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Blue Labour: is there a baby in the bathwater?

The star of Blue Labour, a key project influencing the re-shaping of the Labour party, appears to be waning, after controversial remarks made by its informal leader on immigration. But we must hold onto the valuable aspects of Blue Labour thinking, which have already made their mark on the party
Ed Rooksby
23 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour.

‘Blue Labour’ is in serious trouble – perhaps even dead in the water. In a remarkably ill-judged interview with the Daily Telegraph, the faction’s most prominent intellectual and organisational driving force, Lord Glasman, emphatically pushed a button marked ‘self-destruct’ – calling for draconian immigration controls that even Andrew Green of Migration Watch appears to believe are a little bit extreme. Glasman’s remarks, in which he called for a ‘freeze’ on ‘inward immigration for EU and non-EU citizens, except where employers or universities make a case for a specific, skilled individual’ were immediately seized upon by an approving right wing press – the story was splashed across the front page of the Daily Express on Tuesday (‘BRITAIN MUST BAN MIGRANTS’) and was featured prominently in the Daily Mail, too (‘FREEZE IMMIGRATION AND PUT BRITISH PEOPLE FIRST, SAYS ED MILIBAND’S POLICY GURU’).

In little more than a day or two Blue Labour’s fortunes have shifted dramatically. For many months it looked very likely that Blue Labour ideas would be adopted wholesale, or at least in large measure, as the Labour Party’s ‘big idea’ under Miliband – providing a cohesive, post New Labour organising ideological narrative for the party. In the immediate aftermath of Glasman’s recent remarks, however, several of Blue Labour’s key proponents such as Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Jon Cruddas are seeking, very rapidly, to distance themselves from Glasman and Blue Labour. Dan Hodges reports that Cruddas and Rutherford, for example, feel that ‘the Blue Labour brand is now too contaminated to continue with the project in its present form’. Hodges indicates, too, that Miliband is making similar manoeuvres of disavowal and damage limitation.

I’ve been sharply critical of Blue Labour elsewhere (see here and here) and so it would be easy to crow about all of this. But, aside from the fact that openly demonstrating schadenfreude never looks very attractive, I think that it would be a big mistake for anyone on the left to attempt to dance on Blue Labour’s grave. For one thing, it’s not at all clear that Blue Labour is dead and buried. It’s very difficult to predict how all of this is going to develop. Certainly Glasman’s star appears to have waned and I’d be surprised if anyone influential in or around the Labour Party tried to repeat the sorts of things that he’s said about immigration – but many of the central ideas animating the Blue Labour project may well have greater staying power. Indeed, Cruddas and Rutherford have stated that ‘they hope it will be possible to salvage some of the ideas and themes’ that Blue Labour has been developing. There is certainly scope for some sort of salvaging and regrouping process - whether or not any reformulated project continues to use the Blue Labour tag. It’s pretty clear that the Labour leadership are looking for a new narrative of purpose and identity to fill the post-New Labour void and also to reposition itself in the context of the unfolding economic crisis which is slowly but very fundamentally reshaping the political terrain. Manic Blairite neoliberalism is no longer appropriate for a broadly social democratic party in an era of austerity (which one report recently suggested would last for decades) – Blue Labour is, in my view, well suited for a party which seeks to manage capitalism in a time of ‘belt-tightening’. Blue Labour ideas appear to have sunk fairly deep roots within the upper echelons of Labour and they are unlikely to disappear entirely.

The second reason not to crow about recent developments is that I think that there are some valuable aspects to the Blue Labour project which it would be a shame to see ditched with the less attractive parts. Critics of Blue Labour have often tended to go in for rather sweeping denunciations – myself, perhaps, included. Part of the reason for this is that tight restrictions in terms of word count on sites like the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ tend to dictate that arguments are written in polemical style leaving little space for nuance and complexity. Sometimes, in addition, it’s fairly clear that critics haven’t taken much time to read up on what Blue Labourites are actually saying in their more measured and lengthy pieces (away from the deliberately provocative sound-bite approach that Lord Glasman, for example, often engages in).   

Let me be clear about this. I think that much of what Blue Labour has said is poisonous and dangerous. Beyond this, furthermore, I’m not at all convinced by much of the rest. But in amongst the dangerous and the unconvincing are some valuable observations and ideas that are often overlooked. Given that the Blue Labour project is now in flux – at a point at which it will have to be either radically reformulated or abandoned entirely – it seems an apposite time for interventions from the left to help reshape the debate surrounding this project or, at least, to sort out more clearly what we think about it in considered and nuanced terms. I hope this article might, in some small way, contribute to this process.

