What is Blue Labour? An Interview with Marc Stears

In the first of a series of interviews on "Blue Labour", Marc Stears argues that the UK Labour party must recover a democratic culture, connecting with progressive social movements outside the Party to forge a politics of the common good.
Alan Finlayson Marc Stears
15 July 2011
OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This is the first in a series of OurKingdom interviews with some of the leading thinkers behind "Blue Labour".

In common with most people, I had not heard of "Blue Labour" before March this year when the BBC broadcast a documentary about it and a number of articles appeared in newspapers and online. Also in common with many people, when I did hear of it I was not at all sure of what to make of it. The vocabulary of “Blue Labour” is unusual in British politics. While politicians in Britain often thread their political philosophy through with terms such as “aspiration”, “change” and “opportunity”, proponents of Blue Labour talk, unexpectedly, of “virtue”, “honesty”, “love”, “mercy”, “solidarity” and “care”. Once central to political thinking, today these terms are so rare that most of us are not sure what to make of their use.

Much of the discussion of Blue Labour has concentrated on only one person – Maurice Glasman – creating the impression that it is a ready-made philosophy which he is trying to impose upon the Labour movement. Consequently, it has been treated as something we are invited either to accept in total or reject completely. This is unfortunate. “Blue Labour” is a way of framing problems and asking questions. And central to the conversation it has initiated is the proposition that there is such a thing as a common good, that it can be established (Glasman would say ‘brokered’) and that politics should be conducted in its name. For this reason alone “Blue Labour” is of both interest and importance. In our current political culture, the presence of voices strongly calling, within the context of a mainstream party, for a politics based on commitment to the common good (as opposed to individuated market choice) is an astounding development. It could not have been predicted just a year ago when it looked as if “Liberal Republicanism” would be the only claimant to the British Labour tradition.

The e-book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox contains contributions from twenty different people, critical responses to three substantial essays only one of which is by Glasman. The others are by Marc Stears and Jonathan Rutherford. As a contribution to the continuation of the conversation and the argument I interviewed both of them. They are quite different kinds of thinker to Glasman, and just as different from each other. I wanted to give them an opportunity to say what they think Blue Labour is all about and also to address directly some of the criticisms.

In the first of these exchanges Marc Stears, lecturer in Political Theory at Oxford University, develops themes in his essay for the Politics of Paradox. Stears wants a Labour Party that combines ends and means and which can be an exemplar of the kind of ethical association it should promote for the nation as a whole; the kind of ‘combination’ in which people come together “to identify shared concerns and build a movement of solidarity through which they seek to face down the gravest of all the evils that rampant capitalism imposes on them”.

An Interview with Marc Stears

AF: How did  you come to be involved in “Blue Labour”?

MS: I have always been committed to a more democratic Labour Party. During the Labour leadership election, it became clear that many of the candidates for leader shared that vision. I came to believe, then, that this could be a crucial moment in efforts to build a Labour Party that is genuinely responsive to people across the country, a party that gives people the opportunity to come together and shape their own lives. As such, I started working with Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Stuart White, and others to try to get a debate going on how this democratic Labour Party could best be built.

AF: Your contribution to ‘The Politics of Paradox’ is concerned with the organisation of the Labour Party, and specifically the relationship between the leaders and the membership. You’ve written a lot about the history of radical and activist politics in the UK and the US: is it your view that there is something in that history from which contemporary political activists can learn?

MS: The struggles of the past give us one real lesson. They tell us that it is crucial in politics always both to aspire to a better world and to engage practically, intelligently, and realistically with the problems of the present. It is what some people call caring about the “world as it should be” and understanding the “world as it is”. All the most successful movements in history – the campaigners for women’s suffrage, the early trade unions, the American civil rights movement – have understood that relationship.

AF: Ed Miliband has announced a number of changes to the organisation of the Labour Party. These include ending elections to the Shadow Cabinet and changing voting rules at the Annual Conference. What do you think of these changes? 

