Blue Labour is right to call itself “conservative.” But to beat this Government, we need a radical alternative to Tory economic policy, not meek acceptance of it. Blue Labour has nothing to offer
This is no time to accept the status quo.
People are right to be angry when their wages are shrinking, two and a half million are unemployed, and George Osborne’s budgets have made them suffer – whilst at the other end of the scale, bank chiefs have had pay rises of more than a third. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s Big Society is giving communities responsibility for their own services, whilst withdrawing support from the state. Those with the means will be able to take over their local libraries, start their own schools and draw up their own neighbourhood development plans. Those without, won’t.
Yet against this backdrop, a bunch of academics has proposed Blue Labour. A set of “conservative socialist” ideas, it expresses deep scepticism over Labour’s “state-driven, redistribution-driven, equality-driven” agenda since 1945. It wants Labour to get back to its earlier traditions of co-operatism and labour organisation, and a more “relational” style of politics.
To be honest, pinning down exactly what Blue Labour stands for is a lot like trying to catch smoke in a fishing net. Each criticism against Blue Labour can be defended by someone with a different conception of what it all means. Maurice Glasman, one of Blue Labour’s founding fathers, calls it “a completely agitational idea to provoke a conversation.” If Blue Labour is just his way of playing devil’s advocate, it’s no wonder it all seems so inconsistent.
And it is true that there are some bits that many of us would agree with: regaining our lost working-class supporters; promoting trade unions and worker democracy; strengthening communities and creating co-operatives. All of this is excellent, but it’s neither new nor Blue – as the trade unions and the Co-operative Party would certainly agree. Cherry-picking these bits from Blue Labour risks giving credibility to the whole Blue Labour brand, warts and all.
And here are the warts. It’s not hard to see how Blue Labour and the Big Society come from the same pod. Marc Stears, a key Blue Labour thinker, says “we need to get away from this obsession with absolute fairness, with material equality,” and the idea that we can eradicate the postcode lottery is a “myth.” Glasman claims he isn’t calling for a smaller state, but he does think Labour took a “gamble on state power” and failed. But there is no alternative proposal from them on how to tackle inequality in our society. They are not radical. Where people have poor education, or low life expectancy, or social problems – all of which stem from big gaps between the richest and the poorest – there is nothing Blue Labour can think to do about it.
The Big Blue Labour Society is unrealistic about what communities can, and should, do for themselves. We understand the benefits of community-run services, but there are also limits to them. For example, Helen Goodman points out that communities once even had local cooperatives to provide an ambulance service. Yes, we could go back to that model, but that would be a very risky way indeed of strengthening community relationships. As Goodman says, most people would prefer to dial 999. Localism isn’t the answer to everything.
More importantly, even where there is a case for a co-operative public service, it would be a mistake to see it as a cheap option. The service would still need funding (yes, redistributive funding) from the taxpayer, and an active state to ensure standards. The Co-operative approach has not been to replace public services, but to deliver them in a different (but still equal and inclusive) way. True, there are concerns that in some cases councils have used co-operatives as an excuse to cut spending. But the Big Blue Labour Society is unashamed about rejecting the state and inclusive public services. Yes, Blue Labour is right to call itself “conservative.”
At this point, one Blue Labour apologist or another is likely to pipe up and tell me I simply haven’t been clever enough to understand it all, or I’ve used selective quotes to advance my shady agenda. I’m sticking to my guns. In fact there are others, from across the Labour Party, who agree that Blue Labour means embracing inequality.
Actually that’s the scariest part. James Purnell is one of them. He has written, “Until [Glasman’s] paper, Labour’s default setting has been that 1945 was paradise lost and Crosland John the Baptist. That’s what gives the keepers of the scrolls the right to denounce anyone who doesn’t privilege equality… This is our family myth.” Glasman might say he never liked Purnell or the Labour right, but in fact he has handed them everything they need.
David Miliband also agrees that Blue Labour has ignored equality, though unlike Purnell he thinks this is a bad thing. He says, “I just don’t think it is possible to escape questions of equality by stressing the vital nature of relationships – vital though they are.” Thanks David – I don’t believe I could have put it any better. Even you see Blue Labour as rather liberal on the economic side.
One of the conclusions that Wilkinson and Pickett come to in The Spirit Level is that when there are big gaps between the poor and the rich in society, trust and community life suffers. If Blue Labour wants to see strong, organised communities, it should have started from that point. In the face of the onslaught from this Government, its conservative approach is not an option. Now, more than ever, Labour needs to be radical about improving the lives of working people, and Blue Labour has nothing to offer.