Blue Labour: Perhaps metropolitan liberal politics is not enough?

This is a ‘new’ school of thought in England, and is in some ways an interesting denial of New Labour’s recent neo Thatcherite past… On Conservative Home’s Left Watch blog, Matthew has written an interesting précis which breaks it down into ten primary features:

It recognises that Labour developed a top-down style of governing, and stresses communitarianism, self-reliance and mutual societies. It is critical of the neo-liberal economic approach of both Labour and the Conservatives. Socially, it is, in many ways, conservative, and has been characterised by some on the left as “flag, faith and family”.

And it suggests that the progressive majority does not exist (bear in mind this is kind of the opposite of Red Tories like Danny Finklestein whose advice to the Cameroons began from the opposite axiom: ie that there was always an inbuilt majority for social democracy):

The short term (and indicative of the long-term struggles Labour faces) reason for Blue Labour is a couple of clashes between the progressive middle class left-wingers and those who vote them into office. The first clash was Gillian Duffy – a “do our supporters really think that?!” moment for many Labour politicians. The second clash was the AV referendum. The supposed “progressive majority” was found to be a few boroughs of London famous for intellectual left-wing politics, and some student areas.

Interestingly, Blue Labour, according to Matthew anticipated their party’s near collapse in Scotland, but advocating a re-engagement with England rather than Britain:

Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, who has been talking and writing about the need for Labour to return to socially conservative, pre-1960s values for some time – and also emphasising the importance of Labour understanding England, rather than “the UK”, or “the British”. His kind of England includes Levellers, Chartists, Radicals, Tolpuddle Martyrs, and well-established common law rights.

Now, here’s the interesting bit, not least when you consider the problems facing both the Ulster Unionists, but more particularly (since they are both social democrats and Labour) the SDLP:

…today Labour is viewed by many as the party of the market and of the state, not of society. It has become disconnected from the ordinary everyday lives of the people. In England Labour no longer knows who it represents; its people are everyone and no-one. It champions humanity in general but no-one in particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the popular symbols and iconography of Englishness. It claims to be the party of values but nothing specific. Over the last decade it has failed to give form to a common life, to speak for it and to defend it against the forces of unaccountable corporate power and state intrusion.

To stick with a more local reading, it puts me in mind of Simon Hamilton’s speech in Strangford, when he suggested that people would not vote for a party that did not have a message.

That lack of a clear message and a strong sense of the general, little in the way of specifics, and a hollowed out sense of their respective ‘missions’, perhaps both parties need to re-engage with what remains of their base rather than to resile to the top down habits of the last ten years…

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  • otto

    Great idea, crap brand-name and too much confusion in the presentation.

    The underlying idea is “Labour” exists to bring dignity and ownership to work.

    It isn’t enough to try to eradicate racism, sexism, sectariansim or ageism from business organisations through the efforts of state agencies. The inherent agency problems in large state and private organisations are the issue whether the agent is the self-serving politician or an out of control management class in our absent landlord, “just-sell-the-shares-if-the-performance-is-crap” capital system.

    It’s about creating an economy where every current “state” organisation, whether a hospital, a rail franchise, a university, a school or a rescued bank becomes a trust whose trustees are elected by the employees. The market remains as a rationing mechanism between consumer choices but the relationships within the organisation are redeemed by democracy and distributed ownership.

    Perhaps it’s the “John Lewis” organisation structure as a widespread, off-the-shelf standardised corporate form – an organisation structure that defines the rights of “partners” rather than shareholders to elect the “trustees” of a trust which they themselves are the beneficiaries of. It’s also a system that prevents them from selling the right to exploit future generations of employees by de-mutualising the trust.

    Even starting to teach the effectiveness of alternative organisation forms (including co-ops, mutuals, charitable trusts, joint ventures, franchises, distribution agencies) at business schools would be a good start.

    If it’s hard to tell whether “blue-labour” (good idea crap brand) is socialism or an evolved and democractic capitalism that might be because they’re the in part the same thing and we’ve been confusing socialism with bureaucratic statism.

  • DC

    Good post Mick, it captures the debate being had by Progress on what Labour should mean and be in England.

