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What is Blue Labour? An Interview with Jonathan Rutherford

In the second of a series of interviews on Blue Labour, Jonathan Rutherford tackles some common misconceptions with the approach, explaining why the left cannot afford to ignore issues of race, national identity and the emotional need for belonging.

OurKingdom's debate on Blue Labour

This is the second in a series of OurKingdom interviews with some of the leading thinkers behind "Blue Labour". You can read the first interview, with Marc Stears, here.

Since its emergence into the spotlight in March, Blue Labour has been a subject of some controversy. It has been described as neo-liberal in economic policy, and accused of proposing social policies based on sexist and racist assumptions. These claims cannot be substantiated by reference to what Blue Labour’s advocates have written or said (see also here). But people under the Blue Labour banner sometimes write about politics in a way that exceeds the clichés of a certain sort of liberal orthodoxy and this has led to some misunderstanding. That can be resolved so long as there is patience and generosity on all sides. But disagreement may also result from the clash of deeply and sincerely held commitments to particular conceptualisations of equality and progress. Here, resolution will be much harder. It will be important for those involved to appreciate that it is possible for people to think about equality in very different ways and yet each be thoroughly committed to egalitarian principles, and to remember that asking critical questions about what the left has done does not make one right-wing.

I find that Blue Labour is more a way of asking questions than of providing ready-made answers. In affirming that there is such a thing as the common good, and in making the process of its re-creation central to political practice, Blue Labour re-establishes an ideological divide between left and right at the same time as setting a terrain for hard argument within the left about to whom that common good refers and how it may be established. Glasman likes to talk about ‘brokering’ a common good, implying a challenging but inclusive process of debate and dialogue in which, possibly, interests become not merely aggregated but actually transformed.

If such a thing is possible then the first place it will be demonstrated is within the Labour Party itself and across the left more broadly. To its credit, Blue Labour has managed to open up a channel of communication across the left-right spectrum of the Party, making it possible for a common ground between them to be re-established. But achieving this will take patience and generosity and these have not always been in evidence in the debate Blue Labour has occasioned.

In this interview, the second in a series, Jonathan Rutherford, Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University and a leading proponent of Blue Labour, places some of his arguments in the context of his more general thinking and directly responds to some of the more unfortunate misreadings to which he has been subjected. Strikingly, Rutherford does not approach politics through interests or electoral segmentation. Instead he considers identities and everyday experiences. He wants to draw attention to the way in which the neo-liberal organisation of social life corrodes our relationships with each other and even our relationship with our selves (and is not afraid to acknowledge the extent to which the Labour movement has been part of this process). He puts this into the broader context of the social and cultural changes of British, particularly English, culture and identity over the last fifty years and, in so doing, points to an interpretation of modernisation quite different to that which was so central to Blairite and Brownite Labour. For them modernisation was a story of the glorious progress of liberal individualism, technological triumph and global cosmopolitanism. Rutherford’s story is one of dispossession and of a kind of forced isolation in which the price of modernisation is our ever greater exclusion from each other.

Rutherford, it seems to me, does something rather different to a lot of Labour thinkers. He does not start by asking what those at the centre of the political system can or must do to make things better for everyone else but, rather, by asking what has happened to people in their everyday lives. In so doing he invites us to put those everyday lives at the centre of politics. That is in fact quite a major challenge to some of the ways in which we traditionally think about politics both in the UK and on the left. If Blue Labour helps us to see the extent to which the left, in its desire to do things ‘to’ and ‘for’ people, has subverted its own democratic and egalitarian values then it will have been of the utmost significance.

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

JR: I was closely involved in Compass and Neal Lawson introduced me to Jon Cruddas about five years ago and Jon and I started working together. I met Maurice a year ago. We held a day seminar with about 50 people and produced an e-book called Labour's Future. Maurice met with Marc (Stears) and Stuart White in Oxford and then the four of us met and we planned a series of seminars to continue the dialogue around building a coalition. About thirty people were involved and we produced an e-book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox out of the papers and some of the responses. By the time it was published there was an extraordinary interest in Maurice and 'Blue Labour', so inevitably the e-book was taken to be the 'movement bible'.

