Blue Labour: a Republican critique

How does Blue Labour fit into the ideological landscape of Britain? Stuart White follows Alan Finlayson in an OurKingdom series that asks whether the Left should go Blue

Stuart White
8 June 2011

OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour

The Labour party is starting to have a real discussion of its philosophy. One idea more than any other has helped to kick the discussion off: ‘Blue Labour’. Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Jon Cruddas and Marc Stears have all written articles setting out the perspective (though the specific term is Maurice Glasman’s). It has attracted a great deal of both supportive and highly critical commentary. Lawrence and Wishart has published an e-book on the subject with core papers by Glasman, Stears and Rutherford and a range of responses, including one on which I draw here.

How does Blue Labour fit into the ideological map I have discussed in earlier posts at OurKingdom? My own engagement with Blue Labour (rather than dismissal of it) stems from a perception that it shares some ideas with the left republican standpoint on this map. Notably, there is a shared concern to reanimate the participatory democratic dimension of left politics.

However, as Alan Finlayson has explained in his excellent survey of Maurice Glasman’s thinking, Blue Labour also draws heavily on the ‘philosophical communitarianism’ associated with thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer. During the 1980s, these academic thinkers developed a ‘communitarian critique’ of ‘liberalism’, arguing that liberalism in various ways ignores or downplays particular, local identities in favour of overly abstract and general principles of justice. Blue Labour largely accepts this critique. Accordingly it argues that Labour should reconceive its politics in terms of protecting communities and the meanings they support rather than distributive principles of fairness or equality.

It is from this perspective that Blue Labour seeks to limit the operation of the market and the mobility of capital – while also being critical of the central state as a provider of welfare. In terms of the ideological map I set out in the earlier post, Blue Labour thus seems, in its stance towards markets and the welfare state, to combine both ‘left’ and ‘right’ communitarianisms. (Perhaps the difference between them was never as great as I once thought.)

The communitarian aspect of Blue Labour is, I shall argue, misguided in a number of ways. Indeed, it is not clear whether Blue Labour’s communitarianism is ultimately coherent even on its own terms.

What is Blue Labour?

The account of Blue Labour above is very broad brush, so let’s try to pin things down a little more. I think the following five ideas are central to Blue Labour:

(1) A politics of conservation. Radical politics ought to be centrally about the protection of identities and sources of personal meaning based on place and/or work. In particular, radical politics is about protecting them against erosion by mobile capital.

(2) A politics of participatory democracy. Second, radical politics should look to popular self-organization to defend the integrity of these identities and sources of meaning. This (according to Blue Labour) has always been what the labour movement, at its best, is about. Today, this tradition of self-organization to restrain capital finds expression in community organizing of the kind practiced by Citizens UK.

(3) A politics of ownership. Third, radical politics must take the ownership of property seriously. The power of capital within the firm should not be that of an unaccountable sovereign, but a power that is balanced by workers’ rights. Capital should not be entirely footloose, but entangled and grounded within specific places, e.g., by vesting local civil society with the ownership of productive assets.

(4) Less moral abstraction. Fourth, radical politics should not base its claims in ‘abstract’ notions like fairness, equality, social justice or rights which are remote from people’s life experiences and immediate concerns. It should base itself on concrete grievances and historical traditions that are part of people’s identity. 

(5) Less emphasis on state welfare. Fifth, radical politics should give less emphasis than social democracy conventionally does to redistribution, welfare transfers and the state as a financer and provider of services.

Let’s now consider some of these core ideas of Blue Labour.

A republican overlap

R.H. Tawney is a key author for Blue Labour. In Equality, Tawney wrote that the Labour party should not think of democracy "merely in terms of ballot-boxes and majorities, but as a vast reservoir of latent energies." Labour’s task, he said, is:

"…to arouse democracy to a sense both of the possibilities within its reach and of the dangers which menace it; to put it on its mettle; to make it militant and formidable….It must treat electors not as voting-fodder, to be shepherded to a polling station, and then allowed to resume their slumbers, but as partners in a common enterprise…the issue of which depends ultimately on themselves."

