Cruddas didn’t offer any precise definition of the project –and suggested that the allusion to melancholy jazz didn’t do anything to help to clarify matters – but, more importantly, he did want to defend the thing itself. “I am interested in the debates it has sparked”, said Cruddas, criticising Tony Blair’s warning about blue Labour by arguing that Blair “has now become a caricature of what New Labour had been when it was a much broader political project”, instead dispensing political advice “from 36,000 feet”.
Cruddas’ sympathetic advocacy, if somewhat semi-detached from Blue Labour (though a quarter-detached might be more accurate), set the pattern for the discussion involving Daniel Finkelstein of The Times and thinking Tory MP Jesse Norman from the right, while I made a final public appearance in the colours of the Fabian enemy. Our ideas of precisely what blue Labour remained fuzzy, but mostly overlapped. There was a sense that we would know it when we saw it, and could agree that it was worth talking about, even if nobody could confidently predict where it might choose to end up.
I thought it was possible to identify three broad characteristics of blue Labour to date.
Firstly, blue Labour offers an attitude – a dispositional conservatism of the left. This seems to me to be its primary attribute.
Secondly, blue Labour offers a critique. It is good at critique. It offers a plausible critique of New Labour – that it was too hands off with the market, too hands on with the state, and had too little understanding of allegiance and identity. It is, however, a critique which in many ways echoes the early communitarianism of New Labour itself. And it has been a critique too of other strands of Labour thinking, notably Fabianism. And the critique has a twist. Blue Labour does not just make the valuable argument that, after New Labour, we needed to understand, draw on and interrogate the Labour tradition. It is also a consciously heretical critique wanting to overthrow the dominant strands of the actually existing Labour traditions that we have had.
Thirdly, blue Labour has decided to be an antagonistic project, which looks to pick fights in order to start arguments within the party. This had already been one of Cruddas’ main points – the role of blue Labour’s role had been to “throw some hand grenades” to spark discussion in a party whose history of recent factionalism risked making it damagingly allergic to internal debate.
Having got plenty of attention in its opening phase, this leaves open the question of how far blue Labour has the ambition or intention of seeking to offer a coherent or programmatic response. Ultimately, it may perhaps be missing the point to expect it to do so.
More significant than Red Toryism?
I also said that I think that Blue Labour has more potential to be politically significant than Red Toryism. Next Left has engaged extensively with Red Toryism at the level of ideas, but I have always remained sceptical as to how far Red Toryism really exists, sociologically, as a presence in British politics, beyond Phillip Blond and the ResPublica think-tank. The “modernising” centre-right strikes me as seeking to promote an economic and social liberalism, with relatively few takers for a politics which is critical of liberalism in both the economic and social spheres.
The panel agreed that Blue Labour was potentially more substantive, and more interesting, than Red Toryism, a view held particularly strongly by the panellists from the right. Cruddas spoke about why he remains a minority voice in believing there is something important in the ‘big society’ idea, rejecting the idea that it is simply a cover for cuts. And Jesse Norman welcomed Blue Labour particularly because he sees it as a “Trojan horse” for progressive conservatism inside the Labour Party, particularly welcoming its critique of the post-1945 settlement.
By contrast, Blue Labour strikes me as having potential to speak to a political constituency (though Anthony Painter warns that blue Labour's mainstream appeal may be limited, based on the segmentation of attitudes in his recent Searchlight report). Still, Labour requires a cross-class coalition to govern. Blue Labour was seeking to articulate one version of the identity and interests of part of Labour’s working-class constituency. Appealing to working-class votes is sometimes dismissed as a “core vote” strategy. But that intuitive definition of core vote lacks an evidence base. (As Ed Miliband pointed out in his Fabian essay during the leadership contest last summer, in 2010, DE voters were twice as likely to desert Labour as AB voters, and twice as likely to switch directly to the Conservatives when they did so. It is a rather strange “core vote” which is less likely to vote for you). In similar territory, Daniel Finkelstein suggested Blue Labour’s appeal was to “a coalition of losers”, economically and socially, going on to somewhat check the pejorative point by noting that this could have an appeal at a time when many people are losing out, and more are anxious about doing so.