    Here’s another interesting snippet taken from Progress online:

    Labour needs to respond with its own vision of England. Nation and culture are the places where people make meaning, and where they create a sense of belonging and identity. But there is also something more at stake. ‘The national’ must be won politically, culturally and socially, because it is key to rebuilding the economy and creating a common prosperity.

    In his 1933 essay on ‘National Self Sufficiency’ JM Keynes confronts the ‘decadent international but individualistic capitalism’ that caused the Wall Street Crash. Its ‘self-destructive financial calculation governs every walk of life’, he writes. ‘It is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods’. But what, he asks, shall we put in its place?

    Today we face the same dilemma. A second phase of ‘neoliberal’ globalisation has resulted in economic crisis. Britain has a failed open economy and a state-supported system of capitalism. Its private sector is anaemic and its financial sector dominates like an imperial cantonment which takes and takes – and gives nothing back. A selfish elite has embraced a cosmopolitan global culture, while across the country people face the loss of national purpose. What is England without an empire?

    The Stevenage test:

    Labour must adopt a robust approach to immigration, antisocial behaviour, crime and tax. Labour must appear to care about victims’ rights more than human rights, to be concerned with the private sector more than the public sector. Labour cannot appear to be metropolitan, elitist and out of touch. In short, Labour must ditch its Guardianista tendencies, and become a party for people who go to work, pay their taxes, want quality schools and hospitals, and own their own homes and cars. Miliband’s appeal to Liberal Democrats is superb mischief-making, designed to cause coalition ministers maximum discomfort. But it’s not the basis of an election-winning strategy. It doesn’t even come close. If there really was a ‘progressive majority’ in England, the AV referendum would have gone very differently. We should never forget that voting Labour in most of the south is seen as wildly eccentric behaviour.

  • rhys

    Historically, the Labour Party existed to protect the interests of working people, the better organised and educated of whom were its members. It decided from the time of the Social Democratic treachery that it was more important to represent the career interests of its ‘leaders’ (a new, fascist concept it hadn’t previously gone in for) and proceeded to destroy party democracy. Since no-one else gives a twopenny whatsit for the careers of these flabs, it is left depending upon blatherings of the ‘Sun’. What a thought!

  • DC

    @rhys

    Historically, the Labour Party apparatus has form for putting itself and its political elite over the interests of working class people. The expenses scandal showed up some of that blatant disregard, the profiting off the back of taxpayers on property sales – as sitting Labour MPs – Old or New Labour – was just simply unbelievable from where I am sitting.

    In terms of middleclass protectionism – across the public sector either in Britain or NI large parts of public services have been outsourced – namely cleaning services and security, the working class type jobs. While all the juicy ‘professional’ jobs protected for the middleclass types.

    I’m not knocking outsourcing itself per se – but in public services the middleclass has form for blowing smoke over the innards of ‘their’ services and protecting itself – the liberal elite also are on a pigs back – particularly in education. Some of the salaries across the range of jobs there are fixed at turbo levels. Part and parcel of the problem – or drawback – of bringing over private sector managerialism into public sector jobs that were once mainly regulatory or administrative. The salaries have ballooned. Bring back administrators and ditch the managers. It’s one thing having proper private sector companies providing public services, but another thing altogether marketising public services – i.e. public services that mimic the private sector in style and outlook, though still remain in substance entirely public sector.

    What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander in terms of outsourcing. There is a role for the private sector but it must always remain at the periphery of public services, but it must also affect good ‘middleclass’ jobs as much as the working class ones – who have been affected by it also.

    Another thing, New Labour was always about blending left and right – over the years in government more seemed to be privatised than nationalised – or brought back into the public sector.

    For instance, I reckon it’s about time prisons were brought back into the public sector and some of the banks also. In Northern Ireland, I fully support legal services being nationalised or brought back into the public sector – a statutory run public defender office, for those that can’t afford legal representation is cheaper than the private sector alternative. Legal fees have ballooned out of control.

