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behind this misty eyed reverence for 19th century Romanticism lies an at best misguided, or at worst dangerously outdated, view of what Labour’s future should be.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.