Blue Labour and immigration: a Sky News debate

A transcript of a Sky News debate on Blue Labour, an idea gaining traction as a guide to rejuvenating the Labour party. The founder and two members of the shadow cabinet debate the relationship of Blue Labour to immigration, racism and the right-wing
ourKingdom editors
3 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

The following is a transcript of a Sky News, Murnaghan debate on Blue Labour, an idea gaining traction as a guide to rejuvenating the Labour party. Founder of Blue Labour Maurice Glasman, shadow health minister Diane Abbott and shadow communities secretary Caroline Flint discuss the Blue Labour idea, particularly in relation to immigration, racism and the right-wing. 

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, we’ve had Red Toryism and the Orange Book from the Lib Dems and now Ed Miliband, in his search for a distinctive idea, is flirting with Blue Labour, but what exactly is it and will it set the party back on the road to electoral success?  Well joining me to discuss in the blue corner, Ed Miliband’s guru and founder of Blue Labour, Lord Glasman, in the red corner Shadow Health Minister Diane Abbott and perhaps in the purple corner representing New Labour is Shadow Communities Secretary, Caroline Flint.  I’m not sure about all those colours but let’s try and define first of all, as quickly as we can Lord Glasman, Blue Labour, is it a genuine concept?

LORD GLASMAN: Oh it’s genuine all right and it’s just we lost touch with very basic ordinary things, people’s concerns for their parents and their children being at the front of it, respect for people’s faith, the work ethic, a real concern for your neighbours. This is the language of New Labour and it’s just reconnecting with our people.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: It sounds like mother and apple pie, a good thing but what does it mean in practice, in terms of policy, that’s what we want to hear from Labour?

LORD GLASMAN: Well mothers and apple pie aren’t in themselves bad things and we’ve got key commitments to paying people properly, there’s a very strong commitment to the living wage, we want to see balance of power in corporate governance, we want to take on the over mighty banks and media barons, that sort of thing.  We’re democratic people and we’re Labour people and we want to reconnect with the joy of that.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: That sounds good doesn’t it, Diane Abbott, you could sign up for it?

DIANE ABBOTT: It sounds fantastic, we could all sign up for it but Blue Labour is really interesting, it’s good to have debate around ideas but the signature idea is immigration and I think the problem with immigration is that it tends to recycle a lot of myths.  A lot of Blue Labour people argue for instance that forward immigration is some new thing and we know dockers marched for Enoch Powell.  They argue that no one is allowed to talk about immigration and you know that there is stuff about immigration in the papers every single day but above all there is sometimes an implication that Labour were soft on immigration and I know, because I deal with a lot of people with immigration problems, that we actually had a little bit chaotic but very tough policies so lots of interesting ideas but on immigration some of the…

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Let’s stick with that idea of immigration as being a symbol of Blue Labour and the real conversation taking place because Caroline Flint, I’ve just been talking to Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, who was saying – and this is what we’re hearing from current Labour administration, that it was an issue that wasn’t openly and frankly discussed by the Labour government.

CAROLINE FLINT: I think that’s right and after the most successful period in government for Labour, winning three elections in a row, never been done before, we crashed in 2010, seven out of ten voters didn’t vote for us, 60% of the public thought we’d lost touch and some of that was expressed through concerns about immigration and about housing because some people, a broad base of people felt they were playing by the rules, working hard and their sense of fairness actually and what they thought that Labour should be focusing on didn’t chime with their reality every day and so …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So cracking down on immigration would have been an election winner then?

CAROLINE FLINT: No, I think it’s part of dealing with people’s concerns, perceived or otherwise.  People did perceive that they felt things were unfair.   It doesn’t mean it’s right but they felt we weren’t talking about their concerns so part of what we need to do, and that is why I think the Blue Labour debate is important, Ed wants us to make sure we are out listening to people genuinely about their worries and their concerns but also within our party as well and …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Listening to people is one thing, acting on what they say is another.  If you don’t like what you hear as a party do you have to take it on board?