I’m not a member of the Labour Party and, indeed, I’m not a social democrat either. I’m deeply sceptical in relation to the broadly defined tradition of labourism itself as an effective vehicle for left-wing politics. This, of course, significantly colours my view of Blue Labour and my views in relation to the feasibility of the sorts of measures of reform that it proposes. Nevertheless, whatever your views on labourism, it’s clearly in the interests of all of those on the left (whether they operate within or separately from the Labour Party) that Labour advocates policies that are, at least, less bad or damaging than they might otherwise be, even if we don’t hold out much hope that Labour might promote the sort of approach that we would prefer overall.

What many regard as the toxic and dangerous elements of Blue Labour thinking are well known. The brouhaha surrounding Lord Glasman’s recent comments on immigration have, indeed, thrust one of these very firmly into the limelight. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sorts of comments Glasman made in the Telegraph don’t really come as much of a surprise – right from the beginning, the Blue Labour project has sought to absorb and promulgate deeply unpleasant ideas which effectively pitch what some Blue Labourites call ‘the white working class’ against ‘mass immigration’ which is singled out (wrongly) as a key determinant of falling wages and increasing joblessness and so on. Glasman’snotorious comments about the EDL are… well… notorious. Indeed it’s hard not to feel that the protestations of figures such as Cruddas and Rutherford in relation to the Telegraph interview ring rather hollow – are we expected to believe that they had no inkling, up until now, of Lord Glasman’s views on immigration?

Another area of major controversy in the Blue Labour approach is its attitude to women. Helen Goodman, for example, has very strongly criticised what she sees as the deeply ingrained sexism within Blue Labour’s outlook. As Goodman points out, for example, there is an unsettling passage in one of Glasman’s key essays on Blue Labour where he utilises an extended metaphor to describe the recent trajectory of the Labour tradition in which ‘an educated middle class Mum’ increasingly dominates and abuses ‘a decent working class Dad’. As Goodman points out, Glasman ‘characterises as female all the parts aspects of New Labour he dislikes, whereas all the characteristics he applauds he draws as male’. This, for Goodman, reflects Blue Labour’s approach to women generally, which is suspicious of feminism and seems ambivalent about post-1968 developments towards greater independence for women. She also points to Jonathan Rutherford’s astonishing article ‘Putting Patrimony First’ which, quite frankly, has to be read to be believed.

As flaws in left of centre political projects go, these are pretty serious ones. It’s right that these ideas should be, and have been, fiercely criticised and it’s good that the ideas in relation to immigration at least, have at last, run into widespread opprobrium on the occasion of Lord Glasman finally pushing the envelope too far for his colleagues and allies. Understandably, critiques of Blue Labour tend to focus on these two points. But this means that other, less offensive (and more interesting), aspects of the Blue Labour approach are ignored. Let me set out, and critically analyse, some of these interesting aspects, which are amongst those likely to be salvaged and to re-emerge in some form.

There are two (interrelated) elements of the Blue Labour approach that I’d like to draw out – firstly, the idea of a ‘conservative socialism’, critical of the abstractions of liberalism, and, secondly, what they have to say about state and market.

Jon Cruddas often speaks of the ‘conservative nature of English socialism’. Clearly there’s an element of provocation here – and many on the left have responded to these sorts of statements with a somewhat knee-jerk reaction. Beneath all the quasi-nationalist-romantic guff about ‘Englishness’, ‘flag’ and patriotism (which Cruddas, in particular, peddles very energetically) there is some interesting, if problematic, stuff here. This is best brought out in the Blue Labour critique of the liberal tradition. As Finlayson and Wilson, for example (two critics relatively sympathetic to Blue Labour), point out, the liberal worldview is hegemonic in modern politics – it fundamentally shapes mainstream political philosophical assumptions (conscious and unconscious) today. Liberalism is rooted in a radically individualist ontology and ethics, from which its various political commitments and values flow. It therefore tends to be blind to the way in which human individuality, identity, practices and behaviour are constituted, structured and shaped by complex webs of social relations. It deals in simplified and misleading abstractions almost wholly removed from reality – incapable of grasping the way in which humans are inherently social creatures or the ways in which our values are, similarly, socially constituted. For Blue Labour, as Finlayson puts it, ‘Liberalism treats values and principles in a way that extracts them from the communal and cultural contexts in which they have meaning and force’. So for Glasman and other Blue Labourites what really matters are the communities in which we live and the social relationships we have which are the things that give our lives meaning and allow us to flourish and find fulfilment. All of this implies (amongst other things), of course, that established cultural and social traditions, practices and institutions are worth defending.

