Saturday, 30 July 2011

The End of Blue Labour?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blogpost about ‘Blue Labour’, the intellectual movement that then seemed perfectly poised to capture the ideological heart of the Labour party. With an apparent endorsement from party leader Ed Miliband, Blue Labour was certainly in the ascendency. Like a cartoon character running off a cliff, however, the past couple of weeks have seen this trajectory first arrested and then reversed, with the Blue Labour brand now in freefall.

It all started with a couple of imprudent remarks by Maurice Glasman, the figurehead of Blue Labour to an interviewer from the Fabian Review. Asked to clarify his stance on immigration, Glasman implied that his position is more extreme than any mainstream politician, suggesting that he would not be averse to an outright freeze. To put this in perspective, Andrew Green, a man whose job (as head of the hardly-liberal Migration Watch) is to oppose immigration, described Glasman’s views as “over the top” and “not practicable”. Rumours quickly emerged that the interview had alienated Glasman’s allies, and ended Blue Labour. And now it seems that Glasman is going into hiding, at least for the summer.

It is not clear whether Blue Labour really is dead, or just in hibernation. However, it seems unlikely that all the ideas developed over the past few months will be so swiftly ditched. So what is worth keeping, and what ought Blue Labour to change about itself? What lessons ought to be learned from the immigration debacle?


If nothing else, hopefully this whole episode will rid the movement of its terrible name, which only encourages misunderstanding and draws undesirable connections. Indeed, the impulse which presumably gave someone the idea that ‘Blue Labour’ was a good label is the same one that got Glasman into such trouble: what we might call an overactive sense of irony. Almost everything that came out of the Blue Labour camp seemed to be infused with a self-satisfied air of contradiction, from the name to the oft-repeated slogan of ‘radical conservatism’ to the title of the Blue Labour book. More fundamentally, it fed Glasman’s desire to wind up the left by attacking their icons – from the welfare state to, fatally, immigration.

The Blue Labour message is complicated and controversial enough to have to sell without needlessly alienating people with this off-putting attitude. Use irony too often and nobody knows when you are being serious. It is always tempting to overstate the point to make it seem more urgent and important. However, wilfully antagonising people who may have been sympathetic to elements of the Blue Labour message by exaggerating their differences from them was a mis-step.


A second flaw of the Blue Labour project exposed by the controversy is the difficulty it has in fleshing out the principles it endorses. A natural response to the arguments put forward by Glasman and co. is to try and work out what exactly they means in practice, what sort of policies it lends itself to. (See, for example, Sunder Katwala’s attempts to spell out a Blue Labour manifesto). How conservative is ‘radical conservatism’? How far does it want to tighten immigration, toughen law and order, retrench gender equality?

In a way, this is an unfair demand. Blue Labour was not intended to produce a detailed set of policy commitments. Its focus is more on the big picture, trying to sketch out a new ideological direction for the party. Blue Labour would have been mistaken, certainly at this early stage of its development, to be bogged down in details. Furthermore, a major plank of the Blue Labour ideology was a fundamental objection to top-down, elite-driven policy. It would have been anathema to the spirit of Blue Labour for the wonks that devised it to hand down a complete ready-made manifesto crafted in a smoke-filled room.

But these excuses exaggerate the distance between big ideas and little ones, between ideology and policy. The reason that people clamour for detail is because it is impossible to make sense of the movement without understanding its implications. It was such a call for clarification that presumably prompted Glasman’s controversial remarks. It seems to me if there were a clearer pre-agreed Blue Labour line on immigration, which need not be too final or detailed, this crisis might have been averted. It might be an idea for Glasman to include setting out clearer definitions of Blue Labour’s policy stances among his summer holiday homework.


The previous two comments could be seen as friendly amendments to the Blue Labour project: this criticism is deeper and more hostile. My final suggestion is for Glasman to tone down, if not eliminate, the Conservative element of Blue Labour.

It seems to me that Blue Labour is a coalition of people with two different gripes with the direction the party has taken. On the one hand, there are those who bemoan the excessive centralisation and statism of modern Labour tactics. On the other, there are critics of its excessive liberalism, who wish Labour to learn once more to love he social conservatism of the working class. And then there’s Glasman, straddling the two.

Hopefully this furore will convince Glasman or his supporters that this right-wing line is a liability. In my previous post, I reported that one of my friends had described Blue Labour as ‘Labour, just more racist’. This was angrily rejected by Marc Stears, who pointed out that it is an absurd charge against someone who has focused so much of his energies on helping illegal immigrants. I’m sure he’s right, but the connection between Blue Labour and racism is one that I’ve heard a number of times from different sources. It doesn’t matter whether the perception is accurate or not, that it exists at all is a major problem for Blue Labour. This is partly a matter of presentation, but the fact that Blue Labour’s agenda can give rise to such misunderstandings is a major source of the disquiet around it.

