Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something Blue?
The above is my feeble attempt at a Royal Wedding themed title but perhaps also my formula for where Labour should be going ideologically.
I had previously held back from writing about Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” theories because I was waiting to hear what he had to say in person at Thursday night’s Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP General Committee.
Lord Glasman is one of our local members and we had booked him to speak about community organising before Blue Labour hit the headlines.
Maurice is an extremely engaging and frank character with deep roots in Hackney so he managed to win a lot of friends last night in an audience which started out very sceptical. It was a very unusual GC in that we spent nearly two hours discussing political theory, with about 20 delegates speaking. I think most of us came away thinking there were some good bits to Maurice’s ideas, but also some flawed bits, but on the whole it’s good he is provoking a debate.
I’ve tried to use my tweets and notes from the meeting to capture the main things he said and set out my reaction to them:
I’ll start with the name “Blue Labour”.
He says it was intended to be agitational and start a debate and respond to Philip Blonde’s “Red Tory” idea. As Owen Jones said in the meeting, unfortunately it offends a lot of anti-Tories. My concern is that it and the title of the “Purple Book” have discombobulated those Labour activists who have heard of them. They won’t realise Maurice is active in loads of really very radical social campaigns in the East End through London Citizens, they will assume colour-based rebranding is a new round of high-ups in think tanks in London trying to ditch the Party’s identity and heritage.
“We need to replace abstract concepts like “equality” with ones people understand from their own lives like love and respect”.
I agree with introducing the new terms, though there’s a risk we come across as hippies. I developed my political thinking by learning about dialectical materialism so my instinct is that in the middle of a recession most voters are likely to be more interested in the cash in their wallet than whether there is love in their lives. Also I don’t think equality is an abstract concept if you are in an unequal situation. The anger that motivated me to get politically active stemmed from an acute awareness that my parents worked harder but had less cash than the parents of kids I went to school with. That wasn’t abstract, it was right at the front of my consciousness.
“Ed Miliband will want to restrict the power of finance capital and use the Living Wage to set a floor to inequality, whilst promoting private sector growth.”
If this is true, I think it’s a good formula but the language is a bit clunky – ordinary voters understand what bankers are but “capital” doesn’t mean much to most people.
“Blue Labour is about an idea of the common good versus the exploitation of the market and bossiness of the state, association with others through community organising and stronger unions will make people more powerful”.
This also seemed to make sense to me. We need to develop a profile for the Labour Party itself as one of the ways in which people associate to make themselves more powerful.
“The organisational model is tactics that flow from the experience of the people in the campaign but are outside the experience of their enemies.”
Again, agreed and London Citizens provides a template.
Glasman said he “is not pushing faith but saying secular Lab people should honour believers.”
The faith bit made me very uncomfortable. I want to know where atheists like me fit into his organising model. This seems to me essential in that the level of religious observance in the UK is very low. This is particularly the case amongst the white working class voters we need to win back. The London Citizens model where you work with faith groups to mobilise around social issues like low pay works fine in East London where there are large BME communities who are extremely religious and community focussed, but how does it work in most of the rest of the country where working class people are not religiously observant and are very individualistic and consumerist, and the CofE is still the Tory Party at prayer?
I’m concerned Maurice understands the BME inner city working class but isn’t that aware of what their white counterparts in smaller towns and cities and suburbs are like. I don’t see faith as remotely relevant to a very large majority of voters, who may view an increasing Labour focus on working with faith groups as evidence that we are obsessed with minorities.
I’m also concerned about how you avoid drifting into communalism – the idea of seeing voters as groups based on faith or ethnicity that you communicate with by cutting deals with self-appointed community leaders who act as interlocutors. I believe voters should be treated as individuals and that communalist politics is undemocratic, can lead to Tammany Hall style corruption and is bad for community cohesion – people don’t like elections being determined by block votes.
I think he came across as a bit starry eyed about people of faith and the way they live and rather dismissive of the morals and family life of those of us of no faith.
He also got some tough questioning on whether his emphasis on family was limited to wanting to stop capitalism screwing up people’s family lives or extended to a faith-based concept of what “family" means and whether his sympathy for faith groups means he is turning a blind eye to oppression of women in some faith communities.
Maurice cleverly noted that the people who are most relaxed about immigration are most anxious about faith, but I would turn that on its head and see an internal contradiction in his theories in that he wants to re-engage with the working classes around “flag” issues (presumably about patriotism and having a coherent line on immigration) but at the same time wants to engage on “faith” where the position on immigration would be the opposite because it is recent migrants who are the most religiously observant.
