Old, new, borrowed or blue... Has Blue Labour been duped by conservatism?

Blue Labour is based on a problematic understanding of conservatism, which takes working class conservatism at face value, and omits the commitment to an unequal social order
Craig Berry
23 June 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This article is part of our debate on Blue Labour

In promoting ‘the big society’, David Cameron has defiantly marched into traditional Labour territory – this is the supposition at the heart of Blue Labour thinking. For Maurice Glasman and others associated with the Blue Labour tag, the labour movement emerged out of a groundswell of civic action and a desire for self-determination by individuals, families, communities and workforces, whose political horizons were not fixated simply on the state. As such, Labour needs to recapture these traditions in order to reconnect with the lives actually lived, and the things about life actually valued, by the party's traditional supporters.

The campaign so far has been a welcome moment of reawakening for the Labour Party. The party is finally talking about ideas, and Blue Labour is leading an overdue post-mortem – something that the leadership election failed to deliver – on exactly what went wrong with New Labour. Yet it is based fundamentally on a misappropriation of conservatism. In basing their perspective on a simplistic version of both conservatism, and working class conservatism, Blue Labour thinkers are suggesting that the big society does in fact belong to the Conservatives, therefore rendering Labour the squatter.

Blue versus New
Blue Labour rests upon four key challenges to Labour Party practice. The first is the return to religion: Blue Labour recognises the role of Christianity in the birth of the labour movement, and the fact that many of the community groups doing the work Glasman et al believe the Labour Party should be doing are faith-based. As such, Blue Labour isn't looking to 'do God' in any messianic sense, contra Tony Blair, but rather acknowledges the importance of faith to many people's identity and everyday moral compass.

The second is its challenge to New Labour’s version of modernity. As I argue in Globalisation and Ideology in Britain, a profound acceptance of globalisation escorted New Labour leaders to a neoliberal understanding of society and the economy. Blue Labour shows how this orientation served to undermine the social and spatial ingredients that comprise the things that people most value about life.

This is strongly associated, thirdly, with Blue Labour’s powerful depiction of a Labour Party disconnected in organisational terms from the day-to-day realities of its traditional supporters among the working class, and therefore in breach of its duty to engender and embody democracy.

Fourthly, as Anthony Painter reports in Labour’s Future, Blue Labour also speaks to an important turn against the managerial, instrumentalist state among Labour’s base, and towards values such as reciprocity. New Labour reduced the state's macroeconomic role but, due in part to its attachment to liberal universalist principles, increased the state's presence as an arbiter of everyday life. Most importantly, the state's redistributive power was used to supplement wages through tax credits. Rather than enabling families and communities to function, the benefits system was used to smooth the participation of disadvantaged groups in the global economy (after all, there is no alternative), which often undermined family life further.

Misappropriation of conservatism
However, the fact that Blue Labour wraps up these insights within a campaign to bring Labour closer to conservative ideology is extremely problematic. Glasman says ‘there is nothing conservative about this government’. Jon Cruddas MP, who has been a vocal supporter of the campaign, has associated a 'conservative socialism' with his work in rejuvenating Labour's traditional support base, arguing that '[t]he government is not conservative. It is liberal and extreme'. Real conservatism, for Blue Labour, is about tradition, defensiveness against undemocratic change, and the valorisation of associative bonds.

While not wholly inaccurate, this understanding omits conservatism’s quintessential commitment to an unequal social order, as outlined by Robert Eccleshall in English Conservatism Since the Restoration. Conservatism indeed recognises and champions the kind of virtue that Blue Labour believes has been lost – this is key to the big society narrative – but also upholds that a virtuous social order can only be maintained by authoritative leadership, which ultimately must come from a concentration of property and wealth among those best equipped to lead.

This is not meant as a criticism of conservatism. In fact, inequality was defended in powerful terms by Edmund Burke as conservatism incorporated the political economy envisaged by Adam Smith while rejecting the revolutionary tenor of eighteenth century Europe. Roger Scruton, the revered conservative philosopher and son of the working class (and a thinker admired among the Blue Labour ranks) again defended inequality in The Meaning of Conservatism.

Conservatives will happily embrace novelty if it reinforces a natural, unequal order. For Michael Freeden, conservatism's adaptability is its key characteristic, and as such conservatives came to defend inequality in terms of reward as well as order. Architect of the New Right Keith Joseph expressed a sentiment that can surely only be found in conservative ideology when he said in Equality that:

We shall do better for all, including those now poor or hard-pressed, with a market economy precisely because the inequality of rewards and benefits involved will create greater wealth, which is bound to raise general living standards and can be used to increase social benefits for those that need help.

