Why Labour need to resist the urge to go blue

Only minutes after Ed Miliband resigned two weeks ago, the traditional period of party soul searching was declared. Almost immediately there were comments and commentaries saying Labour lost because of the EdStone, because of UKIP, because of fear of the SNP or the ghost of Tony Blair. There have been points and counterpoints (our own can be found here but I want to focus on specific school of thought that is likely to become more prominent in the near future and that is Blue Labour.

Blue Labour is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, a former adviser to Ed Miliband. The central tenet of Blue Labour is a return to a 19th century vision of socialism and refocusing the Labour Party as a social movement and not a political party. It focuses heavily on localism, workers co-operatives, and the involvement of religious organisations and community groups in the business of government.

I disagree with some of the core principles of Blue Labour for a few reasons. Localism, a focus on co-operatives and faith groups, empowering people in their communities and giving them more of a say in government are certainly policies I support. In fact, a more regional and local focus in politics will be essential moving forwards. However, behind this misty eyed reverence for 19th century Romanticism lies an at best misguided, or at worst dangerously outdated, view of what Labour’s future should be.

My first criticism of Blue Labour is that high minded and academic conference rhetoric about empowering communities and localism are fascinating and produce great material for Guardian articles and politics blog posts, but what do they mean in application? Blue Labour has at its heart a mistrust of the metropolitan liberalism, which is viewed as leading the party away from its core white working class support. I am worried that Blue Labour is likely to be translated into UKIP baiting rhetoric on immigration and social justice. It is worth noting that Glasman was forced to resign as an adviser after making comments that he would support a total ban on immigration.

The urge to become UKIP-lite or nice-UKIP in order to regain the support of working class Northerners must be resisted by the Labour Party as it only plays into the hands of UKIP. It is also somewhat patronising to assume that the best way to win back Northern working class voters is to adopt a tougher stance on immigration. Policies on employment, housing, the NHS and regionalism are more likely to win back lost support than simply assuming that everyone north of Watford is against immigration. On a more practical note, socially liberal metropolitans are the only supporters Labour seems to have left and it cannot afford to alienate them.

The small c conservatism at the heart of Blue Labour comes with their desire to return to a 19th century vision of socialism in small communities. This might seem appealing if you are a white, hetero-sexual male but it is unappealing to women, ethnic minorities or members of the LQBTQ community. It is telling that when Glasman mentioned the local movements Labour should connect with he did not mention grassroots feminist campaigns - the most successful grass roots left wing movement of recent years. Labour must not adopt a strategy of empowering local groups at the expense of hard won liberties. Rowenna Davis put it better than me in an open letter she wrote critical of Blue Labour:

“liberal rights and the role of the state has done a lot to help women – and many other groups for that matter – break out of community bonds that have often been oppressive, unaccountable and male dominated” – Rowenna Davis in The Guardian

Undoubtedly Labour has lost the support of a lot of people, especially Northern working class people, and steps need to be done to rectify this if the party is ever going to win a majority in the future. However a small c conservative approach will alienate women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGTBQ communities as well as their allies many of which are Northern, white and working class but still recognise the importance of solidarity with other oppressed groups. Solidarity is a core value of Labour and small c conservatism is opposed to solidarity.

The white working class Northerners have been alienated by Labour because of the Blair year's complete acceptance of globalisation and governments' failure to counter its negative side effects. Namely that those who are "uncompetitive" in the new globalised economy are pushed to the side. It these people who now vote UKIP, but they are fuelled by a dislike of globalisation and the professional political class which support it more than Farage's anti-immigration rhetoric.

This anti-globalisation has taken the form of UKIP style English nationalism, across the border in Scotland those who are opposed to globalisation are supporting the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Blue Labour overlooks the rise of nationalism, it says nothing about the votes for the Tories which were votes against Scottish nationalism and their influence in a future Labour government.

The rise in English and Scottish nationalism is the same as any other nationalist rising in that it has the three common principles that all nationalist believe:

1. They believe they are different from other nationalist risings.

2. They believe they are restoring a natural order or the way things should be.

3. They believe they are settling a historic injustice.

This is why we have Scottish nationalism directed against London and English nationalism directed against Brussels, but there is no East Midlands nationalism directed against London because it does not seem natural that the East Midlands should govern itself or that the East Midlands is particularly oppressed by London.

