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Blue Labour's controversial ideas are good for Miliband and his party

The Labour party would be the losers if they cut the Blue Labour project adrift due to misjudged comments on immigration. The controversy provoked by Blue Labour ideas is healthy for the party, and a sign that Labour may be able to regenerate itself
Stuart Weir
26 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour.

Is Blue Labour disintegrating? As Ed Rooksby suggests, the remarks on immigration and the free movement of labour in the EU by Maurice Glasman,  Blue Labour’s founder and principal thinker, in interviews in the press including the Daily Telegraph (and presumably also in the Fabian Review earlier) have probably brought the whole project to an end. Key figures like Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford had already distanced themselves from Glasman over several issues.

The collapse of Blue Labour would obviously please the conventional New Labour lot who still espouse the neo-liberal policies, the emphasis on ‘aspiration’ and consumer individualism that Rooksby singles out, not to mention the unremitting  drive for competition in the NHS and public services that is destroying the ethic of solidarity which is at the core of public service.

Plainly, Labour cannot and should not adopt Canute-like policies.  Immigration is simply part of modern life in the inter-connected world we live in, and it has always been throughout the UK’s history. Even the strictest immigration controls fail and will continue to fail; and their failure creates frustrations and tensions among the existing population, white and black.  But politicians must be free to “reinterrogate” (Glasman’s rather evasive term) the issue of immigration controls, immigration policy in the round, illegal immigration, and – yes -  the free movement of labour in the EU.  

The free movement of labour does drive down wages in the UK and illegal immigration more so, as illegal immigrants are more vulnerable to employers.  Both phenomena make it more difficult for young out-of-work people to find jobs; and one of government’s tasks is to give British workers, young and old and whatever their ethnicity, the basic education and skills to secure work.  Labour needs also to “reinterrogate” education and training policies, as well as the generations-long neglect of housing, urban neighbourhoods, schooling, access to health-care and social policies that has for so long bedevilled immigration policies and excited anti-immigrant feelings.  Given the tragic campaign of murder in Norway, the party should also make an incontrovertible stand against the virulent anti-Muslim feelings that are sweeping across Europe (and should long since have done so).

Glasman’s comment was reckless, as there is a strong reductionist attitude in the UK, and especially on the left, that tends wrongly to interpret any such thought as hostility to our ethnic minority communities in the UK.  One of the ironies of the situation is that actually a large proportion of originally immigrant people in this country would also back tougher immigration control. But it isn’t “dog whistle politics”.

Actually Glasman has often been incautious, or reckless, in a variety of pronouncements.  It is curiously heartening in a Labour politician. And as an Oxford-educated liberal myself I think that his critique of the liberal contribution to Labour and British politics contains uncomfortable truths.  His nostalgia for a Labour politics founded on working class solidarity and community organisation is winning, but deeply flawed, not least in his blindness to its outdated understanding of working class politics today. In his Soundings essay, for example, the distinction between the “middle class” aspirational mum and the true salt-of-the-man dad is just wrong (as well as being offensive).  Feminists and liberals have done a great deal to emancipate working class women who nowadays occupy leading positions in community politics.

What then of Blue Labour? The sobriquet, Blue Labour, has always rankled with me.  It is a casual conceit that has harmed the project; it smacks of the abstract intellectualism that Glasman has himself criticised in the liberal left’s engagement in political debate.  Yet his arguments and ideas – alongside Jon Cruddas and others – have been almost the only signs that Labour under Ed Miliband (or anyone else for that matter) is capable of regenerating itself, rejecting New Labour’s submission to pro market fundamentalism and re-creating a genuine relationship with people who desperately need an alternative to the coalition government’s mix of modern market-oriented policies and old-fashioned Tory shittiness.

The possibilities inherent in Blue Labour therefore explain OurKingdom’s interest in the phenomenon and my own sympathy for what Glasman and his colleagues have been doing. Labourism is historically hostile to new ideas and New Labour intensified this hostility in a regime reminiscent of the Inquisition.  To have the chutzpah to express a new ideology, and to have the ear of the party leader, represents a major stride forwards – though I would like more clarity about Glasman’s relationship with Miliband.

I cannot catalogue Blue Labour thinking in the detail of Ed Rooksby’s analysis. However,  I am all for the idea of securing the party in a new and hopefully updated emphasis on family, community and cooperation with faith groups -  but not at all on what seems to be the mantra that it should “take on” the City, media and trade unions.  The City and media, yes; being boldly critical of capitalism, yes;  and here I deviate from Rooksby who questions the emphasis on finance capital.  I am deeply concerned about corporate power and its deep infiltration of political and social life in the UK – Democratic Audit is about to publish a dispassionate and detailed analysis next week – but finance capital is the ring master.

But “taking on the trade unions”?  NO!  In my view, one of the big flaws in Blue Labour is the apparent turning away from trade unionism. Surely the trade unions and their active workers and memberships are not only historic allies of the Labour Party but are also part of any wide-ranging alternative to the failing policies of Blair, Brown and Cameron?  Yes, the trade unions are at the top painfully slow to adapt and to make full use of their potential (though Len McCluskey’s opening up of Unite to community memberships is a good sign).  But they should be encouraged to raise their game – not least in their response to the dangers inherent in the free  movement of labour where (to be fair) some are beginning to move beyond a mere national response.  They should not confined to some sort of embarrassed purdah.

More importantly, Blue Labour needs to recognise the contribution to the wellbeing of ordinary workers that the trade unions and their officials make daily.  Take for example the Billingsgate porters whom Glasman has given iconic status.  In their campaign to stop the City of London Corporation to abolish the licence system that recognised and confirmed the skills and knowledge that they brought to their work, trade union shop stewards and officials played a significant part – that is exemplified in the work that the late Jane Barker did alongside the porters.

Jane Barker, who died on 1 June, was a trade union official and socialist feminist who worked for the Transport and General Workers Union, lately Unite. She was active in the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards movement in the 1980s and more recently advised the Cadbury/Kraft national committee on its campaign against the Kraft take-over and worked with the women’s centre in Essex Road, Islington, on issues of women’s health.  She brought innovative analytical skills to the porters’ struggle, especially in the comprehensive rebuttal of the authorities’ claim that the licence system was holding Billingsgate back.  She saw that any campaign had to rest on detailed research and analysis of the company’s, or corporation’s, organisation and case.

There are Jane Barkers all around Britain.  The Labour party should take them to its heart, whatever Blue Labour may say.  If Blue Labour is done for, then the party urgently needs to continue to escape from the tired and routine apologias its conventional politicians pour forth and carry out real debate around the issues that Glasman, Cruddas and others have raised.  

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