Why the left is often conservative
It shouldn’t be surprising that the left can be conservative as well as radical. The political traditions of the left have long cherished their own history and mythology.
Most of my personal political heroes on the left happen to have been dispositional conservatives. George Orwell, above all, who sets out in the Lion and the Unicorn how one can combine a defence of good English and a love of the King James bible with a belief in a free India and much less income inequality. Or, Attlee, receiving the cricket scores on the Downing Street ticker tape as he creates the post-war settlement; Nehru, whose sophisticated view of identity meant he could combine being imprisoned by the Brits in the cause of independence with a fair measure of Anglophilia. Nelson Mandela too. It seems to me that the left’s dispositional conservatives have usually made more effective champions of political change than the noisier kind of lefty radical – though that has depended on their being clear about what they want to change, as well as what they believe in preserving.
Cruddas talked about the charge of “nostalgia” against blue Labour being intended to marginalise it. But it would surely also be odd if at least a fair dose of nostalgia wasn’t a central part of the point of a left conservatism. There is nothing wrong with evoking nostalgia – though it isn’t quite what it used to be – but the question is what contemporary response it seeks to promote.
And the attention-grabbing ‘hand grenade’ strategy of conscious agitation has been problematic. It does acknowledge what is obvious – that the Labour Party is not going to swallow Blue Labour neat, so perhaps helps to avoid falling into the politics of crying ‘betrayal’ when that doesn’t happen. But saying ‘its just to get an argument going’ also appears to be a claim that not all of the talking points are necessarily meant to be taken seriously. It offers a certain slipperiness as to what is being said and what isn’t and why.
So Cruddas suggested on Thursday that Labour might want to talk about whether it had got on the wrong side of marriage tax breaks. Yet he seemed to suggest that would be as much a way to provoke a conversation about the symbolic politics of marriage than because he thinks there is much merit in the Conservative policy. I got the impression that he wants to have a contentious conversation about marriage, generally, perhaps using tax breaks to do so, rather than that he supports the policy.
Blue Labour now worries about being caricatured – and it has at times been badly misunderstood, as with Billy Bragg’s belief that it combined market liberalism with its social conservatism. But it has also dished out caricatures itself with the broadest of brushstrokes as part of its antagonistic strategy. And it seems to be using a tactic of offering a caricature of its own argument, before retreating from it as a misunderstanding of the project on the part of its critics.
What remains elusive is what is being advocated under the blue Labour banner.
Faith, flag and family
Yet Blue Labour is mostly rather less provocative than it likes to think. Take its deliberately eye-catching slogan of “faith, flag and family”. That could certainly not be all that a centre-left party would stand for, but ‘faith’, ‘flag’ and ‘family’ capture social themes to which the left must respond.
In truth, all Blue Labour has done in these areas is rebrand and claim a set of long-running debates about identity and community in the Labour tradition which long pre-date it. There may well be more than half a point to the blue Labour perspective in each area – though it will be difficult to establish whether it strikes the a plausible balance on these issues or not since, beyond wanting to have the conversation, any particular blue Labour position has usually remained elusive.
The weakness behind the “faith, flag and family” slogan – beyond the invitation to misinterpretation - is less with the advocacy of a politics of allegiance and identity, than with blue Labour’s apparent presentation of this agenda as offering a sharp, necessary and defining choice with ‘abstract’ ideological core values, including both liberty and equality. That is unconvincing. The argument for a contributory approach to welfare has been developed – in terms of both public attitudes and policy – by the Fabian champions of egalitarianism in much more depth than anything which has yet come from blue Labour. So Blue Labour here is railing against a caricature – and so risks joining advocates of a purely needs-based egalitarianism in suggesting that a politics of equality, contribution and fairness can not be reconciled, when a successful Labour egalitarianism depends on doing so.