Glasman was very upfront about Jon Cruddas being his “closest parliamentary ally”.
Oh dear. I like Jon Cruddas. But I don’t think he has any feel for what working class voters want at all. How can you want to engage with working class gut instincts on patriotism when your “closest parliamentary ally” wants to unilaterally get rid of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent? Any reorientation of Labour around the “flag” needs to start with a robust defence policy.
Jon’s solution to working class voters switching direct from Labour to BNP was to be the leading parliamentary light in Compass, which advocated soft left North London twaddle designed to offend the white working class people who live in Jon’s Dagenham & Rainham seat. This suggests at the very least slightly flawed political judgement.
Glasman said the “Purple Book row was a hate fiesta with James Purnell as the antichrist”.
I think Maurice is going to need to develop a bit of a thicker skin to deal with the robustness of debate inside Labour! A bit ironic given the vitriolic internal debates that go in the faith communities he respects so much.
“The core idea is to restore democratic resistance to the power of capital e.g. German models of employee power in companies and stronger regional policy”
I agreed with this but outside of existing skilled unionised workplaces in aerospace and automotive this is too abstract a concept to win many votes.
He was very dismissive of the achievements of Labour in government.
I found this pretty annoying. We are in danger of doing the Tories’ job for them and talking down one of the best governments in British history. It would be daft politics even if there weren’t loads of Labour achievements. Which there were. I agree with his critique of some of where we went on public sector reforms (though the language he used about a “humiliated workforce” was over the top) but this needs to be balanced with positive stuff about what we did for ordinary working people.
I found his general attack on New Labour odd given that my perspective was that Blair set out to reconnect to the Sun and Mirror readers Maurice wants us to focus on, particularly through our policies on issues like crime and anti-social behaviour, and welfare reform. I would have thought Maurice would have more common ground with John Reid, David Blunkett and Hazel Blears on “faith, flag and family” than with Jon Cruddas.
He said the “unions need to be reorganised to reconnect to their members so new leaders can emerge from the working class”.
This is correct but requires a systematic political re-conquest of the unions by sound people that could take rather a lot of time and energy! In the mean time slagging off the current General Secretaries is unlikely to turn them into allies.
He said he was “on the syndicalist/guild socialist” wing of Lab not the "Leninist/Fabian" vanguard party one!
I really find this all a bit bizarre! In 23 years of Party activism I only heard of this dividing line between statist/non-statist in the last few months. I’d certainly never heard “Fabian” used as an insult before. I think Maurice is far too dismissive of the power of councils and government to transform lives, and far too dismissive of the 1945 government. I owe my life twice over (as a premature baby and a cancer survivor) to a statist achievement of the government, the NHS. The institutions that bind together British community life that Ed Miliband recently spoke about do include voluntary organisations and small businesses like corner shops and pubs (though even these were nationalised in Carlisle!), but they also include a very large number of state-run ones: local Post Offices, schools, public transport, playing fields and parks, libraries, Sure Start centres, hospitals and other NHS services, the local council, the Armed Forces. I’m worried that we are conceding too much ideological ground on the state to the Tories and Lib Dems. I don’t want a bossy state that interferes in people’s lives but I do want a strong state that provides the services people need. There isn’t a contradiction or a choice between statist ways of changing society and the community-based solutions Maurice wants. You need to do both, and the big ticket changes can often only be effected by the state. For instance, you could get a national Living Wage by winning battles with hundreds of thousands of employers through union and community campaigns. Out of power that’s all we have the ability to do. But winning back state power would mean you could legislate for a national Living Wage and free up the unions and community groups to run other campaigns.
Finally, there’s Maurice’s electoral strategy, which is for Labour to reengage with lost working class voters.
I support this in the sense that it’s ridiculous that we’ve allowed bits of our core vote to fall by the wayside. We exist to defend the least well-off in society so if many of them have stopped voting for us we need to re-connect with them as a matter of urgency. But we shouldn’t pretend this is a sure ticket to victory. It’s actually an electoral cul-de-sac – a sure ticket to a strong (but weakening over time) second place. This is because the number of people self identifying as working class has fallen to only 24% according to a poll this March. We need to also target people who are objectively/sociologically working class but are aspirational so see themselves as middle class, and people who actually are middle class but want decent public services and sensible economic policies. Having been a councillor in Hackney and a parliamentary candidate in suburban Essex Castle Point I also think too much is made of the different values of working class and lower middle class voters. Mirror and Sun readers actually want very much the same things as Mail and Express readers: good schools and hospitals, a fair welfare and tax system, a strong economy. They just have differing cultural viewpoints about whether they can trust Labour to deliver those things.