To read these words in the context of fifteen years or so of New Labour’s politics is to get quite a jolt. What, one might say, were all those focus groups for, if not to figure out the best way to get the ‘voting fodder’ to put a cross in the right box? And when a democratic public emerged as something more than ‘voting fodder’, as in the anti-war demonstrations of 2003, New Labour ignored it – a breach of respect which has had major, ongoing repercussions for Labour’s legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens.

Blue Labour looks to renew the democratic dimension of Labour’s politics by drawing on the practices of community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky and Citizens UK. The emergence of London Citizens, with its Living Wage and ‘Strangers into Citizens’ campaigns, is one of the success stories of democratic politics in the past decade. All radicals and progressives need to ask what we can learn from its example - and from Alinsky’s ideas more generally. (The anti-cuts movement should take Alinsky to heart: not just his emphasis on theatrical protest tactics, but also his emphasis on the importance of building long-term relationships within communities between unions, faith groups and other community organizations.)

This said, I would want to add that it is not only a question of building what community organizers call ‘relational power’ within Labour, but of building it around Labour – indeed, as something that has every right and inclination to be against Labour on this or that issue and which can thereby pressure and constrain Labour. It is a question of building what Clifford Singer has called a new ‘civil society of the left’ to contest the way the terms of political choice (e.g., over the deficit) are presented – including the way they get presented by Labour politicians. This calls for alliances across people of different parties and none and, therefore, for a spirit of pluralism that runs counter to any idea of Labour as the sole proper representative of radical politics.

So while Blue Labour’s focus on renewing the participatory democratic aspect of left politics is welcome, I think it would be a mistake to see this simply in terms of ‘renewing Labour’ rather than renewing the left as a pluralistic, coalitional force.

Is moral abstraction misguided?

Blue Labour’s communitarianism is evident in its rejection of ‘moral abstraction’. It rejects this both as undesirable and as inauthentic to the real radical tradition.

Let’s take the historical claim first. I do not think it is correct to characterise the English radical tradition as one in which abstract moral ideals have been marginal or else expressed overwhelmingly through a local language of national identity (‘our ancient liberties’, ‘the rights of freeborn Englishmen’ etc.)  That kind of language has been important. But so too has a more straightforwardly universalising language of justice and rights. After all, Tom Paine wrote the Rights of Man, not the Rights of Englishmen. In doing so, Paine drew on resources that went back at least as far as the Levellers of the English Civil War, who articulated their radical democratic ideas both in a language of English liberties and a language of universal rights.

If tradition matters, then this universalistic conception of rights and justice is an integral part of the English radical tradition (and, I suspect, of other radical traditions in the nations of Britain and Ireland). Were Labour to repudiate this inheritance, it would set itself up against something that is central to our radical traditions – and a swathe of radical opinion would rightly look elsewhere for a home.

More fundamentally, I think Blue Labour is anyway wrong to set up a dichotomy between abstract and concrete ways of thinking politically. The two interact. It’s hard to get a handle on moral principles without thinking about concrete cases. This is one reason why ‘testimony’ has such an important role to play in the struggle for social justice (e.g., in the current campaign against the Coalition’s program of public spending cuts). But some sense of wider principle often informs responses to particular cases. Think, for example, of the way we respond to concrete cases in the NHS in terms of the general principle of an ‘equal right to care on the basis of equal need’.  Notions of universal rights and social justice can also play a key role in tempering localism, connecting local identities and struggles with wider projects of both national and global justice.

Certainly a political rhetoric that consists only of abstract ideas like ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ will have limited effect. But the challenge is to integrate these ideas with more concrete identities and cases in a mutually supportive way, not to dismiss them.

Sometimes, Blue Labour thinkers press the democratic dimension of their politics against ‘moral abstraction’. Who am I, or any egalitarian political philosopher, to say people should pursue this or that conception of justice? Let people in their local communities come together and determine their goals for themselves. That, it is sometimes said, is the community organizing approach.

There are two, related problems with this. First, someone who has a conception of justice or an ideal of equality, and who supports some political goals based on these values, is not thereby being ‘undemocratic’ when she enters a democratic forum and makes her case. Far from it – that’s a large part of what democratic politics is. We have different views of what’s just, and different goals based on these values, and we argue it out.