Glasman’s remark that “Britain is not an outpost of the UN” sits uneasily with the internationalism of many on the left. There have been similar concerns about its apparent lack of feminist credentials. This juncture offers the more liberal of the Blue Labour sympathisers an opportunity to consider whether they really ought to be yoked to Glasman’s conservative project.

Thus the big question for Blue Labour is whether the coalition it represents can be held together, or whether both sides would be better served divorcing and starting from scratch.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Class Consciousness

Last week was results week – and within minutes of discovering my mark for the year, one of my classmates had texted me, asking how I had done. This irritated me intensely, but why should it have?

If I were certain that the enquiry were motivated entirely by a concern for my success, then I would not have been so bothered. The same question from my parents didn’t upset me. In fact, I would have been disappointed if they hadn’t asked or cared. The problem with my classmate asking was that I wasn’t sure if he was wanting me to do well or badly.

A significant portion of my annoyance was almost certainly projection. It could well be that his motives were pure, and that I did him a great disservice. But what really bothered me that I was equally curious about how everybody else had done. And while this was partly out of a genuine concern for them, it was also because I wanted to know if I had beaten them. And this was the intention I had imputed to my classmate. But even if it is true that he only wanted to know everybody else’s mark so that he could figure out his relative position, perhaps he is still better than me for being willing to admit this, rather than denying his curiosity and judging those who failed to do the same.

In any case, is it such a bad impulse, this competitive desire to know how well you have done compared to everybody else? Many would deny that there is anything wrong with it. The first thing my parents asked about after my mark was where this placed me in the class. They thought it natural that I should know this, and that I should want to know.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the ex-teacher and apologist for Conservative education policy, clearly agrees with this approach. In her book, she fumes at the politically correct teachers and administrators who try to frustrate these competitive instincts, and avoid pitting children against each other. When she put the question to her students, she claims, each and every one of them wanted to know their class rank. Even the hooligans at the back of the class apparently stopped stabbing each other for long to insist that they were desperate to know how far down the table they would be.

Obviously, I’m sceptical as to whether children would really want this competition. But the real question is whether it is good for them. Should we embrace our competitive tendencies, or row away from them?

There are a couple of motivations at play here. On the one hand, there is the zero-sum competitive game. People enjoy it when they succeed where others fail, and the failure of others is integral to this pleasure. Winning in sport would be meaningless unless there were a loser.

On the other hand, we might be interested in how others have done as a benchmark against which to measure our own achievements. If I have got x% in an exam, how great an achievement was that? The easiest way to put my mark in perspective is to work out from others what an average mark looks like.

Both of these aims may be problematic. It is almost certainly the case that education is often competitive. Coming top of your class may be necessary to get the edge over other people who want the same jobs or positions as you. But for many people, such ‘getting an edge’ is not the primary reason for education. Rather, it is to learn as much as possible. If these people instrumentalise knowledge, seeking it only to have more than other people, they have lost sight of the original reason they valued it.

If, instead, the intention is only to get a reference point, then looking at other people may mislead you. If you’re surrounded by people naturally more gifted than you, excessive comparison with them is likely to leave you demoralised and undermine your self-esteem. If you are a big fish in a small pond, you are likely to become complacent. Surely it is more fruitful if we set our own targets, and try to measure our success against more relevant benchmarks, like our own past performance.

On balance, I suspect that my wishy-washy liberal instincts are right on this one. I may not be able to eliminate the tendency try to frame my achievements against those of others. But I think I am right to suppress it, and to be embarrassed by it. I do not want to be the sort of person who exults in others’ frustration. Quite apart from the fact that I think that this is bad, it is likely to poison my relationships with others. The moment I start seeing classmates as competition, I lose the willingness to genuinely cooperate with them. Of course, cooperation between two mutually interested individuals is perfectly possible, and often rational. But do I really want to be the sort of person who helps people only grudgingly, and only insofar as it will help be, and no more? That, I fear, is the person at the bottom of the slippery slope.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conservatism in Everyday Life

There is an argument my girlfriend and I return to from time to time, though thankfully for the moment it seems to be a purely academic one. It’s about marriage. My official line is that I don’t see the point, and that it is a farcical formality to make such a big show of commitment when people today see deep commitment as a precondition of marriage. Her view is that it’s a tastefully done wedding, professing your love in front of the people you care about, is a nice thing.

The strange thing is that the force of our opinions far outweighs the commitment our arguments would seem to suggest. Why do we care so much? I realised one day that in the subtext of our dispute was hidden the same essential disagreement that has divided radicals and conservatives for generations. Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about marriage is a mistrust of anything that is so established, and yet she sees this conventionality as a virtue.