I have no doubt whatsoever that Ed Miliband is serious in his intent to transform, or “refound”, the Labour Party’s organisation. His recent speech in Wrexham explained that ambition admirably. Labour has to create a Party that is responsive to both its own members and to the broader public. It has to have energy and dynamism. And it has to have deep and sustainable relationships in local communities across the country. The loss of Shadow Cabinet elections should be taken in this wider context. If he is successful in his broader ambitions, Labour will be a far more democratic Party than it is now, even without elections in the Parliamentary Party for the Shadow Cabinet.

AF: Some readers of the book have been upset by the way in which the achievements of the 1945 Labour government seem to be dismissed. How do you respond to that? Do you understand why 1945 is an important ‘mythic’ moment for people in the Labour Party?

MS: 1945 is terribly misremembered today. In the General Election campaign in 1945, Labour presented itself as being committed to two things. First, it was going to build a welfare state that could protect citizens from cradle to grave. Second, it was going to help create a radically more democratic society, where everyone felt that they could play a part in shaping a common life together. Today we celebrate the first and we have almost entirely forgotten the second of those ambitions. That is partly because the Attlee government itself concentrated much more on the first than the second. But it did do things in the second regard too. This year, for example, is the sixtieth anniversary of the Festival of Britain, an event that was explicitly designed to bring together people of all backgrounds in shared spaces to celebrate the political ideals that are the very best elements of our country’s heritage. It is important that we re-capture aspects and events like this, while always honouring the other bits of Attlee’s legacy that we have remembered.

AF: In your contribution you talk a lot about the need to overcome a division between idealists and realists, means and ends. That seems like a rather inward looking and technical concern. Why is it so important to you?

MS: Unless we both dream of a better society and understand the complexities and difficulties of the present we can make no headway in politics. That’s why means and ends, ideals and realities, are always important. We have to think about the two together.

AF: A key term for you seems to be ‘relationship’ (sometimes ‘relational’). Can you explain what you mean by this and why it matters?

MS: Socialism is the political philosophy of the common good. It holds that people achieve more together than they do alone and that we can overcome the obstacles that we face when we act powerfully as a collective. Nowadays, though, people often feel isolated and individuated. It is as if they have lost the possibility of common action. By concentrating on the question of how we build “relationships” with each other, in our towns and in our workplaces, we concentrate on the foundations of a better politics.

AF: But can government really make ‘relationships’ such an object of policy? I can imagine people saying that government should just get the bins emptied, manage the hospitals properly, make sure the police can stop crime etc. and leave us alone to forge relationships as and how we wish.

MS: People do say those things and it is a terrible shame. At its best, Labour has always sought to craft policies that enable common relationships to be built. When the NHS was first created, it wasn’t just about the medical transaction between doctors and patients. It was accompanied always by efforts to create a culture and a space within which patients and providers could create a common spirit. I still remember my Mum explaining to me that what was great about our local health centre was that everyone waited together in the same waiting room and their kids played together in the same play area. The same is true in lots of other policy areas. Schooling is an obvious example. The best schools are those which generate common energy, commitment, and an understanding of the communities in which they are located. Labour’s pioneers realized that a common life was difficult to build and a Party like it could always play a powerful role in making it easier.

AF: You write that the “right response to the power of capitalism comes through the creation of an alternative power: one grounded in the possibilities of relationship”. To put a question bluntly - is Blue Labour pro-capitalist or anti-capitalist?

MS: I am a firm believer that a dynamic economy requires private enterprise as well as public and community support. But capitalism always comes with risks. It not only generates inequalities of income and wealth but it has a tendency to treat people as commodities, as things rather than as human beings. We need to come together wherever we work in order to overcome that tendency. We can do that within the capitalist firm, but it does mean that we have to reshape the way that most firms are currently organized.