It’s this part of Blue Labour’s approach that is (small c) conservative. The prevailing political wisdom tends to present the modern political ideological landscape as a linear spectrum with conservatism at one end of the scale and socialism at the other, with liberalism somewhere in the middle (a reflection of the ideological self-image of liberalism which likes to present itself as a sensible and ‘moderate’ compromise between two silly or dangerous extremes). In this view, the notion of a ‘conservative socialism’ is an oxymoron. In fact, the ideological landscape is much more complex than that (though I wouldn’t want to reject the conventional left-right axis). In some ways socialism does indeed share much in common with traditional forms of conservatism (while in many others, of course, the two are radically opposed). Socialism and social democracy are, in great part, political and ideological expressions of working class defensive struggles – battles to defend communities and ways of life from the corrosive and destructive depredations of market forces and the logic of capital accumulation (though importantly socialism, at least in its Marxist variants, is also more than a merely defensive struggle – it is simultaneously and necessarily a transformative one). Blue Labour is quite right to point to the affinities between conservatism and socialism. They are clear that the concept of ‘conservative socialism‘ is not necessarily an oxymoron – but is (or can be), rather, the expression of a creative, dialectical sort of tension at the heart of the labour movement tradition. Blue labour thinkers have a sensitive grasp of the ways in which political traditions always embody a series of messy paradoxes – and that paradoxes can be sources of creativity. Done in the right way at least, this sort of thinking can make for productive and innovative political engagement which is able to sidestep the various sterile dead-ends of established, mainstream political discourse.   

None of this is particularly new. Many will recognise the Aristotelian influence on Glasman’s thinking – indeed Glasman is quite clear about this. One can also see, very clearly, the imprint of the ‘communitarian’ critique of liberalism in the Blue Labour approach. Further, anyone who has ever read much Marx will recognise much of what Blue Labour has to say in relation to its critique of liberal individualism and abstraction and in relation to the inherently paradoxical (dialectical) nature of politics. Even so, Blue Labour is to be commended here insofar as it attempts to bring these relatively sophisticated ideas to bear in relation to contemporary debates within the Labour Party. 

Nevertheless there are many shortcomings in the Blue Labour approach to the conservatism necessarily inherent within the socialist tradition. This, after all, is the element of Blue Labour philosophy in which the project’s deeply unsettling attachment to flag-waving nationalism, patriarchy and, indeed, its hostility towards ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘mass immigration’ are founded. The nub of the problem here is that Blue Labour thinkers tend to treat ‘tradition’ in a wholly uncritical and undifferentiated way. This is perhaps best brought out with reference to one of Jon Cruddas’ articles in the New Statesman. Here Cruddas makes a distinction between ‘progressivism’ and traditionalism on the left. He argues that leftist thought has been dominated by a form of ‘progressivism’ – ‘devotion to an abstract notion of progress’ - which tends to regard the idea of tradition with dismissive contempt. The central thrust of the article is perfectly reasonable – that resistance to commodification and dispossession are always rooted, at least partially, in struggles to defend the local, the particular and established relationships (although his argument rests on an unconvincing caricature – can you think of any serious left wing thinker who really matches Cruddas’ description of ‘progressivism’: it’s revealing that Cruddas can only pin this description on Marx by way of a rather silly misinterpretation of one of Marx’s famous phrases). But Cruddas writes of tradition in the singular – as if there is just one or, at least, as if there is just one set of traditions that all link up and mutually complement on another. Clearly, however, it makes more sense to speak of traditions in the plural and indeed to recognise that many of these are in tension with one another or even mutually antagonistic. When we speak of a left wing defence of tradition we need to specify which traditions, whose traditions, what kinds of tradition and so on are to be defended. This rather elementary observation seems to pass Cruddas by. Indeed, the overall effect of this is that in his assault on ‘abstract notions of progress’ Cruddas ends up treating tradition in a totally abstract way – as if one can defend ‘tradition’ itself, rather than particular, concrete traditions (necessarily at the expense of other opposed traditions). This epitomises Blue Labour’s approach on a wider scale. For all their criticism of ‘abstract liberal universalism’, Blue Labour rather breezily champion some remarkably abstract notions – ‘community’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’ and so on.

