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Blue Labour Realism

Blue Labour is not a vision of how the world should be, nor is it nostalgic. Through recognising the importance of relationships to human existence, over and above abstract values, it is describing the way people live their lives
Jon Wilson
14 June 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour

For two hours in Greenwich earlier this month, over fried chicken and plantain, Labour party members began to relate. Twenty people talked and listened, speaking one-to-one about the things that made them passionate and angry, telling stories about their lives and values.  Many had sat together in meetings for years, but this was the first chance they'd had to properly talk and find out what makes each other tick.

Sharing stories is how most people get on most of the time. It's how relationships are forged and institutions built. It's the way power works. It is simply what we human beings do. Yet, it's something people on the left rarely do.

My Labour constituency, Greenwich and Woolwich, is the first local party to invite Movement for Change to help develop our connections with our local community. The aim is to make activists a force for real local social change. The idea is that power comes from developing our relationships with each other and people outside the party. But after our first session, a friend pointed out that only in the Labour party would people need to be trained to recognise what everyone already knew - that life is lived in relationships, and that it's better to get to know the people we want to do things with.

Liberalism

The problem is that left-liberal politics imagines abstract values rather than strong relationships bind us to act together for the common good. The purpose of Blue Labour is to remind us how weird that is. Practically and theoretically, it points out what it might be like to live a Labour politics based on reciprocity and solidarity rather than abstract norms that have no real meaning in people's lives.

For me, Blue Labour combines a challenge to capitalism with a belief that the state doesn't have all the answers. That's an attractive political philosophy for an activist and academic who's never sure whether he's on the left or right of the Labour party. But it isn't just about political thought. It's also about renewing real relationships that stretch across the Labour party and beyond. As a participant in discussion which led to the Soundings e-book 'The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox' and since, its been an honour to be part of some of the new connections and conversations that have the greatest chance now of renewing the Labour party. As a historian, my role in the Blue Labour enterprise has been to remind the politicians and political theorists of something which Saul Alinsky and Michel Foucault would have agreed: power has always only ever been relational. It's relationships, not just values, which change real people's lives. 

Alan Finlayson argues in his wonderful post 'Making Sense of Maurice Glasman' that Blue Labour's emphasis on relationships and reciprocity rather than abstract values makes it disconcerting for many Labour people. For both Finlayson and Stuart White, it is Blue Labour's hostile relationship to liberal universalism that is at issue. Finlayson suggests that this hostility will ensure Blue Labour's take up is limited. As he notes, "Blue Labour has inadvertently proven just how hard it is in England to think beyond the assumptions of the Liberal tradition". White, by contrast, asks for Blue Labour's celebration of the history of local political struggle to be blended with a left-liberal tradition of universal rights, that has Thomas Paine at its centre. Neither are right, I think, because they over-estimate the power of liberal concepts to explain how people actually live their lives.

From Sidney Webb to Tony Blair at his worst, left-liberals in the Labour party imagine the polity is made up of individuals with rights, interests and needs on the one hand, and governmental power on the other. From that point of view, as Finlayson points it, politics ends up being "fundamentally concerned with specifying when the state can legitimately intervene into the lives of insufficiently liberal individuals." To judge when and how it should act, what I'd call the Liberal/Fabian state relies on abstract values that impose universal rules. These days, its sole criteria for success are statistics. As I was told by the Chief Executive of the authority where I was once a councillor a few years ago, if you can't measure it, it doesn't count. 

Maurice Glasman and the group who've come together under the banner 'Blue Labour' argue that this political philosophy is, literally, worthless. The free market and the centralised, statistically-obsessed state try to subordinate the local peculiarities of life to universal values, whether those values are established by the price mechanism or a language of universal rights. In reality our lives only make sense within concrete contexts and relationships. If the market or centralised state annihilate those local contexts, life literally loses its meaning. Happily - and this is our source of hope - such devastation happens rarely.

Following Karl Polanyi, Glasman goes on to argue that local organisation doesn't only sustain the skills and virtues which makes life meaningful, but the cash values that allow the market economy to work. Markets are only sustainable when they're driven by what Finlayson describes as "real production carried out by real people making things that they care about".  

Alan Finlayson's sharpest point is to note that this is an 'ontological' critique of capitalism: to believe money is the source of value or power is to believe something wrong rather than bad. But the point can be extended to encompass the critique that Glasman and others offer of liberal politics more generally. The problem with the liberal idea of the identical, relation-less self-determining individual is not that it is bad (although it is that) but that it is a false description of the way human beings act. 

My point here is that Blue Labour is not offering an alternative vision of how the world should be, nor is it harking back to a by-gone past. What it argues is that politicians should use the resources of a forgotten Labour tradition to describe the way the world is now. Its realistic capacity of describing how people actually are is why I'm far more optimistic than Finlayson about its chance to politically succeed.