For the conservatives, the fact that everybody is doing something, and that they continue to do it, is a consideration in its favour. If so many people feel that way, the chances are they know something we don’t. The radical mind spurts off in the other direction. We know people have a tendency to fall prey to mindless dogma, and the more deep-rooted a custom is, the less likely it is to have been subjected to critical scrutiny. If everybody is doing it, the chances are that most of them haven’t stopped long to think about whether they really ought to do it.

This argument is exactly the one that Michael Oakeshott wades into in his famous Conservative critique of ‘Rationalism in Politics’. According to Oakeshott, a major error that the Rationalist (or Radical, as I have called them) needs the Conservative to put them right on, is that “Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man”. Conservatives appreciate that excessive haste to be critical can blind us to the wisdom of past generations.

It’s not always my girlfriend that it is cast in the conservative role. She often complains that I have an irrational aversion to certain types of change. If she gets her hair cut, I complain. I never want to get new clothes. I have a definite tendency to find myself in ruts (or comfortable grooves, depending on the spin you want to out on it), with no intention of leaving them. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ isn’t just a piece of practical wisdom, it is also Conservative doctrine. Again, Oakeshott puts it best:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

All this is peculiar because one of the few people I know to be more virulently, emphatically anti-Conservative (in terms of the political party and ideology) than me is my girlfriend. Is this an anomaly, or are dispositional conservatism and ideological Conservatism entirely distinct? It would seem peculiar if the two were entirely unrelated, since the ideology seems merely to apply the dispositional to the political and social, rather than just the personal sphere.

The study of political psychology, and in particular, the characteristics of the Conservative mind is currently a fashionable area of research, but I’m not sure how thoroughly the connection between the disposition and ideology has been investigated. If nobody has asked this question yet, it would be interesting to find an answer.

This also raises a broader question about how our everyday personalities relate to our moral and political beliefs. For example, just anecdotally, my experience is that libertarians tend to be more optimistic than those who favour a big state. One obvious explanation for this is that statists fear spontaneous action is bound to result in disaster, whereas their opponents see it as promising and in need protection. Perhaps this is another area where further research is needed.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A level playing field?

I recently came across this passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

“Some men feel threatened by women’s competition. In Hebdo-Latin the other day, a student declared: ‘Every woman student who takes a position is stealing a place from us’. That student never questioned his rights over this world. Economic interests are not the only ones in play. One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior”.

These words, particularly the idea of mistaking unjust privileges for rights, put me in mind of Iain Duncan Smith’s comments a couple of weeks back. Then, Duncan Smith tried to make the case for stronger immigration controls on the basis that too many jobs that could be filled by Britons are taken by foreigners.

One argument he made was that “We have to ensure that our immigration system works in the interests of Britain”. This claim is controversial in itself. Firstly, I definitely do not think it is obvious that British immigration policy should be determined solely by the national interest. Taken literally, this would imply that Britain ought to be indifferent to the suffering of refugees, for example. Furthermore, it is debateable whether tighter immigration restrictions are in fact in the British national interest: this opens up a whole host of questions regarding migrants’ contributions in tax and economic activity.

I do not want to enter either of these moral or economic disputes here. The argument Duncan Smith made which intrigues me most is his claim that further restricting migration is necessary to create “a level playing field” for the British unemployed. This is a point which, like that of de Beauvoir’s student, crumbles into incoherence on the slightest reflection.

The metaphor of the ‘level playing field’ is a fairly straightforward and unambiguous one. It implies that there is a competition, and that one set of the competitors has an unfair advantage over the others. What IDS is implying is that migrants are better off than the British unemployed in ways that the do not deserve, just as the football team kicking downhill have done nothing to earn their fortune.

This is perverse because it seems like the exact opposite of the truth. Unemployed Britons have certain advantages many migrants could only dream of: educational support and opportunity, the security of the welfare state. Perhaps most significantly, most British workers have a linguistic and cultural advantage over foreigners. What IDS fails to ask is why British companies would want to hire foreigners when bosses and customers would almost certainly prefer to interact with people who sound, look and act like them.

Of course, all this is even before we consider the added handicap faced by those outside the EU of having to jump through the various hoops necessary to get a visa to the UK.

The only sense I can make of the claim that economic competition in the UK is skewed against Britons is perhaps in the possibility that their wage claims are ‘undercut’ by people willing to work for less money. But isn’t that exactly what economic competition is supposed to be – different providers jockeying to offer their goods and services at lower prices than their rivals? Working for lower wages than other workers is no more ‘cheating’ than a football team scoring more goals than their opponent.

To reiterate, I am not saying that economic competition should be the only thing we care about, or that workers undercutting each others’ wages is good or desirable. All I’m saying is that far from subverting competition, it is essential to it.

And all this gets to the heart of the tension in the Conservatives’ position on immigration. More than the other parties, they are supposed to be the ones with greatest faith in the virtues of the market. And yet in their strict limitations on the freedom of the labour market, they strangle the economic competition they profess to favour.