On ‘flag’ I certainly hope we’re long past the point where there is somehow a taboo frisson in the argument that the modern left should promote an inclusive patriotism. That is important for equal citizenship in a diverse society. It is a necessary foundation for a confident internationalism too. There has been significant debate within the left about this since the early 1990s, with the Fabians particularly prominent in this. There are certainly significant differences in the content of progressive patriotisms promoted by different voices – between Blair and Brown, Billy Bragg’s progressive Englishness, Tariq Modood’s plural Britishness, or ideas around the interplay between a politics of equality, identity and integration which the Fabian Society has sought to explore. The idea that this whole conversation itself is somehow simply motivated by a wish to pander to xenophobia does not strike me as engaged or serious.
The “flag” problem for blue Labour is that Labour was at its most patriotic, popular and most Fabian at precisely the same moment: 1945. I irked Mr Cruddas simply by applauding when Finkelstein expressed scepticism about the political genius of George Lansbury, and what Cruddas calls the tragedy of “the assassination of George Lansbury by Ernie Bevin”. (In truth, it was rather more an assisted suicide). For Cruddas, that was the darkest day in Labour’s history. But he can’t really mean it, as I've argued before. For me, that has a fair claim to count as the second greatest day in the party’s history, since it was a necessary preliminary to the most important thing which British Labour ever did, which was providing two votes – of Attlee and Arthur Greenwood – so that Churchill had a 3-2 majority in the war cabinet in May 1940 to reject the old appeasement duo Chamberlain and Halifax in their wish to accept Mussolini’s offer to negotitate terms with Hitler.
For the Labour tradition, 1945 exemplifies the politics of inclusive patriotism. The “now win the peace”moment when wartime anti-fascist solidarity helped to give us the 1945 landslide, the NHS and a check on social inequality which lasted three decades until Thatcher. These are potent myths which the Labour movement lives by – and which Blue Labour, even in the name of respecting identity, memory and tradition, offers to dispossess us, joining the right to argue that this was when the rot set in.
On ‘faith’, it is useful to recall that there was a religious left before there was a religious right, in a Labour Party that certainly did owe more, historically, to Methodism than Marxism. If we are interested in building coalitions to campaign to reduce inequality at home and promote justice overseas, then it would be dangerous to be allergic to religious faith. I just don’t see the point of a culture war in which liberal academics and columnists and the Bishops of an Established Church argue on the Today programme over who can stake a claim to be a persecuted minority in our society. The Labour Party was in many ways a vehicle for the secularisation of the core ethic of the Judeao-Christian tradition – the spirit of a New Jerusalem speaks to atheists, agnostics and believers alike. That could inform Labour’s future as well as its past. It would entail an acknowledgement that the question of where the scope and limits are of faith in law and public life in a society committed to respecting the human rights of all is complex, and subject to political deliberation. The challenge here is to show that this is compatible with core values of equality and human rights.
On ‘family’ too, the left has struggled to articulate what it thinks. It is not at all difficult to see how one can still frame debate about “family values” in a way which would create a culture war within the Labour Party and the liberal-left. If that is where blue Labour ends up, then it is likely to be rejected within Labour, and would probably repel more support than it gained should it prevail.
But it should also be possible for modern social democrats, liberals and conservatives to debate a pro-family public policy which does not do that – and which is as interested in its practical as its rhetorical support for families. My Fabian colleague Tim Horton has set out, in a 'family' special issue of Fabian Review no less, how a social democratic politics of the family would be interested in protecting family relationships from economic pressures, such as working time. That is the sort of territory where blue Labour and social democracy might well coalesce, and where progressive Conservatives could face tricky trade-offs as to whether or when markets can be checked in the name of another social good.
