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.

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