Monday, 20 July 2015

Blue Labour, Blue Danger?, by Hani Latif

Since its conception during the dying days of the last Labour government, Blue Labour has developed into a community of interested thinkers.

Like any brashly packaged, attention-grabbing, tribal phenomenon this community is diverse.

Many subscribers are fully committed to its ideas, whatever they interpret them to be. Others see it and its audience as a useful opportunity to strengthen or supplement their brand of Labourism. Others again are convinced only by one or two details of the picture, and are yet to be convinced of the merits of the whole piece.

To summarise, and to do a great disservice, the Blue Labour message is that Labour must rediscover the importance of things that its modernisers thought unnecessary or unhelpful, but which its historical support base hold dear.

To give an example that may conjure up flickers of remembrance for anyone who knocked on doors during the 2015 General Election, being seen to be strong on controlling immigration to this country has not been a policy priority for Labour politicians, but many people who stopped voting for Labour this year see it as crucial.

With immigration and many other issues, it is Labour’s modernisers that have failed to offer a convincing answer as to why their aims have had to trump these people’s concerns, and thus they have alienated the party from the working-class base.

This disconnect has driven on Blue Labour thinkers such as Maurice Glasman and Adrian Pabst (co-editor with Ian Geary of Blue Labour: Forging A New Politics) to collect together those interested in resurrecting the Labour Party’s traditional position on these issues and those interested more explicitly in Labour’s winning elections.

That those behind the Blue Labour movement would hold the movement’s summer get-together in Islington was not lost on the organisers

Of course, quite apart from the, rather unfair, effete image that has developed about this neighbourhood, Islington and its environs are represented in Parliament by the troublemaker de nos jours, Jeremy Corbyn MP and the bĂȘte noire of England’s conducteurs des camionnettes blanches, Emily Thornberry MP.

Those two figures were held up pointedly by the attendees as symptoms of a Labour Party that was failing.

Corbyn’s brand of politics may arguably have a coherent message, but it does not appeal to the socially conservative principles of many in the Labour movement.

It is too closely influenced by the Marxist elements that have been ever-present in the party, but have never had real mass appeal.

Thornberry, on the other hand, committed the sin of being seen to sneer at the traditions and the culture of English people.

Blue Labour is a movement that respects people’s patriotism and understands the emotional connection that people have with this sort of iconography.

Blue Labour feels that Labour has lacked empathy when dealing with people who put a love of England above other important factors.

Speaking at the Islington event were Maurice Glasman, the movement’s founder and de facto leader; Dr Adrian Pabst, the post-liberal academic from the University of Kent, who has been a strong contributing voice in the discourse surrounding Blue Labour; Rachel Burgin, Labour’s unsuccessful PPC for Hitchin and Harpenden; and the assembled sympathetic crowd of between 50 and 100 people.

Lord Glasman spoke quite openly and honestly about his displeasure at the state of the Labour Party.

This was a feeling from which one could not easily escape; there were few people in attendance who seemed enthusiastic about any Labour Leadership candidate.

If, in a year or so, we hear the winning candidate claim to be a “champion of Blue Labour values” and to have run as the Blue Labour candidate, then your cynicism will be justified.

The central motif of Lord Glasman’s speech was the words “the common good” and “common good Labour”. 

This buzz-phrase is designed gradually to replace the name “Blue Labour”, which was originally designed to upset the sensibilities of Labour people by presenting a deliberately controversial and jarring image.

With his words, Glasman struck a note of togetherness and solidarity , and pushed for the membership to look at its history, in which Labour was as conservative as it was radical.

He spoke about the great things that the movement has achieved in its last century and why it is essential that it continues to transform and improve lives. It is clear the affection that the man has for his party.

But, in harking back to the figure of Ernie Bevin, he could not resist a dig at today’s confused and impoverished organisation.

What would be his reaction, Glasman asked, if Bevin were around to see Jeremy Corbyn leading the race for Labour leader in 2015?

The room’s deafening answer was Blue Labour.