LORD GLASMAN: If you are a democratic party you certainly do but Diane knows full well that I have been working with London Citizens for fifteen years, I’ve been working with the Coalition of Low Paid Woman Ethic Minorities and we’ve run the Strangers Into Citizens campaign and we support a legal amnesty for people who are here but the problem we’ve got is that we had a whole language and concern that didn’t honour the sensibilities of people, that wasn’t listening to what they were doing.  We had unprecedented levels of free movement commodification of labour and ….

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Whoa, let’s sort that out!

LORD GLASMAN: Well what we did was got the view that we needed cheap labour, bring it in and so what we had was a bosses agenda effectively that didn’t concern itself with the forms of the common life.  Now the Labour party …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: What could Labour have done in government then, in terms of immigration, in terms of the hundreds of thousands of people who came to these shores during the Labour years?

LORD GLASMAN: Well I think we should have been much tougher with the EU, that’s just to begin with and second, we should never have signed up to an agenda that said the free movement of people is a good idea because people, we have to build citizenship, we have to build solidarity, and real Labour politics is about building solidarity between things that are divided, like we did in Glasgow between Catholic and Protestant and we’ve got to do between immigrant and local.  The Labour party and the Labour movement, the trade union movement, is the way that we broker that.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: You’re itching to get back in there Diane.

DIANE ABBOTT: Well, you know, with respect to Caroline and Maurice, they’ll forgive me if with regards to immigrants, I try and stick up for immigrants and their contribution to British society and Caroline is wrong I think to say that in the Labour party we didn’t discuss immigration …

CAROLINE FLINT: I didn’t say that.

DIANE ABBOTT: … we had a serious, a major debate on immigration, on nationality, I think every parliament we had a piece of major legislation which was comprehensively debated.  I also think that … if you’ll just let me say …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Do you think Labour did enough, that Labour in government got it about right?

DIANE ABBOTT: I think the danger is that we’re confusing quite separate issues.  We were wrong not to build more social housing and that created a sense of grievance and as always happens in difficult economic times, people turned round and said ‘Oh it’s immigrants, that’s why I can’t have a house’.  We were wrong not to offer people more protection at work and crack down on casualization and agency workers and as always happens in an economic crisis, people blame the immigrants.  Those two things were wrong, housing and casualization of labour, they were wrong but to blame immigrants, that’s to take a very strange road.

CAROLINE FLINT: I think that’s distorting, we did do a lot in government, we did tackle the issues of the backlog of asylum seekers and we did …

DIANE ABBOTT: We didn’t build enough housing, Caroline, that’s my point.

CAROLINE FLINT: Can I just finish Diane, we did do some things to tackle immigration but some of the things we didn’t do were in relation to housing, you’re absolutely right.  Whatever we say in government and the language we use, if it doesn’t connect with people on the ground, that’s why in the top three of issues people were saying about immigration.  Some of it was a perception that we weren’t doing stuff but that’s because we weren’t talking the language that people understood. 

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: You were saying about listening to people especially if it’s about immigration but what if you’re pandering to the racists?

CAROLINE FLINT: I think it’s about recognising where people have concerns about what’s happening in their lives and it’s not just about immigration.  Over time, the days when people would go to work and be in the same workplace for thirty years have changed and for a lot of people change has been really difficult and part of our job within the Labour movement is to ensure that we’re in touch with those concerns about change.  Don’t just say, oh it’s globalisation, that’s the way it is, we have to deal with things that people are concerned about.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: I have to move on as our time is finite in terms of this programme, Lord Glasman people are going to say okay, we want to know more about policy, we’ve heard the squeezed middle and Blue Labour now coming out of the Miliband camp, they’re going to put their hands over their ears and go la-la-la-la-la.  What does it all mean to me, what does it mean in terms of how a Labour government would be different from the existing one?

LORD GLASMAN: Well it’s all about giving people power, having a sense of …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: But we hear that when David Cameron talks about the Big Society.

LORD GLASMAN: Okay, let me talk about the Blue Labour strategy as regards schools just to make it straight.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Okay, tell us the differences.