Rising nationalism is troubling and I am worried that Blue Labour would do nothing to stop this but would instead support it as a means of connecting with “ordinary people”. Labour should challenge our assumptions and not accept them out of a fear of looking like a “metropolitan elite”. The other reason why I am opposed to nationalism (both English and Scottish) is because there are things we need from a large government from, both in London and in Brussels. In short there is an argument for statism.

Statism is unpopular with traditional liberals and small c conservatives for ideological reasons, and with everyone else because the state is dogged with scandals and is viewed as inefficient. Leaving aside the point that an efficient state is a tyrannical one, localism is seen as the solution to both the problems of individual liberty and efficiency that statism throws up.

Localism and supporting community groups are great ideas, especially when central government is dominated by unpopular “grey suits”, but there are things we need a national government for. Organising transport planning cannot be done at a local level, for example, everyone agrees we need motorways but no one wants to live near them so a localised government would never be able to build them. It sounds callous, but there are some things which need to be imposed on us by a central government and most of these are unglamorous but essential things like power stations and sewage works.

Another thing we need imposed on us is taxes. If communities set their own taxes no one will pay tax as every community will think the burden should fall elsewhere. Also local communities have no power to stand up to large corporations, Blue Labour may draw inspiration from the socialism of the 19th century, but we did not have trans-national corporations in the same way back then, and certainly they did not involve themselves with every aspect of people’s lives.

This is why our modern globalised economy needs institutions like the EU and other trans-national organisations to reign in the power of multinational companies, ensure they pay their taxes and that the money is used to benefit those who are disproportionately affected by globalisation. Clearly there are problems with governments not doing this, especially the EU, but they are the only group capable of doing it and Blue Labour threatens to shrink the central government to the point where it cannot carry out this role. A strong central government can stand up to big companies, that is my argument for statism.

It is obvious that Labour needs to change direction to be in government again and radical new ideas are needed but as a party we need to look to future and not the past. Our new vision cannot be based on what the Labour was like in the 19th century, it has to respond to 20th century changes, globalisation, the need for statism and the civil liberties movement. Statist socialists like myself are as bad as Blue Labour for idealising the past, but we need to think about how socialism will operate in the 21st century and not be overcome by a misty eyed view of the past. The Labour party needs new ideas, informed by the past but not made of it.

The Rolls Royce Government: The case for big government protecting social values

What does the Continental European model of social democracy and a Rolls Royce have in common? We will return to this metaphor after some brief analysis.

Last week David Miliband wrote in the New Statesman that Labour should not be the party of the “big state” - this comes against a recent trend of criticism of large governments, which many politicians believe, are bad for the economy and unpopular with voters. Western governments are not without their legitimate criticism as anyone who has had to claim benefits or submit a planning application will be aware of. The marsh of bureaucracy that the public has to deal with when they want something from their government creates a feeling of disillusionment with the virtues of the public sector which turns voters away from any politician who claims that we need more government to solve societies’ problems. The slick efficiency of the tills at Tesco stand in sharp contrast to the long periods of standing around waiting at the Job Centre. It is no wonder politicians who favour the selling of public services to private companies find voters agreeing with them at all levels of society.

The scepticism directed towards big government is partly a result of real fear caused by the European Sovereign Debt Crisis but it is also a definite effort to shift the agenda towards a free-market small government approach by those with vested interest in this opinion. This being large companies and right leaning governments keen to drum up support for their ideologically motivated austerity programs. Miliband argues that it was faith in big government which caused the Labour party to lose the public’s trust over the economy. He is pandering to the view that Labour is the party of the “nanny state” and that the Conservatives are the party of individual freedom.

I personally, have never had a problem with the label nanny state. When you think about it, who is a nanny? A warm and comforting figure that looks after children when they are cannot look after themselves. I cannot think of a better role model for government. However western voters are opposed to oppressive, overbearing regimes which meddle in the daily lives of their citizens. The fear behind this is also legitimate, only a fool in the West would want to live under a Cold War Communist regime. However, in the left learning parties of Europe’s desperate attempts to escape the spectre of being labelled a Marxist-Leninist, some of what was truly important about socialism has been washed away in the bland acceptance of the free market.