Conservation and the working class
Blue Labour is right to criticise New Labour for equating the good life with progress – in fact the label 'progressive' for the array of interests and perspectives that make up the centre-left has always been misleading. But to blame the idea of progress itself is surely short-sighted. Blue Labour advocate Jonathan Rutherford has argued that

Labour’s historic task is to organise to conserve the good in society… and to nurture it back into existence when, like today, it has been reduced to piecemeal

Such statements beg inevitable questions around when the good life existed and how it was determined, and suggest that society can never be better than it has been at some point in the past. We can appreciate that things can get better without believing that things can only get better.

This is not to suggest that there is no merit in seeking to rehabilitate the importance of tradition within the labour movement. Robert Tinker, on OurKingdom, points us towards Alasdair MacIntyre's understanding of the 'lived tradition': social practices that are by definition inherited, but also dynamic. MacIntyre shows us that tradition orients us towards the future as well as past. Of course, on this understanding, social democratic revisionism could also be understood as a tradition rather than simply an intellectual experiment, even where revisionism (as in the case of New Labour) leads to a negative perception of tradition in a static sense. Tinker probably exaggerates the extent to which Blue Labour's view of tradition chimes with MacIntyre's, given that Blue Labour routinely associates tradition with only conservative ideology, and as such treats tradition as the opposite of progress. Progressivism has a history.

Progressives do not believe that new is always better than old. Equally, conservatives do not believe that old is always better than new – it depends on what the old consists of. The ancestors of today's Labour Party in the nineteenth century may have had a more holistic conception (and arguably experience) of the good life than their postwar descendants, and their campaigns may to some extent have been about defending a way of life. But their struggle was also about receiving their fair share of the fruits of modernity, and about having their right to this fair share guaranteed by the state. They are part of a labour tradition which Blue Labour is right to rediscover, but they do not represent tradition itself and should not be valorised as such.

Home, identity and belonging are very precious things, but they are not simply given or discovered, even at the best of times. Always, they are forged through experience of the real world. The challenge for Labour is to work with the grain of ordinary life today to build the communities that can give rise to the good life for all. In fact, Blue Labour’s dalliance with nostalgia may be contributing to the denigration of the agents that are often charged by the right with destroying ‘our’ traditional way of life and undermining an exclusively English sense of ‘fair play’, that is, ‘benefit scroungers’ and immigrants.

In terms of its understanding of the working class, Blue Labour takes its cue from E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson describes a working class dedicated to home and self-fulfilment through virtue rather than simply material pursuits. Blue Labour's mistake, however, is to take at face value working class conservatism. There exists a wide variety of perspectives and experiences among today's working class. The minority that subscribe to conservative politics may in some ways be social conservationists, yet there is also a strong libertarian streak – surely the antithesis of tradition – in working class conservatism which has been largely overlooked by Blue Labour.

Glasman is justifiably admired for his work with London Citizens, but the exaltation of London Citizens by Blue Labour is an interesting case in point. London Citizens adopts a defensive posture in many ways, but works fundamentally to bring into modernity groups that are otherwise excluded from the benefits and possibilities of modern life. It is not community organising for its own sake, but for the kind of housing, education and employment opportunities that should be available to all in contemporary Britain.

In fact, it may be to sections of the middle class, not the working class, that Blue Labour has most intuitive appeal. In some ways it provides the intellectual rationale for Labour leadership's pandering to a phoney ‘squeezed middle’ demographic. This is a group of relatively affluent people who believe they are just as poor as as their parents and grandparents were, only less happily. Their security has been threatened by the financial crash and deficit reduction; globalisation has broken its promise and so change is now associated not with prosperity but rather the disruption of an imagined heritage.

Glasman's views about Labour are obviously idiosyncratic. That is no bad thing, and at the risk of sounding sarcastic, the Labour Party is a place where new ideas are desperately needed. However quaint the Blue Labour campaign seems at times, there is no doubt that it is trying to deal with issues of genuine purchase around the labour movement's immediate and long-term future. But the identification with conservatism and indeed the moniker 'Blue Labour' is misguided, and risks alienating the party's fellow-travellers in a broad centre-left assemblage that only Labour can lead.

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