LORD GLASMAN: So what we had was we had an old model of state schooling and then we’ve got the new model with the government of free schools which are run by parents and what Blue Labour would say is that there should be a third, a third, a third.  A third of power with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state.  A third, a third, a third.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So that would be the mix, or indeed a private organisation. 

LORD GLASMAN: Exactly, a private organisation that would work the same way.  One of the things that Blue Labour argues very strongly is there was contempt for the workforce both in excessive managerialism both in the public sector and in the private sector, so we’d go for that as well in the private sector because we need productive industries.  If you look at the …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: And in the public sector?

LORD GLASMAN: Yes, both.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So contempt for the workforce.  This idea sounds very inclusive doesn’t it?

DIANE ABBOTT: A lot of what Blue Labour says is both hard to argue with and hard to pin down but just … it’s interesting how it all comes to life around immigration and all I would say to Caroline is that if we attempt to allow people to blame immigrants for issues …

CAROLINE FLINT: That’s not what I’m saying.

DIANE ABBOTT: Let me finish, there are very real issues for working class people both black and white, worries about housing, about unemployment, about the quality of life and if we go down the road of making immigrants the cause of that … if we go down the road of allowing immigrants to be made the cause of that discontent, a) we don’t offer practical solutions to problems but b) we do a disservice to Britain’s … to people of immigrant …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Put them right you say but a lot of people say the country is too full up.

DIANE ABBOTT: Yes, they do but they’ve always said that.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: They’re wrong?

DIANE ABBOTT: Well they’ve said that since 1945! 

CAROLINE FLINT: Let me just come back to the issue about the Conservatives and what they’re saying when they talk about everything being local, the Big Society …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: It doesn’t sound much different.

CAROLINE FLINT: They have a view of our country I suggest that doesn’t recognise that actually in some communities they are cash rich, they have people who are educated professionals with skills and everywhere is not Midsomer without the murders.  We have complex communities, urban, rural and so on and cities and what we’ve got to try and do as Labour is take what we said before actually in ’97, take traditional values in a modern setting.  People want to feel they have control over their lives, they don’t want to feel they are being ruled by Whitehall or the Town Hall and we need real honesty in that relationship.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: You are saying to people then that you didn’t get it right in that administration 1997 to 2010, we had the opportunity, we had the cash and we didn’t do it. 

LORD GLASMAN: I think that’s a really important thing to say so from Blue Labour’s point of view we honour early Blair completely, the stake-holding, the Singapore speech, the Christian Socialism, the genuine patriotism and the energy that played from that but it didn’t happen because it went so managerial in both …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So Ed Miliband doesn’t mind being heir to Blair, early Blair?

LORD GLASMAN: Definitely.

CAROLINE FLINT: There’s nothing wrong with that, there was nothing wrong with it when we were winning elections.

LORD GLASMAN: I just want to blast through the silliness, Ed is a really serious leader, he understands something that a lot of journalists don’t which is that is a …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Thanks for pointing at me

LORD GLASMAN: That this is a loveless marriage, this coalition government is held together by a hasty prenup and Labour for the first time has got some time to have an honest conversation and a real conversation where we can place ourselves with the people.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN:  We’ve only got a minute  left so Diane, you think the conversation has to be on the issue of immigration?

DIANE ABBOTT:  No, I think Blue Labour raises a lot of interesting ideas but I think on immigration it is too easy to adopt a sort of phoney workerism and wring your hands…

LORD GLASMAN:  I’m not even going to reply to that.

DIANE ABBOTT:  … and not understand that what you’re doing it giving credence to right wing mythology.  We had tough policies on immigration, it’s not true to say …

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Credence to right wing ideology, that’s quite a charge Lord Glasman?

LORD GLASMAN: In time we’re going to get to a better place in this conversation and we have a genuine love of all people, the stress is on the common life and putting all emphasis on building a common life between immigrants and locals and that’s going to be through the Labour movement.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Well I hope we got closer to defining Blue Labour there, our time is up so thank you all, Diane Abbot, Caroline Flint and Lord Glasman, cheers, good to see you.    

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