Relationships

So what does this anti-liberal Labour ontology look like? I'd like to emphasise two aspects. First of all, Blue Labour starts with the fact that human existence happens in relationships. Everyday life, from birth to death, is structured by the way we relate to other people, whether our parents, lovers, children, colleagues or friends. The passions and reasons that drive our politics are rooted in the concrete relational connections we have with others. It is only after having a politically relevant relationship that we can talk of abstract moral values to start with, even if that simply means (as is rarely the case) a friend gives us a work of political philosophy which inspires us, or a hostile relationship to a figure in authority. The stories people tell about why they are Labour always begin with an account of the concrete relations with others.

This emphasis on the centrality of relationships does not make Blue Labour a branch of 'communitarian' political thought, as both Alan Finlayson and Stuart White think. Finlayson is wrong to suggest Glasman "fall[s] back on the notion of a natural community" for example. Blue Labour's political philosophers - Jonathan Rutherford and Marc Stears as well as Glasman - use the word 'relationship' far more often than 'community' in the recent Soundings e-book. 'Community' has a nebulous abstraction that contradicts Blue Labour's concrete sensibility. 

Unlike communities, relationships occur all around us, and they provide the basis for challenging the dominance of unrestrained capitalism. Most people most of the time are doing things which are not ruled by the instrumental logic of the market, or its statist surrogate. And both the market and state rely on relationships that contradict the official logic of each. The question is how, in increasingly difficult times, those relationships allow us to do more than barely survive, and create lives in which we flourish and find true meaning and fulfilment. 

Blue Labour's argument is that for that to happen, the kind of relationships which allow the good life to thrive need to be organised in institutions which provide a basis for common action. What matters is not an institution's formal structure or the abstract principles supposed to rule it, but how far it brings disparate people together in solidarity and friendship to act together for the common good. 

Our everyday lives are full of countless moments, in many institutions where there is the potential to do this - where, in other words, relationships of friendship and solidarity exist that might become the basis for common action. Faith groups, which often actively nurture solidarity, are one starting point. It is faith's distance from the liberal official discourse of politics that makes it such a powerful starting point for political action. But they are many others: the informal networks that young parents create at the school gates; the pub or the coffee shop; the extended family; the alternative family structures of gay and lesbian life; the conviviality which still exists at the margins of the workplace; as Daniel Hodges notes even that most unlikely place, the shopping mall. Faced with the capitalist, bureaucrat and manager's ever greater demand that we produce abstract, meaningless value, human beings nonetheless possess the remarkable capacity to create meaningful forms of common life. 

We aren't so atomised common action is impossible. There are places where that may be the case - former Labour heartlands where the demise of dominant industries and reliance on nothing but an utterly un-relational state has devastated collective. But in most places, solidarity exists - it's just the liberal (and neo-liberal) official language of politics make it hard to recognise. The assumption that our polity is made up of nothing but individuals on the one hand and the state on the other allows us to ignore the places where collective action already wields power, for good or ill. It allows us to forget the extraordinary lobbying force of the City of London for example. More importantly, it fails to recognise where people who feel they can't make a difference are able to develop their existing relationships into power that can challenge the commodification of everything around them.

State

The state needs to be central to the Blue Labour story in a way it hasn't been up to now. Its core insight into the centrality of relationships to everything people do could powerfully inform public sector reform. Finlayson criticises Blue Labour for failing to "specify how official, government power should work, how the relations between persons on a macro-level can be administered." I'm not sure this is the right starting point. Central government imagines that it "administers relations between persons" but it doesn't. In fact it is an organisation that manages relations between collective entities and interests, some of which are formally part of the public sector, many not, and most somewhere in between. However tightly managers try to control them, every hospital is different. There is no such thing as a standard comprehensive school. Some 'state' bodies are participatory, locally-accountable bodies which nurture common life and collective action. Many are not. In reality, what makes the difference is not only what the man in Whitehall does, but the particular culture, context and organisation and local leadership within each institution: in other words the kind of relationships public sector workers have with each other and citizens outside.

The challenge, I think, is how the state might be organised to nurture common life rather than annihilate it. That needs a democratic central power which strongly leads, but which recognises that its role is to coordinate and balance between institutions that are closer to people's lives than it is. But ways need to be found to root public institutions within the balance of interests that exist in local society. Maurice Glasman proposes the creation of public bodies owned and controlled by a partnership between the state, workers and local citizens, and the growing number of Cooperative schools have put a similar model into practice. Such a model rejects a simplistic opposition between local and centralised control, and formalises the actual partnership between funders, workers and users which public service delivery in practice relies on. Again, Blue Labour proposes reforms which reflect how we actually are. 

What matters is practical relationship-building within public institutions and the real not merely formal incorporation of citizens into decision-making at every scale. What White describes as "a democracy of confident popular self assertion" can only be built by developing strong relationships and common life in the institutions of a particular place - something our short-term political and governmental culture makes almost entirely impossible. As well as constitutional change, local democracy requires stability and the art of good local leadership over the very long term. Instead of political science or management studies, the knowledge which the art of politics relies on is necessarily historical. 