Second, it is important to recognise, as Alinsky certainly did, that the community organizing approach is by no means a matter of ‘bottom up’ demands being discovered and aggregated in an unmediated way. An Alinsky-type community organizer typically has some substantive principles of justice which inform the leadership which he or she tries to offer the community. For example, in Alinsky’s initiatives in US cities in the 1950s and 1960s, organizers always had very firm anti-racist principles. The way they acted on and sought to advance these principles was contextually sensitive. But they had these principles and, within a participatory democratic framework, they sought to promote them.

And let’s not forget that Blue Labour itself has definite values and goals that go beyond a commitment to participatory democratic politics alone. Blue Labour has its own very definite views about what ought to be done through this kind of politics. If the objection is to any attempt to specify substantive political values and goals as the potential focus of a participatory democratic politics, then the objection applies as much to Blue Labour as to the egalitarian social democrat.

In the end, even if the Blue Labour activist eschews appeal to general principles of justice, her opponents, including opponents on the right, will often invoke them against her. If she proposes a course of action, she might find that, say, the Conservative will oppose it on the grounds that it isn’t just: ‘How dare you violate people’s property rights in this way?’ What happens then? Does the Blue Labour activist just ignore the challenge on the terms it has been put? Or does she get drawn into an argument about what is just? If so, how will her responses avoid getting entangled with the kind of moral abstraction that Blue Labour aims to avoid? Is this kind of moral argument perhaps an inevitable feature of the justificatory controversy that accompanies political struggle in a democracy? I think it is.

The state as a problem?

Let’s turn now to Blue Labour’s claim that the left should place less reliance on income redistribution and state welfare provision.

A social justice strategy certainly has to embrace more than welfare transfers and tax-financed public services (such as a new politics of ownership). And a republican left should always want to interrogate the particular modes of state welfare provision (which can be paternalistic and degrading to both workers and service users).

But precisely because I remain committed to an egalitarian conception of social justice, I do not think we should want less redistribution or tax-financed spending on public services. In his final book, Capitalism Unleashed, Andrew Glyn pointed to what he saw as the new global pressures on labour incomes:

‘"...there is the impact of surplus labour in China and elsewhere, significant segments of which will be highly educated but with much lower wages than in the North. Access to this cheap labour could encourage a much higher level of direct investment from the North, in effect an investment drain away from the rich countries. In effect the capital-labour ratio would decline on a world scale, by one-third or more according to one estimate, as the vast reserves of labour in those countries become inserted into the world economy. The result could be a major fall in the share of wages in the rich countries as workers find their bargaining position weakened."

If Glyn’s analysis is correct (and I grant that’s an ‘if’), then unless we do something really radical on ownership so that the population as a whole can tap directly into higher capital incomes, this suggests the need for continued, significant redistribution to maintain decent living standards for those at the bottom end of the labour market.

On the other hand, while critical of the welfare state, Blue Labour has relatively little to say about the form and structure of the political state. It tends to see the disconnects and lack of trust between politicians and other citizens as a dispositional or cultural problem on the part of an overly liberal-minded elite, rather than as a structural problem related to the way political representation is organised. It honours a tradition which proclaims our ‘ancient liberties’. But it does not show a great deal of curiosity about the way basic liberties have been curtailed and threatened by the state, until very recently under Labour’s direction.

Even on its own terms, can Blue Labour afford to be so apparently uninterested in the reform of political structures? If Blue Labour is about empowerment in work and place, can it rest content with an institutional conservatism in this sphere? Doesn’t such a conservatism jeopardise the very local empowerment it seeks? Can we be empowered citizens in, say, Birmingham, if we remain subjects of an executive that can reorder local authority structures at its centralised whim?

If we want a democratic politics of the kind Tawney had in mind, a democracy of confident popular self-assertion rather than passive ‘voting fodder’, then we need much more scrutiny of the state in these areas.

We will need less invoking of Edmund Burke, and a lot more of the spirit of Tom Paine.

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