The political significance of all of this from a critical perspective is that Blue Labour’s approach tends to airbrush deep-rooted social conflict and structural political antagonisms out of the picture. Abstract notions of ‘community’ and ‘tradition’ for example as good things in themselves tend to obscure relations of domination and oppression that might be bound up in actually existing, material manifestations of these categories. So, for example, defence of the ‘family’ and of ‘community’ or of ‘culture’ in the abstract leaves little room for sensitivity towards abusive behaviour within actual family relationships or towards class exploitation and oppression (rather ironically, given Blue Labour’s habitual invocation of working class credentials) within actually experienced social conditions. This is where Blue Labour’s conservatism slides into conservatism of a very familiar and orthodox kind. It simply ends up replicating the orthodox conservative image of ‘organic society’ from which any notion of systemic internal oppression and exploitation is evacuated. This is epitomised in Blue Labour’s patriotism. The (dare I say) traditional socialist view of patriotism is that it is a useful tool for the incorporation of the working class into a ruling class hegemonic project. Nationalism is orthodox conservatism’s preferred means of obscuring class differences. This is precisely where Blue Labour end up.

Blue Labour’s unwillingness to recognise that structured social conflicts exist and that one is forced to choose between traditions before one can defend any tradition is rooted, in great part, in its suspicion towards liberal ethical universalism. Without any sort of expansive conception of moral norms that extends beyond the local and particular it is very difficult to choose between traditions and practices – there is no ethical yardstick with which to measure the moral status of particular practices. So, here, Blue Labour finds itself with few resources with which to say that certain community relations, practices and traditions are more acceptable than others – let alone that some are simply wrong. One could very easily argue – given that it’s been around for a few hundred years now – that capitalism and thus the process of commodification is a very well-established English tradition. So, on what grounds does Blue Labour justify its opposition to it? Like it or not Blue Labour cannot avoid some sort of ethical abstraction of its own – a form of the liberal universalism they dismiss. But it isn’t really a problem for socialists to adopt ‘liberal’ principles and ethics in this way. We’ve seen that Blue Labour has a nuanced view of the relationship between socialism and conservatism – but when it comes to the relationship between liberalism and socialism its views are remarkably facile and simplistic. Time and again liberalism is treated as a tradition that’s somehow wholly alien to the socialist tradition. But clearly the relationship is much more complex than this – just as it is in the case of conservatism. In fact, socialism is, in my view, best regarded as the radical fulfilment of the core principles of liberalism (liberty, equality, solidarity) rather than as something completely opposed to it.     

The second major area of Blue Labour thinking I want to focus on here is its approach to the state and the economy. One of the most remarkable and positive things about Blue Labour is that it is not afraid to talk about capitalism in critical terms – a welcome development in the contemporary debate within labourism. Here, again, Blue Labour draws on some pretty sophisticated resources and concepts. Glasman, for example, often draws upon the ideas of Karl Polanyi. In opposition to the facile and ahistorical assumptions (and assertions) of neoclassical economics, Polanyi was clear that capitalism was not somehow ‘natural’ or ‘just the way things are’ and neither was it a direct reflection of some sort of transhistorical ‘human nature’. The economy is not somehow removed from, or autonomous of, political decisions and choices and, indeed, could and should be brought under greater democratic, social control. This provides the intellectual and theoretical basis for Blue Labour’s criticism of neoliberalism and New Labour’s devotion to the ‘free market’. Encroaching ‘commodification’ of human existence and the natural environment can and should be resisted in Blue Labour’s view. Further, the market should be subordinated to politically defined social priorities. This does not at all entail the abolition of capitalism, however (I find it quite hard to see how Finlayson can regard Blue Labour’s political economic approach as ‘a specific form of anti-capitalist politics’). Blue Labour figures tend to become rather vague on specifics here in relation to how this might be done – but Marc Stears has suggested that ‘works councils’ might be set up to provide workers with some measure of control over the enterprises in which they work. It has to be said that this is pretty tame stuff – but in the (rather unimpressive) context of the recent history of Labour Party thinking it’s a relatively radical proposal.