I remember telling Maurice before it all started he should drop the “blue labour” label because I thought it was derivative of Phillip Blond's Red Tory. I was wrong, it has created an extraordinary level of interest. But equally the brand risks limiting the openness of the debate because of a tendency to reduce discussion to the level of, "are you for or against Blue Labour?" Personally I think we need to move on.

AF: Your contribution to The Politics of Paradox is called “The Future is Conservative” and begins with a quotation from Conservative and Thatcherite philosopher Roger Scruton.  Are you saying that in order to win office Labour, should “triangulate” to the right, adopting Conservative social attitudes and values?   

JR: I don't see Scruton as a Thatcherite and for the record I'm not a fellow traveller of Scruton, nor Fukuyama who I also quote. The word triangulation reminds me of Clinton and a cynical instrumental politics, so no I don't mean that at all. I was thinking of a title and we'd done an e-book a while ago called Is the Future Conservative? about Cameron's Conservative Party. So I adapted it - a bit provocative. I could have called it ‘the future is radical conservatism’ after William Morris, or ‘the future is ethical socialism’, which is where my politics lie but neither had the same ring.

In any case I wanted to highlight a particular element of culture in England -  a love of things like home, gardening, local place, heritage, landscape, a certain reticence about abroad and people who hold extreme opinions. Labour and the wider left have not been good at connecting with this ordinary life and its mixture of parochialism, independent-mindedness and eccentricity. The intellectual left has been rather contemptuous of it. 

The title has allowed for enough ambiguity for some people to decide I'm talking about Conservative with a political upper case ‘C.’ Others think I mean conservative with a lower case social ‘c’. I mean neither. What the title is trying to speak about is what Raymond Williams calls a ‘structure of feeling’ - a kind of mood that exists but which has yet to find articulation in politics. My basic argument is that after three decades of deindustrialisation, globalisation and market-driven reform there exists an appetite in the country to conserve, safeguard, protect, defend and improve the fundamental elements of social life which are relationships, a sense of belonging, the familiarity of place, social security, the valuing of tradition, history, the past which is the basis of contemporary culture and social meaningfulness.

Simply put, people feel dispossessed. Capitalist modernisation might increase efficiency and profit, it can raise material standards of living, but it is also nihilistic and disorientating, and damaging to the ties that bind society. New Labour never appeared to understand these externalities. For a while it looked like Cameron might, but he's locked into his party's blind faith in liberal market economics. This is not a Conservative moment - the right have no understanding of the mood.

AF: Your essay discusses, amongst other issues, the family, fatherhood and masculinity. I know that you have been writing about masculinity and men’s sexual-politics for some time. What brought you to these issues?  

JR: I grew up politically with feminism in the early 1980s. I was involved in the politics of masculinity so I was always a supporter of feminism but also thinking about how women's struggles to change domestic life and to gain equality opened doors to men as well. Feminism emphasised issues like the body, emotions and sexuality which men had found difficult to talk about, but which were becoming more socially and personally significant in everyday life. Family and what you might call "ordinary love" is largely what life is about, so I think about what these kinds of relationships mean and also more widely about birth and death, loss and separation. They are the fundamentals of people's lives. Fatherhood in the earliest years was the hardest task I've ever undertaken, and making sense of it and trying to do it better preoccupies many of us for a lifetime. 

AF: In your book ‘Forever England’ you argue that a particular ideal of manhood was central to the imperial ideology of the Victorian ruling class. Do you think that this still influences politics today?