    @Mick

    I don’t really see the SDLP relevance when compared with Blue Labour project. I was watching Sky Sports yesterday and in relation to Alex Ferguson the Sky commentator said something like “great people who write history don’t tend to dwell on it, they have that hunger for more of the same from the future – so that they keep on writing history”. The SDLP has dwelled on the past too much and has oversold its past performances, its previous ability to write history. But in doing so that party went out of date.

    The problems the SDLP have are ones linked to moving beyond the GFA.

  • Mick Fealty

    That’s a great quote re ferguson. Is it accurate? And who said it? The connection as I see it is the resiling to managerialism and retreat from the folk it’s trying to represent.

    Now you might say that neither the UUP nor the SDLP have had much of ahistory of doing that.. which is one reason why the DUP and SF seem to have so easily ridden off with the majoirty of the spoils.

    I still think there is something in there for them to think about though…

  • DC

    The quote, not sure if it is entirely accurate and I’m not sure who said it.

    The guys on Sky Sports must have a good research team that help pull these sayings together.

    Another one I heard was Howard ‘world wide’ Webb, coined after he refereed the world cup final 2010. Okay, not the most difficult one to pull together but still i thought it was good.

  • otto

    DC

    I don’t think “blueLabour” is anything to do with more clarity in state administration, although that would be good. It’s about dignifying work including the professionalisation of trades and expanded employee participation.

    In outsourcing the question should be whether a worker-buy-outs (why’s it always a “management” buy-out?) is as workable as the employment of a contractor. Can a co-op employee-owned caterer supported by a co-op food wholesaler do as good a job as Aramark or Compass?, and does the residual core state service provider need to be a state owned service or, more focussed on the core service can it become a state contracted co-op?

    What practically, can the state do to advance a particular form of “private” (ie not state owned) corporate form? Are there lessons to be learned from black empowerment in RSA; is there something we can do with entrepreneurs’ relief to encourage the employer to look to his employees as his exit plan on retirement rather than a competitor or a private equity fund? Just in terms of encouraging participation should entrepreneurs’ relief be available to people who holds share in public companies of which they’re employees, provided they sell within a certain period after resignation or retirement?

    This should be the bread and butter of the SDLP. It’s catholic economc theory, christian socialism or, if you prefer, distributism. It’s about the credit union and the per-head funded but community/church managed school – both very Irish institutions. It’s an elegant and joined up picture for an just, hard working and diverse Irish economy and society and one which marries the proven “catholic” (but not exclusively so) co-operativism of Mondragon with the desire for social and economic equality of the small states of lutheran northern europe.

    Here’s a link with some practical proposals

    1. Work towards a commitment in 2012 (the United Nations’ Year of the Co-operative) by progressive European parties in favour of a Co-operative Europe;

    2. Work to strengthen relations between co-operative and trade union movements across Europe based around employee buy-outs, job preservation and other areas of common interest;

    3. Seek to amend European competition law to at least give a level playing field to co-operatives and, in particular, employee buy-outs;

    4. Campaign to mutualise the financial sector or bring it under joint employee and customer control, and;

    5. Move to end capital flight into tax havens once and for all.

    http://www.social-europe.eu/2010/03/towards-a-co-operative-europe/#comments

  • DC

    Otto

    The outsourcing thing was just an example of the middle class being protected more than the working class in a point made to the commenter Rhys. Just to highlight Labour’s unreliability when defending working class jobs.

    My understanding of the origins of Blue Labour is that it grew out of concerns with the working class being neglected and going over to the BNP etc, the main jist was that of family, faith and flag – not the labourist-leaning co-operative working you mention above, this concept was only hatched when Labour got spooked by David Cameron’s big society. But today Blue Labour does seem to be adding that to its list of other things to consider as part of a new political offer.

    Blue Labour from what I’ve read is also developing on the economic front as well – that of being critical of capital, demanding that Labour politicians keep their wits about them when managing the economy – wits which were ultimately lost during the New Labour years, under Gordon Brown.

    At the start I was not really into Blue Labour but it is developing and now I only feel uncomfortable about the faith and flag bit – I don’t think national identity has the glue that it once had and same goes for religion.

    The religous members in Labour tend to translate their christian values into ‘equality’ – I see that as having been tried and test and failed.