AF: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by reshaping the way firms are organised? Potential critics on one side will say that you want to regulate and restrict private enterprise and so squash the dynamism you claim to believe in. Potential critics on the other side will say that you can’t overcome the ‘tendency’ of capitalism to reduce persons to commodities because it isn’t a tendency but inherent – that to overcome commodification you must overcome capitalism. 

MS: There are a range of possibilities here. Some of the changes required are cultural. Some firms are already making bold efforts themselves to change the culture at work. They wish to empower their workforce and build better connections with the communities in which they are located. Some have committed to paying a Living Wage to their lowest paid employees for exactly this purpose. But some of the changes needed are structural too. It would be good to see Labour insist that there should be worker representatives on remuneration committees, for example, and I think we should even be bold enough to call for some experiments in Works Councils. In parts of continental Europe, Works Councils play a fundamental role in shaping a more relational workplace. They could do that here in some industries too.

AF: You argue for a more dynamic and local politics. Many people might agree with that but worry that we should take more of a global than a local perspective and that we need a strong national state forging international agreements and partnerships. How do you respond to that?

MS: A democratic politics starts with people where they are, working together in their common interests and in the interests of others. If we don’t have a vigorous politics of that sort, then our national governments and their international counterparts will be nothing other than unaccountable elites with no relationship to their own people. That way tyranny and colonialism lie. Of course, there will be a UN in the future, and an EU, and there should be. But these international organizations will be stronger when there is a greater vigour in the democracies from which they spring.

AF: Your focus is on the Labour Party – on reviving and reinvigorating it as a membership organisation. But there are many people actively involved in social and political causes at many levels but who are not – and have little interest in being – members of the Labour Party. Is your ‘mission’ to get them to join Labour? Or do you want Labour to change how it relates to them?

MS: This is a mission for Labour. Britain is full of impressive, and vital, democratic social movements. These are movements such as those that care for the environment, that campaign for a better deal for gay and lesbian people, and that demand inclusion and recognition for disabled communities. But the Labour Party does not yet speak to these movements or interact with them effectively. Once the Party has become a more democratic place itself then it will be able to shape its relationships more effectively with others.

AF: But why should those impressive, vital social movements wish to have anything to do with Labour? Another way of putting it is that, if someone is active in a community organising already why should they think that Blue Labour is anything other than an attempt to jump on and make use of a bandwagon it didn’t start?

MS: For all of its faults, Labour still has an enormous amount to offer. It is the only serious political challenge to the Coalition government that is doing so much to destroy the fabric of our country. It is also potentially a huge force for good, both locally and nationally. Other community organizations have a huge amount potentially to gain from an active, vibrant local Labour Party.

AF: I have read responses to Blue Labour that find the thinking too vaporous to be applied to the world of government. Can you name a single straightforward and practical policy that you think is quintessential Blue Labour?

MS: There are lots. But let’s take an easy one. Labour must protect and enhance our public spaces. A vibrant democracy, where people of different backgrounds come together to find a common good, even if only temporarily, requires above almost anything else safe places for common life. It needs libraries, parks and forests, hospitals, schools, and universities that are open to all, and where each can make their mark. The current government is doing all it can to reduce those opportunities. It is marketizing and privatizing spaces that should belong to us all. And as it does so, our chances to come together as common citizens, not just as producers and consumers, decline. Labour must do all it can to stop this.

AF: Let me push you on this. What you have stated is a broad aspiration. What would it look like as a policy?

MS: Let me be bolder still. I would say that every policy that comes out of Labour’s policy review should be subject to a democratic audit. Whatever is suggested, we should ask: will this policy enhance the prospects of building a society where people can come together to build a common good? If the answer is no, we should go back to the drawing board.

Note: In the interests of full disclosure readers should know that I have met Marc Stears four or five times at academic meetings of political theorists. He is a co-editor of ‘The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies’ to which I was invited to contribute (although I did not deal with him in this capacity).

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