies in working with pressure groups, such as the British Medical Association, to shift public opinion.
Unfortunately, there are also some serious flaws with both elements of the “Blue Labour” approach. Although nominally concerned about issues such as family breakdown, Glasman and Rutherford are actually uninterested at looking at social policy, instead arguing that “cultural devastation is a consequence of transformations in modes of production and consumption”. Indeed, their tendency to attribute almost every social ill to capitalism, leads them to suggest that societal breakdown began with the 1801 Enclosure Act.
This hostility to the role of markets and enterprise in creating wealth puts them sharply at odds with mainstream economics and ignores the overwhelming evidence linking competition, private ownership and open trade to economic success. Although Glasman contends that West Germany’s post-war success was due to “subsidiarity, worker representation on works councils and at board level through co-determination”, the relatively low levels of state ownership, low tariffs and the move away from corporatism to competition during the occupation were much more significant. Therefore, as Graeme Cooke suggests in his response, any coherent philosophy has to involve “advocating a competitive, entrepreneurial and creative economy, open to trade, investment and innovation”.
Similarly, the “Blue Labour” argument that decentralisation and local activism is more effective than politics and policymaking at a national level is ahistorical. Indeed, the reason for the creation of the NHS, and its continued popularity over sixty years later, is that is more efficient to provide certain core public services through the state than via a patchwork of private provision, charity, mutualism and civic effort. At the very least, as Ben Jackson politely puts it, “a movement-centred declinism, which privileges the 1899 dock strike over the NHS, is as one-sided as a purely governmental account of Labour”.
Indeed, the experience in other countries suggests that even when activism achieves its goals it does so at the expense of promoting parochialism and prioritising sectional and special interests over those of the wider nation. At worst the American experience of powerful “community leaders” suggests that the reality may be closer to the fictional Reverend Bacon in Thomas Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities than a group of pensioners and young mothers fighting to keep the local village hall open. It is undeniable that the hard-headed reformism of Rudolph Giuliani’s administration did far more for lower income New Yorkers during the 1990s than the efforts of the community organisers who opposed him.
It is therefore heartening to see that Glasman’s ideas do not go unchallenged in the responses. Hazel Blears is correct when she points out that decentralisation and mutualisation would follow “the American model of charity and philanthropy which would lead to the unwelcome position of a progressive party leaving people dependent on handouts from wealthy individuals”. Phillip Collins rightly questions why New Labour is considered a failure when it won three successive elections, and asks if a philosophy based around “keep[ing] the Redcar steel plant open, irrespective of whether it makes money”, is sensible.
Ultimately, Glasman, Rutherford and Mark Stears do little to convince the reader that Labour’s future lies in anything other than combining a pro-market attitude to wealth creation and a responsible attitude to budgetary balance with a defence of universal public services. However, this collection is still required reading for the serious student of political thought, especially if the influence of “Blue Labour” continues to grow.
Dr Matthew Partridge has recently completed a PhD in Economic History at the London School of Economics.
Readers can meet the author at the upcoming British Government @ LSE public debate:
‘The Big Society and the Good Society’: rethinking the role of the state in British society
Date:Tuesday 14 June, 6.30-8pm
Location: Old Theatre, Old Building
Speakers: Lord Glasman, Jesse Norman MP
Chair: Professor Paul Kelly
David Cameron has championed the ‘big society’ as his big idea for government, Ed Miliband has countered with the ‘good society’. Two of the thinkers behind these concepts debate what is at stake in rethinking the role or the state in contemporary Britain.
This event is free of charge and open to all.
Suggested hashtag for this event for Twitter users: #lsebig/goodsociety
This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. For any queries email email@example.com or call 020 7955 6043.