What is important about socialism is not a commitment to the big state but to a set of underlying principles that society should be directed towards income equality, the removal of class divides causes by wealth inequality, an equality of opportunity for all citizens as a birth right and safety net for those who are unable (temporally or permanently) to provide for themselves and their families. Self-reliance should not be the governing rule of society and the collective should look out for the individual. In exchange for this the individual must be willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the collective in terms of personal wealth and some degree of personal freedom. The social democratic parties of European - some of which are differentiated from the socialist parties of Europe and some of which are not – maintain the commitment to these values on a social level but not an economic one. In place of the economic proportion of socialism there is a general acceptance of the virtues of free market capitalism as the best method to allocate societies’ scarce resources.

David Miliband and the Brown Government embodied this notion of a commitment to social justice along with a commitment to small state free market capitalism. The coalition government has continued the shift towards right wing economic principles by further reducing the state at the expense of any commitment to the values of stated above. Miliband’s insistence that Labour move beyond the big state verses small state argument may win him support with voters but will do little to reassure those who believe that Labour has lost touch with the key values at the root of socialism from which the party draws its ideology.

I submit that a rebranding of the virtues of big government is needed by social democrats if they are to distinguish themselves from the economically right leaning parties and reconnect with the values at the root of their past popularity. This rebranding should be focused on the core values stated above. There are many who are concerned about the growing divide between the rich and the poor and how unevenly wealth is distributed across society. This is also where Rolls Royce comes in.

The typical criticism of big government by the right is three fold: 1, that state involvement in the market causes a problems for industry, 2, that that it requires higher taxation and 3, the old nanny state argument. I will take each point in turn:

Firstly, I have already written on the need for Capital Conscious Socialism. I have said that government should always be mindful of the needs of private business to provide employment when intervening in the economy. It is also worth considering that state invention is often necessary to make sure that industry allocates societies’ scare resources so that they create the most social good not economic good. An example of this is medicine, which should be allocated where it benefits society by curing diseases rather than where it is most profitable.

Secondly, the cost is key to the value of large Government. We should think of Government like a car. If we opt for the cheap option (economically right wing with low taxation and spending) then we will receive a cheap government, one which is ineffectual at meeting our needs and protecting our values. If we opt for the Rolls Royce government, which is expensive but capable then we will have a government that is empowered to tackle social problems and is something to be proud off. Spending more on our government should be viewed the same as buying a luxury car. That the price tag is part of the appeal because only with an expensive product can we achieve satisfaction from our spending.

Thirdly, social democrats should remind the public that it is their government’s duty to look after them and not simply get out of the way of private businesses. It is the role of government to embody the values of altruistic medieval kings. To clothe the naked, feed the poor, provide shelter for the homeless. Those who have the least are the most vulnerable to the problems created by wealth inequality and the basic safety net provided by the state ensure that the needs of the very worst off are not forgotten. The state may intervene in our lives to protect us from letting the selfishness - which the free market uses to drive economic growth - from entering our social conscience and thus kicking aside the poor, the vulnerable and the politically weak.

The values at the heart of socialism and big government will resonate with voters once framed within the right context. The argument of big state verses small state is not the right context. The argument of Rolls Royce against a budget banger is the right context. It is important that social democrats across Europe defend these values less society become deeply divided between rich and poor. The core values behind socialism are important in building a fairer society and there is still merit to the argument that big government can help to achieve this.

Ed Miliband would do wise to bare this in mind during his review of Labour’s policies - rather than listening to the supposed wisdom of his older brother. Many on the left hope the results of the policy review will bring the Labour party out of inertia and back into the business of providing a genuine alternative to the methods of the coalition government. Until that time we should remember that we get back from our government what we put in. If we give it scepticism and starve it of funds it will be ineffective at protecting our core values. If we view government spending as an important step to having a fairer society then we can empower government to tackle the root causes of social ills.