Bevin, of course, the hammer of the Marxists, the man who got us the A-Bomb “with the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it”, the English (not British) patriot, was a co-founder of the TGWU.

That union does not exist anymore. It is part of Unite.

Lord Glasman seems set to try to build stronger institutional framework for his Blue Labour ideas both inside and outside of Parliament.

Time will tell whether he achieves this, but he expresses his ideas in a very cogent way and, what is more, he has converted  to his cause others who speak and write just as fluently and persuasively.

That is a strong base for any movement and, given that Labour may be out of power for a long time, “common good Labour” may find the time to flourish inside the chamber and in the tea-rooms and bars of the Palace of Westminster as well as in church halls and scout huts from Land’s End to Lerwick.

Ms Burgin’s speech was also very well received in the room. Its central theme, that of religion, and of the continuing importance of religious traditions to the lives of people in her ancestral home of Lowca, West Cumberland, is central to Blue Labour.

Burgin recalled Harold Wilson who remarked that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than it did to Marxism.

Religion and its assets, which bind communities together while they feel distant from Westminster, also provide for the struggle against poverty where nothing else can.

The Trussell Trust, for example, runs many foodbanks out of churche,s and has an ethos grown out of the Christian tradition.

For Ms Burgin, where Labour has failed to capitalise because of the preferences of its Westminster establishment, Blue Labour must highlight this and work for change.

Burgin’s speech was written in three parts to fit the three themes of Blue Labour: faith, flag and family.

She celebrated the way that the flying of the national flag need not be a divisive image, but can become a focal point for emotional expression within a community.

Ms Burgin spoke about the beneficial love and goodwill that is expressed between people through their families, and argued that Blue Labour’s focus on the family must involve an active state, willing to spend money to create jobs in order to protect families’ traditions and locations.

It was Dr Adrian Pabst who also provided food for thought by highlighting just how far Labour is behind the Conservatives.

George Osborne’s budget stole Labour’s message and made its policies from 2015 look wildly outdated.

The exciting ideas being spoke of by Conservative thinkers, such as the idea of putting workers’ representatives on company boards, shows that in 2020 the Labour Party will be fighting a battle in which the initial position of the Tories cannot be predicted or second-guessed.

Labour must forge its own ideas, and appeal to people in a way that the Tories failed to do.

Blue Labour is, for Dr Pabst, a very important step towards re-establishing an emotional connection with the voters.

Dr Pabst expressed the view that Labour must engage with England.

The debate over the English Parliament and the English Labour Party continues to ruffle feathers. From the audience in Islington, there was remarkable consensus and unity.

The existence of a major problem and the general flavour of the direction needed was not questioned at all.

There was, however, some disagreement about whether Blue Labour should be in favour of an English Parliament, and moreover it remains to be seen what will happen once the organisation develops and the more specific policies are arrived at.

One point which was made several times was the importance of maintaining a clear division between the New Labour wing of the party and Blue Labour, although it was interesting to note that in attendance were a number of recognisable Progress-aligned faces, indicating a broad interest in the movement from other parts of the party.

The audience itself, it was interesting to note, was made up of a surprisingly high number of young people, which potentially suggests that Blue Labour is finding favour amongst the young and has a strong future.

However, the number of women in attendance was very low and Lord Glasman acknowledged the importance of spreading the message of the group to a wider audience.

So, what will become of Blue Labour?

All in all, its fleeting stopover in Islington was thought-provoking and raised important questions about Labour’s direction.

There is little doubt that more will be heard about Blue Labour in the next 10 years as Labour walks the long road back to credibility.

The development of the institutions and direction of Blue Labour or “Common Good Labour” will be of especial interest to many.

It remains to be seen, however, if it will be able to hold out against colonisation by those who see it as just another bolt-on element of their overall plan to make Labour an election winning machine again.

It is possible that this message could deliver a Labour victory but there is something deeper here that must not be fudged.

Blue Labour is a critique of New Labour, not a reformulation of it.

The persistent assertion by some who flirt with Blue Labour that only a return to Blairite fiscal values will win us an election may be unhelpful.

Anyway, let’s see what happens.

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