Blue Labour: a bad name for some good ideas

The Labour Party is rightly undergoing a wholesale review of policy, and Blue Labour has done more than any other idea to prompt this debate. Labour MP David Lammy discusses the idea, it's impact on his party and influence on the political landscape
David Lammy
7 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham.

‘Blue Labour’ is the most interesting idea in British politics right now. The coalition government is unmistakeably Radical, both in its austerity measures and in the attempt to reform just about every part of government. But there is little that feels new or original driving its agenda.

The Big Society has inspired a number of long Prime Ministerial speeches but has amounted to little in terms of substantive policy. Its proponents are frustrated that their big idea has been reduced to a few initiatives on volunteering and philanthropy. The ‘post-bureaucratic state’ has proved easier to explain and translate into a governing agenda. Here is one Tory Minister setting out its rationale:

"In the health service, it will be much easier for patients to choose the GP who provides the best service. And the GPs who attract more patients because they provide a better service, will be rewarded for doing so...In education parents will be able to exercise greater choice upon which school their children will attend…The funding of universities and polytechnics will reflect students’ choice of course. And so on."

The problem is that was John Major, speaking in 1989. The Lib Dems meanwhile, risk losing their political identity altogether in a coalition of the unwilling.

That leaves Labour. One year on from a painful election defeat we have begun the difficult process of surveying our record in government and reflecting on where we go next. Ed Miliband has rightly grasped the opportunity for a wholesale review of policy. Just as important, though, is the big picture. What is Labour’s diagnosis of modern Britain and prescription for the future? What is the framework for the policy to fit into? As Stuart White says, Blue Labour has done more to prompt that debate than anything else.

Aside from the name itself, which has proved successful in drawing attention but  much less so in galvanising support, it is the blend of ideas behind Blue Labour that has provoked such interest. Jon Wilson writes that he has never been sure whether he is on the Right or the Left of the Labour Party and Blue Labour has this quality too. It finds common cause with those on the Left who feel vindicated, if horrified, by the Crash. Blue Labour is a direct challenge to Thatcherite economics, which New Labour did its best to soften and mitigate but never challenged directly. Meanwhile those on the Right of the Party take some heart in Blue Labour’s rejection of an overly mighty central state. Just as Blue Labour rejects people being commodified in markets, it also dismisses the idea that we are each administrative units to be ordered around by a few clever people in Whitehall.

Blue Labour is not, however, to everyone’s taste. Alan Finlayson wrote, perceptively, that "Blue Labour has inadvertently proven just how hard it is in England to think beyond the assumptions of the Liberal tradition". Much of the reaction to it vindicates that view. Suzanne Moore has voiced her concerns in the Guardian, fearing that the ideas are "more conservative than radical, especially in relation to women". Others on the liberal left have described the ideas as "toxic", appealing to Labour "to hold fast to its most important values – defence of the poor and vulnerable, internationalism and robust anti-racism".

These concerns have penetrated the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Helen Goodman MP circulated a long and reflective piece around the Parliamentary Labour Party (available here) arguing that, while Blue Labour was helpful in moving beyond New Labour’s problem with managerialism, much of it’s analysis is "unbalanced, incomplete and in some cases just plain wrong".

The original Blue Labour eBook, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, which I contributed to, was produced to stimulate debate about Labour’s future. Having read Helen’s response to the eBook, I decided to continue the conversation within the PLP. In my reply, I argue that while Blue Labour is no panacea, it has something important to offer alongside our traditional defence of individual rights and the welfare state. The emphasis on our relationships, one to another, is a timely reminder that Labour stands not just for liberty and equality, but fraternity too.

Here is a taste of my argument: 

Blue Labour stands opposed to anyone being used simply as a means to an end. That explains why employers should not treat staff as commodities to be exploited, but rather human beings to be respected. People should have a voice at work and be paid a wage they can live on. It explains the opposition to loan sharks who exploit people’s poverty, enticing people into debt that they will never be able to escape from. It explains the offence at companies who target advertising at other people’s children, manipulating young girls and boys. It explains why people were so angry at Jack Straw’s revelation that insurance companies are selling personal information to accident lawyers behind people’s backs. It explains why the public are so angry that the banks were able to hold the country to ransom. 

This is what the Tories do not understand when they talk about people making ‘free choices’ in markets. A choice between eviction and a loan shark is no real choice. A choice between two bad jobs is no real choice. A choice about whether to let banks go down with millions of people’s savings, or to bail out the richest people in the country is no real choice. None of these reflect relationships built on give and take: they are about the powerful bullying and exploiting the powerless. Helen is clear that none of this will change without a role for government. I agree, as I expect every contributor to the Blue Labour eBook would. Collective action is how we stand up to those who profit at the expense of the rest of society. We do it together, through trade unions, cooperatives, consumer movements, civil society campaigns and of course, government at national and international level.

But collective action is not easy. Again we have to be careful how we build the trust and the solidarity and the momentum to take on those who abuse their power in the marketplace. Finger-wagging will not work here either. We have to find connections with people’s lives as they live them.

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