    Frankly, in order to bring about the values you mention, especially attempting to bring about change in the financial sector – to me equality will not; but what might is being sheer ruthlessness – ruthless for the other 90%. The 90% who are held captive to financial capitalism and big corporations, right down to the working class.

    Of course, the style has to be centrist to attain power, but once there – unlike Blair – ruthlessness means we don’t veer off into the economic Right that’s for sure – Blair has seemingly entered into that top 10% sphere. Something any good democratic leader worth his salt should avoid!

  • DC

    *equality will not *cut it*.

    (Note to Mick – any chance of an edit button for the comments – the Belfast Telegraph has one for its comments section and it is so so helpful; I know I should re-read before posting etc, but this tiny little box you type in doesn’t help either when it comes to reviewing what has been written!)

  • otto

    DC

    Isn’t the truth is a bit of both? If people don’t have a stake in their workplace they’ll exaggerate their attachment to other associations whether sporting, religious or national. If blueLabour is at all cynical is it in the recognition of that and the readiness to try to make something positive and unifying of it?

  • DC

    Otto

    Yes that is true, employees need proper participation in the workplace to have more control, feel more important and have a way to challenge management decisions fairly so that work becomes all the more enjoyable. Presently, staff are consulted but how often do they actually influence decisions already taken by senior managers at the top table, especially inside public sector organisations which have an oppressive and weighty hierarchy.

    That’s why I am a fan of HRConnect – it gives two fingers to the decision makers and challenges the public sector hierarchy and management. For non-decision makers i.e. admin staff – in the civil service it should be seen as a relief from the tyranny of the majority – i.e. the management / supervisors. If management mess up, HRConnect reports this back to the funders – the departments and action is taken on them. Before loyalty to the hierarchy could save civil servants skin – not now there is a private company challenging this and investigating all employee grievances. (Which is why I’m surprised Paul Priestley is still in post? HRConnect should have had him bucked out ages ago.) Co-operatives would be a different approach in overcoming the hierarchy in the public sector..

    On co-operatives – it begs the question what of the Union – if co-operatives took off at work and systemic change happened inside the office that placed more power in the hands of employees, would reliance on the Union reduce or would both complement each other in the process?

    The Blue Labour project is interesting all the same, more ideas come to the fore whenever some of the worst parts of Blue and New Labour are considered. If anything Blue and New both supply perfect criticisms of each other, I suppose it’s about closing these differences down and blending the two together.

    The main concern is that you get economic and social conservatism – the Tory party!

    The key will be the emotions behind the message and whether Labour can overcome and then fix big finance.

    Will Hutton’s the State We’re In should be re-read along with picking out the best bits of New and Blue Labour because Will Hutton had a devasting critique of the City of Lond and its finance capital post-empire, and the types and class of people that support it. At least the Germans have their car industry to rely on as part and parcel of their national identity – turbo finance in the City of London just doesn’t seem to bind the people together like manufacturing does – it’s just too exclusive.

  • Harry Flashman

    Perhaps someone can tell me who originally said it but I think the defining point of the decline of the Labour movement was when it ceased to be the party representing the best of the working class and became the representatives of the worst of the middle class.

  • DC

    @Harry

    The 1920s maybe?

  • Blue Labour offers the radical conservatism of the fascist with the window-dressing of the socialist. http://www.tfa.net/the_freedom_association/2011/05/blue-labour-new-danger.html

  • DC

    The fascists did have form for hating finance capital – as these political groups were influenced and affected by the fall out from the Wall Street crash, so there is a grain of truth in that argument.

    I would settle for a blue labour that did go neo-statist on finance capital but perhaps to keep it modern it should look to China and not what has happened in the past. I would trade my concerns over social conservatism if finance and the economy were sorted out. You can’t always get what you want! However, not sure about religion and whether in the modern age given the internet whether oversexualisation can now be changed politically – as technology gives the people the power to view what they want. Unless blue labour clamped down on the ISPs etc, even then satellite internet could get round UK restrictions.

    I still think there needs to be a strong liberal strain running through any new Labour offer.