The trouble with women
I think Blue Labour does have a difficulty in explaining what it thinks of the advance of feminism. (There has also been an insufficient engagement between Red Toryism and feminism). That was one of the points made by Helen Goodman in a highly vigorous and aggressive critique of blue Labour. I don’t have anything like as negative a view of Blue Labour’s discourse as Goodman.
But I do share her dismay at Maurice Glasman’s extended metaphor of the Labour tradition as a marriage which broke down because middle-class mum emasculated working-class dad. This has always struck me as pretty hopeless, and I was surprised that it took quite a long time for it to become contested and publicly controversial. It seems to me bad history and poor politics – and it does leave blue Labour wide open to what I hope they can tell us would be a misinterpretation. Everything Glasman likes is in the male camp and everything he dislikes (Fabians, the LSE and social science, the Church of England, etc) is in the female camp. So why offer us this gendered analogy to problematise a history of power relations in a Labour Party from which women were largely excluded? It does sound as if it believes all of Labour’s problems have been created by a post-1968 feminism, personified by Harriet Harman. If that isn’t the argument, then it would be good to say so, and to rethink the animating metaphor as well.
More recently, blue Labour thinker Jonathan Rutherford has written about the value of patriarchy. When I mentioned this on Thursday, Jon Cruddas was keen to say that he hadn’t done so, or had been misrepresented. I went back and re-read Rutherford’s Total Politics article “Putting Patrimony First”.
Labour in England is losing the class and culture it grew out of, and which enabled its immersion in the life of the people. That culture was about community, work, patriotism and a sense of honour. Above all, it was about men. In the last three decades all of this has been irrevocably changed. Labour's patrimony, which was the loyalties, values and culture of work that fathers handed down to sons – and daughters too, but Labour has been a deeply patriarchal movement – is dying out.
Labour has to find new ways of speaking to men as workers, husbands and particularly as fathers. What does it mean to be a good father? In our age of social liberal attitudes about gender equality few Labour politicians speak about the virtues of manliness and fatherhood.
But the lodestar of the early Labour movement was a manliness whose virtues were justice, prudence, temperance and courage. We need to reclaim them because they still matter, and they're key to rebuilding Labour's relationship with the country.
It is a piece of two halves, in which the first half does suggest there was an important sense of loss through the decline of Labour as a “deeply patriarchal movement”. In the second half, Rutherford then advocates something rather different for today, a shared politics of parenting for men and women, with which few social democrats could object – “Labour needs a new patrimony that offers the world equally to its daughters”.,
Perhaps I am missing the point, but I couldn’t understand how the pro- patriarchy argument helped with the contentful argument, beyond being likely to provide another example of the ‘provocation-misunderstanding-ambiguity’ blue Labour cycle.
Can Blue Labour develop a manifesto?
Overall, the discussion has been a civic and engaged one. Maurice Glasman has used Fabian platforms to preach about the dangers of Fabianism. Blue Labour has engaged constructively with the right flank of New Labour, despite being pretty strongly against its economic liberalism, as well as with the party leadership. Ed Miliband sees in it a resource by which social democrats can explain the limits of markets
But that was blue Labour phase one. If it intended to do more then blue Labour will need to move from critique to advocacy, and to explain whether it is a perspective with a distinctive position on the defining political issues of the day.
It is not clear what Blue Labour will have to say about the deficit, about taxation, about spending cuts. Perhaps these are not primary issues in the Blue Labour worldview – but it risks being a marginal political project if it doesn’t have much to say about them.
What is the Blue Labour view of markets and the state? The core motivation of Blue Labour would be around political economy. So far, beyond campaigns for a living wage, that has sounded like a cross between Will Hutton’s stakeholding and the German social market economy. Daniel Finkelstein suggested that its anti-statist ambitions would end up in the advocacy of more state. Or can it make other means tangible, in its ambition to check and entangle footloose capital? (Its central idea involves not commodifying things where other principles should be trumps. So, despite being against the state, it was proud to campaign to keep the forests in state ownership).