JR: In the 1970s there occurred a shift from a Victorian discourse of manliness - about a moral ideal and practice - to a discourse of masculinity which was about identity, behaviour and image. It  put the spotlight on men as a gender. Men became an object of scrutiny rather than the unquestioned norm. I think the 1960s marked the end of the long Victorian age. Up until then there'd been small counter-cultures of sexual radicalism and there had been the first wave of feminism that started in the 1890s, but the 1960s began a cultural transformation particularly for women but for men also.  

AF: Helen Goodman MP has written an essay critical of Blue Labour. She singles out one passage which she calls ‘extraordinary’. You write:

 “The narrative of a patriarchal social order that they [the values of a Puritan moral economy] sustained ensured the reproduction of normative family and social relations, status hierarchies and moral values. They transmitted a common life down through the generations – mankind, fraternity, masterful, sons of free men, faith of our fathers. This patrimony has now been fragmented and disrupted by changing cultural attitudes, new patterns of work and the growing independence of women”. 

Goodman sees this as “harking back to a Janet and John 1950’s era which didn’t really exist”. She also writes that she thinks you might want “to exclude women from the paid workforce”, return to an era when unmarried women could not access contraception and “turn the clock back” on women’s sexual autonomy. Is she right? 

JR: You quote my interpretation of history (albeit an over-simplified one) not my opinion. Helen Goodman thinks it's my opinion and so thinks I oppose women's independence. I see feminism as a critique of the subordination of women. When women gain more independence and assert themselves it creates a crisis in the social and symbolic order. Some men react against women’s greater freedom, other men welcome it, but the point is the system in which the gendered meanings of who and what men and women are is destabilised and this creates political opportunities for change and greater equality.

AF: You have also written books about the cultural politics of Englishness. Writing about this for Blue Labour seems now to have made some readers uncomfortable. Are you surprised by that? Can you understand it?

JR: Jingo, proto-fascist, empire lover, and any number of euphemisms that connote racism come flying at you when you start to unpick issues of race, national identity, the emotional need for belonging, the pleasure of a familiar landscape, pride in one's country. The left was always about patriotism at one time. I'm for an England which is about the hijab and the bowler hat and which values regional identities. We are an immigrant nation and we have to construct a sense of national identity together in dialogue, finding what we share in our differences but also dealing with the rage, disappointment and simple grief. We can't evade them. When the elite tries to manage this process, for example the Cool Britannia thing or the ‘British Values’ debate it falls flat;  its vacuous and evades the deep currents of feeling that are swirling around. Being uncomfortable is part of the process of having a real debate.

AF: Helen Goodman refers to something you wrote as ‘an extraordinary outburst’. She quotes you saying that,

 “There is in the air a feeling that shared morality and culture has been eroded....It is a reaction to the dispossession of men from their.....entitlement.”

She finds this to be “drum and trumpet jingoism at its worst” and suggests that you might have endorsed the slave trade and opposed the independence of India. How do you respond to that? 

JR: Again she has mistaken my argument. 

AF: OK. But let’s be clear. You are arguing that social, economic and cultural changes associated with feminist politics, and also with immigration and cosmopolitanism have left some (White, English) men with a feeling of loss or dispossession. Are they right to feel that way? 

JR: I've read through the passage several times and I'm trying to figure out where it is exactly that I assert a value judgment that the decline of patriarchy is a bad thing and that I oppose the independence of women. As I've said, it's an analysis not an expression of my belief; its heavily truncated, it is also rather reductive, but it is an attempt to understand what has happened to a fairly large group of men who have lost their traditional masculine identities and roles. Feminist politics, immigration and a particular kind of cosmopolitan culture are products of the changes not the causes.

The causes are 'overdetermined' and would include the expansion in the numbers of women in higher education and in the jobs market,  deindustrialisation, globalisation and transformations in the means of production, a government created flexible labour market and new forms of consumption. These have radically altered the culture of class and gender in the UK and destabilised or shifted the balance of power between men and women within many families. This shift in the balance of power can lead to more equal relationships between men and women but also to a reaction from men (and from women too) against the greater equalisation of the sexes. Like political power, the gendered distribution of power between men and women is always contested.