On the state, Blue Labour argue that post-1945 Labour became seduced by the idea of the big state as a sort of catch all answer to everything – social justice could be advanced with increasing state intervention and regulation of society and the economy. In this way post-war labourism became increasingly managerial and technocratic – and the idea of socialism and social democracy came to be associated more and more with top-down state centralisation and bureaucracy. Blue Labour want to democratise the state and to empower local communities politically and economically.

Much of this is very positive. The development of a modern critique of statism within labourism for example which doesn’t fall for the neoliberal panacea – that market forces make everything better – is very welcome indeed. A critical outlook in relation to capitalism too, is valuable. Nevertheless there are several serious problems here. Blue Labour are never quite convincing in their hostility towards capitalist market forces. For one thing, their concrete proposals, such as they are, for the extension of democratic control over the economy are remarkably hand-waving, unspecific, and timid too. It’s hard to see how democratic control of the economy could come about without arousing intense (and intensely powerful) hostility from capital – this is the classic problem of gradualist socialism. No one has ever solved it. Blue Labour, in time-honoured social democratic tradition, simply evade the problem by refusing to acknowledge it. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s very noticeable too, that most Blue Labour criticism of capitalism centres, specifically, on ‘finance capital’. But focusing on ‘finance capital’ as something meaningfully distinct from productive or industrial capital is a mistake, both empirically and also in political-strategic terms. There is no hard and fast distinction these days between industrial and finance capital (most major industrial capitals for example are also big financial players) and while it’s true that the City of London is massively powerful and that this has, historically, entailed major problems for the UK economy in terms of manufacturing productivity and ‘competitiveness’ and so on one has to regard the economy as, in a sense, an organic whole in which capitals and state institutions are closely intertwined rather than as a series of distinct sectors. To single out finance capital as the villain, as Blue Labour do, rather than the logic of capital accumulation more broadly - is to let capitalism itself off the hook. So what Blue Labour tend to do is make radical sounding noises about ‘commodification’ and so on, but channel this criticism into an approach that is, in the end, decidedly unradical.

Blue Labour isn’t really very convincing in its anti-statism either. There’s a long tradition of anti-statism on the radical left of course. The reason that Blue Labour aren’t in the end particularly impressive on this is, precisely, because they’re not that left-wing. We have to see the message that Blue Labour is pushing in the context of the social democratic tradition which has always been best understood as a tradition which seeks to manage capitalism rather than challenge it. In this context I think it’s quite difficult, in the end, to see anything spectacularly positive in Blue Labour’s anti-statist noises. This anti-statism on the part of Blue Labour in the context of managing capitalism on capital’s terms (how does social democracy do anything else?) would, in my view, entail, in practice, the rolling back of welfare. We have to see all of this too in the context of economic crisis and austerity politics – the Blue Labour doctrine provides great ideological cover for an assault on public spending and welfare in the guise of a return to ‘authentic socialist values’. Whether or not this is the intention of many Blue Labourites (and for some, clearly it’s not) it seems to me, given the enormous difficulties that would be involved in trying to democratise political and economic functions in ways that run counter to the interests of capital, that this is how things would be likely to go in practice. We have to ask why ex-Blairites like Purnell are so interested in the Blue Labour project.

So, overall there are certainly many interesting and valuable aspects to Blue Labour ideas that tend to get overlooked by critics in the rush to denounce the more unsavoury aspects of the developing doctrine – although I don’t find many of these valuable aspects particularly convincing. Perhaps the biggest contribution Blue Labour has made, however, is that it has injected fresh and unusual thinking into debates within the Labour Party. It has, as Finlayson puts it, ‘created a framework within and against which Labour’s internal debate has been energised’. This has opened up a space in which Labour’s erstwhile unimaginative commitment to the various ideological platitudes and received wisdom of the age – the neoliberal discourse of ‘aspiration’ and consumer individualism for example – can be questioned and subjected to serious and sustained critique from within the party.   

As Blue Labour now reels from what might be a knock-out blow – delivered by Glasman himself – it’s important to acknowledge that the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. It’s just that there’s an awful lot of bathwater to throw out and some of it – as evidenced by Glasman’s recent remarks on immigration – is particularly foul smelling. 

Ed Rooksby teaches Political Theory at Southampton University.

This piece was originally published on New Left Project. A significantly shortened version of this article appeared on July 21 on the New Statesman blog The Staggers.

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