Does Blue Labour take any view about Britain’s role in the world? We can guess that it would oppose the break-up of traditional regimental identities and insignia, but what does that mean for defence capabilities? Is Blue Labour for or against the intervention in Libya, and why? (Might that trigger its pro-flag instincts, despite Lansbury’s pacifism, or does it look like sticking our noses in to try to defend abstract principles of human rights?)
Blue Labour can often sound like it sympathises with the (now rather marginalised) Labour Eurosceptic tradition of Peter Shore. But does it think we should significantly renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU, or does it recognise the limits of “blue Labour in one country” and seek pan-EU agreement on labour market conditions and rules? Blue Labour doesn’t like immigration, but Maurice Glasman has campaigned with London Citizens for the regularisation of illegal immigrants who are already here.
How anti-liberal is Blue Labour? Most of us agree with approaches to promote communitarianism, community spirit and shared citizenship wherever these are compatible with liberalism, are not oppressive and always protect the right to exit and dissent. That is the motherhood and apple pie politics of promoting volunteering, and so on. Does Blue Labour want a thicker communitarianism than this?
I rather doubt that Blue Labour will succeed in becoming programmatic, partly because I guess it is not strongly motivated to do so. It seems interested in the political conversation, and in means more than ends, and it has enriched our debates in the Labour party by doing in that way.
At its best, Blue Labour is pluralist – seeking to broaden the Labour conversation, extend the party’s reach, including worrying about whether a narrow metropolitanism and the politics of the litmus test prevents Labour’s traditional supporters from seeing it as their vehicle for social change, as it has been across the last century.
I find Maurice Glasman most persuasive when he is promoting a Labour “politics of and” (to steal Tim Montgomerie’s term from his own advocacy on the centre-right), and when he is arguing for what he is for, rather than what he is against.
Labour is a paradoxical tradition, far richer than its present form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism. The Labour tradition is not best understood as the living embodiment of the liberal/communitarian debate, or as a variant of the European Marxist/Social Democratic tension. Labour is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional, and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.
In this mood, Blue Labour has a good deal to offer the Labour conversation, though I suspect it might be more effective on symbolic issues than in doing much heavy lifting on issues like tax and spend.
What are the issues on which I feel most Blue Labour? Well, if we could get the FA Cup final played in its proper place, after league football season finishes, not before it; get Test Cricket back on free-to-air television, and protect post offices, the universal postal obligation and red post boxes, then I would be keen to lead those Blue Labour campaigns, without any fear of encroaching on the very real progress which has made Britain more civilised – such as offering equal rights to gay people instead of putting them in prison, being considerably less racist, and so on.
At its worst, Blue Labour can be less pluralist, instead sounding as it offers a narrow factionalism of its own. In this mood, Blue Labour seems rather too focused on the politics of excommunication, offering a highly antagonistic yet imprecise grumbling about feminism, an arid caricature of a monolithic Fabianism, and of the liberal traditions which have also always formed part of Labour’s political inheritance too. This often refuses to acknowledge how often so many similar points have been made within the enduring and revisionist Fabian tradition itself, and caricatures the Labour Party membership as a hyper-metropolitan group scared to even talk about the issues which Blue Labour wants to put on the agenda, when these live debates pre-date the blue Labour project.
Moreover, if we were to ditch the enduring utopian and pragmatic forms of actually existing gradualist socialism and social democracy, it will take rather more than a romantic appeal to lost leaders and paths not followed. Celebrating some great romantic traditions of the movement, which is great, but there are limits to Lansburyism, and not where it seeks to evade genuine political choices by doing so.
But then Blue Labour knows that it isn’t going to get everything it wants.
And I guess that’s why they call it the blues.
Sunder Katwala is the departing General Secretary of the Fabian Society. This is his final substantive Next Left post in the role.