Feminist analysis opened up the possibility of a politics of masculinity and this is what I'm engaging in; many feminists have also analysed what has been happening to men and masculinity over the last thirty years. Because I look at what is happening to men, it does not mean that I want a return to an old patriarchal way of life. Do I think women should have their independence restricted? Of course I don't; it seems crazy to even have to be saying this, but some of the accusations are extraordinary.

In an interview on Newsnight Helen Goodman, referring to my essay in The Politics of Paradox, said: "There's a sentence that says disorder has been caused by the loss of men's entitlement, as if…as if, white men were entitled to the fruits of black people in the colonies". 

The sentence she means is, I think, this one: “There is ‘in the air’ a feeling that a shared morality and culture has been eroded. It is manifest in a nostalgia for older ways of life, and amongst a minority in an insidious search for scapegoats to blame for their loss. The controversies over EU immigration and Islam are about a politics of belonging, fired up by economic insecurity. It is a reaction to the dispossession of men from the sources of their authority and entitlement, to the loss of people’s capacities to determine their own ends, and to the loss of an identifiable national culture”.

The Mail on Sunday then followed Goodman with a second short step twisting the meaning of this into “a glowing passage about the benefits of the patriarchal social order”.  And this was attributed to Maurice in order to discredit him. You ask the question, 'Do I think men are right to feel that way'?  My argument is simply that many men do and that it feeds into a rightwing nationalist politics and that we can see the extraordinary virulence of this politics across Europe.

If you ask instead, 'Do I understand why men feel that way', then my answer: it’s my job as an academic to try and understand. The purpose of raising the issue of men is that Labour needs to find a way of engaging with them in a dialogue and so begin to retrieve a swathe of the population who have simply walked away from it and are tipping toward a nationalist right politics. If raising these issues ends up bringing down headlines like 'is Blue Labour anti-women' and accusations of jingoism then any meaningful debate is simply closed down.

AF: A number of responses to “Blue Labour” that I have seen express the concern that it is all too “academic” or “abstract” to appeal to “ordinary” people. Do you think that Blue Labour ideas have any popular appeal? 

JR: I'm an academic, an intellectual and so I don't work in the demotic, although I value it greatly. Dealing with complexity requires taking a few steps back from it. The e-book we published has had over 100,000 downloads so it’s not some abstruse academic document steeped in jargon, but then again its not a popular story either. That's the job of the politicians, to take the raw and cook it into something with a more digestible meaning. 

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

JR: I'm not a policy wonk and we're not in government. Policies are the detail of the story we have to tell. They have to fit the narrative - the whole has to be greater than their sum. Politics first then policies. The e-book is about the groundwork.

On practical policies: a return of partnerships in the corporate governance of the financial sector would return a bit of market discipline - let the partners take the hit if they drive their companies into bankruptcy; reform of the Work Related Activities Group to make it a secure, sanction free place for those with conditions like autism and limiting long term illness; regulation of the food industry to reduce trans-fats, salt and sugar in food; a ban on advertising to children under 12 as in Sweden. It's about putting capital back under greater democratic control and working for the common good not unaccountable corporate power.

Note: In the interests of full disclosure readers should know that I have met Jonathan Rutherford numerous times at various political events over the last fifteen or so years. He is an editor of Soundings magazine to which I have contributed. I also wrote a chapter for the e-book on Conservatism which he mentions in the interview.

About the authors

Alan Finlayson is Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia. His research is particularly concerned with the theory and practice of democratic politics, the study of political ideologies and also with political rhetoric. As part of a project supported by The Leverhulme Trust he has developed the website and is working to promote the theory, analysis and improved practice of political speech, oratory and argument in the UK.

Jonathan Rutherford is chair of the Compass Good Society working group, and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University. Among his books is After Identity (Lawrence & Wishart, 2006).

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