Guest post by Ivana Bartoletti, member of the Fabian Women's Network Committee, and Seema Malhotra, Director of the Fabian Women's Network
“Blue Labour is a form of contemporary feminism,” Maurice Glasman argues, in a conversation to be published in the first issue of the Fabian Women’s Network (FWN) new magazine this September.
Glasman’s stirring claim may come as a surprise to his more vocal critics, who have been asking where (if anywhere) women fit into the Blue Labour project. The encounter was a great opportunity for FWN to start off a conversation that can test and challenge the faultlines of the Blue Labour and feminism debate.
Blue Labour's discourse originates from a radical critique of the way capitalism has exploited workers, reduced people to commodities and deprived them of what they need for their life to feel worthwhile. It argues the case for some of the more traditional aspects of community life and empowerment that existed at the time of the founding of the Labour party, which lies in workers who, through organisation and strong relationships, can be a resisting force against the power of markets and financial capital.
The main objection to Blue Labour has been that it is a male dominated affair, with a male vocabulary, which totally fails to acknowledge how feminism and women’s participation in work and public life have changed politics and society.
Blue Labour places a strong emphasis on communities – as the places where individuals engage in relationships with others and nurture their sense of belonging. Seemingly solid ground. But the centrality of ‘communities’ and 'relationships' is highly problematic when it doesn’t acknowledge that women only thrive when their rights belong to them irrespective of the community to which they belong, the religion they profess, or the family they happened to grow up in.
As Helen Goodman has highlighted, dismissing the role of the state too quickly is very problematic for women, as they find that winning their struggle for emancipation relies on a government embracing the idea. Progressive governments create welfare and work policies, instigate vital legislation to tackle abuse and promote political participation through quotas.
Maurice Glasman has welcomed the challenge to talk to FWN about what he calls a ‘misunderstanding’, and the conversation offers fresh insights into Blue Labour’s approach to women’s equality.
He stresses that he believes women are central in Blue Labour’s vision, and how that vision itself would not be possible without the influence of the feminist movement and its literature. He concedes Blue Labour is still a “new baby”, an ongoing work that probably still needs to fully develop its vocabulary and ideas.
During the conversation it emerges that the point of contact between Blue Labour and feminism is the breaking up of the distinction between the public and the private spheres. This is crucial in Glasman’s discourse, which he claims gives it an inherently feminist nature. He says women need to gain power in both spheres. In the public sphere, it is a matter of increasing women’s assets, financial power and independence, identifying tools to achieve equality at work and finding forms of welfare to transfer money directly to women.
In the private sphere, it is a matter of how to honour women’s choices and redistribute power within families and relationships such that the burden of care is no longer left on women. This calls for greater involvement of men in private life. Paradoxically, Blue Labour claims to advocate for more ‘public space’ for women and more ‘private space’ for men.
Glasman himself uses a vocabulary which is really dear to the feminist tradition, words such as ‘relational politics’, 'reciprocity' and ‘redistribution of power', and these concepts are central to Blue Labour's discourse as a whole, not just when it comes to women.
Other contentious issues still remain, and they relate to both the theoretical and the practical side of Blue Labour. For example, a lot needs to be discussed in relation to another of its key concepts, the common good, and how it is negotiated. In particular, women need non-negotiable values, as they are essential to them: past history and today’s newspaper headlines remind us that, even when established, women’s rights are always very tenuous.
But probably the most complex and unpredictable outcome is what policies might be born out of Blue Labour's ideas. Glasman says that now is the time to think, and he is probably right, as complex times demand innovative answers, not rote responses.
It remains to be seen how this debate will develop further. But there is no question that Blue Labour, like any voice within Labour today, needs to advocate principles of equality that take the debate about empowerment and gender roles forwards, not backwards.