History

If the importance of relationships is the first Blue Labour insight, the second is the essentially historical character of human existence. People act together in institutions of one sort or another, and institutions are built in part from the stories people tell about their common action in the past. Its emphasis on the practical way people relate and organise to act together in real institutions means Blue Labour emphasises the fundamentally historical character of our politics.

The crisis in our political institutions is in part a crisis of those institutions' ability to tell coherent stories about where they have come from which allow them to define what they are and act now. The fetish for everything new that dominated our politics until recently severed the practical memory of past deeds which sustain peoples' sense of their ability to act together: we only think we have power if we know we've acted effectively in the past. 

The remarkable turn to history in British politics (on the left and right) in the last year or so seems premised on a recognition of this fact, and on the practical necessity of reconstructing traditions which explain how actions in the present might connect to actions in the past: Jon Cruddas' series of lectures on past Labour leaders is trying to do precisely this, for example. This is not, however, a call for a sterile a-historical past which everyone can agree with. The past is deeply partisan and profoundly political. Political actors need to learn to argue about the past more than they do now. Rightly, Robert Tinker asks us to follow Alasdair Macintyre in suggesting that it is those arguments which show the traditions we live in are alive. But the reason we bother arguing in the first place is that we're committed to the institution or way of life we're arguing about.

Pluralism

Any kind of politics that celebrates pluralism as a good in itself (rather than a fact of life) is in danger of undermining the institutional commitments that allow us to act effectively. This is the problem with Stuart White's suggestion that our aim should be the renewal of "the left as a pluralist, coalitional force" - not just Labour revival. Coalitions are often a political necessity; pluralism is the condition of the world we live in. But coalitions are short-term moments of unity that bring together people from different perspectives to achieve a short-term goal. They are instrumental, 'transactional' in the language used to describe the political disaster currently governing Britain. They rarely energise the passions and loyalties that generate the sustained political action needed to transform society. The advocates of left pluralist politics face a paradox. Critical of the way modern capitalism uproots and destabilises people, they ask us to engage in a form of politics that seems to mirror the transient and transactional character of the economy they challenge. 

At its best, Labour has been a movement that continually transforms coalitions into common life. Still, it brings people from diverse perspectives and different backgrounds into a single 'tribe'. Consequently, amidst moments of tragedy and betrayal, the Labour movement possesses a history of solidarity and common action that we can be proud of. No other tradition is capable of energising the struggle for a decent and dignified existence, in times when worthwhile work and a stress-free home - when the ability to make ends meet and to lead a meaningful life - are under threat. Of course Labour needs to be constantly looking for partners and allies. But it is the strength of the relationships and commitments that exist within the Labour movement that offer the best hope for the left in Britain.

Instead of celebrating Labour's past, Stuart White asks us to remember an authentically British Republican tradition of universal rights and abstract liberties, which he associates most of all with Thomas Paine. Such a 'tradition' does not provide an account of the way people have come together to act at different moments in time; it certainly doesn't offer a set of useful arguments about how we might act now. Famously, Thomas Paine hated his homeland. Popular in the 1780s, even in the land he migrated to he died without followers or friends. It's hard to see how a man who alienated everyone apart from his servant and her son offers a model for a party and movement whose greatest challenge is to nurture the relationships which create solidarity.

This is not the place to make this argument in detail: but the 'tradition' of English liberals and radicals who champion universal rights which Paine is part of was  a lineage of exiles and anti-patriots, whose abstract concepts were a response to their own distance from the common political life of their own society. It's only in the last half century that this thoroughly odd set of ideas have become dominant in the political and academic mainstream. Liberalism has become dominant as politicians and analysts have themselves become ever more distant from the rest of society.

Now, we need big ideas, and to be able to draw broader conclusions from local experience. But a form of universalism that starts by debating abstract values doesn't have a way of translating values into real life, speculative ideas into concrete reality. It has no conception of people as beings rooted in particular commitments, ways of life, and forms of power - I'd argue that's because it emerged as a way of fleeing those concrete entanglements. Without any way of negotiating its way through real life, universalism is incapable of answering the most important question of all: what should we do now.

Now, the British left often seems entangled within the language of liberal abstraction. The language it uses to discuss policy often feels a bit like being stuck in one of those Labour party branch meetings where everyone argues about procedure and no-one's talking about how we can organise to put what's wrong right, here, now. But there are an ever-growing number of people - including the leader of the Labour party - who are struggling for the way out. What happens now will depend on the capacity of Labour leaders and activists to develop an inspiring but realistic account of the common good we can create together, based first of all on our relationships with the people around us. That process might start with conversations, like those which started to happen in Greenwich the weekend before last.

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