Labour: time to turn blue?

Labour: time to turn blue?

What became of Maurice Glasman? Only those of us with a tendency to don the proverbial political anorak will recall the name, but Maurice (now Lord) Glasman was once the intellectual guru du jour for Labour. With roots in the Living Wage campaign and community organization, Glasman coined the term Blue Labour, a profound policy reaction to the perceived human emptiness of Blairism and the Third Way.

For a while in the early 2010s Ed Miliband seriously dallied with Glasman, attempting to meld some of his proposals with soft left policy to deliver what would have been known as Milibandism if the 2015 election had not been lost. 

It was a heady time for wonks when the likes of Glasman, Jon Crudas, Marc Stears, Jonathan Rutherford, Rowenna Davis and Stewart Wood would sit in stuffy seminar rooms attempting to thrash out a new policy agenda for the party.

This melding process was not without serious issues, particularly over immigration, and the contortions Miliband underwent to try and merge this agenda with his own priorities and thinking earned the memorable burn from political philosopher John Gray that: “Miliband wants to govern a country that doesn’t exist”.

Although echoes of it remained in the 2015 election campaign, essentially it did not last. 

With hindsight though, Glasman has emerged as some kind of Cassandra for Labour, warning back in 2016, as the Jewish Chronicle recently noted, that Labour was losing the working class and that “the scale of the loss is colossal.” It is a message that Lisa Nandy continued to press in the recent leadership election after Labour’s worst defeat since 1935. Yet as Dan Hodges recently pointed out there are few advocates of this kind of thinking in the new intake of Labour MPs.

And this is not just a UK issue. Joan C. Williams warns in her book, ‘White Working Class’, that class “cluelessness” by liberals in the US has meant that the two thirds of Americans without college degrees feel they have been left out of any vision of the good society. Feeling misunderstood, they have drifted away from the Dems to support Trump, perhaps as much out of desperation as anything else. 

What then is, or perhaps was, Blue Labour? It has been crudely summarised as a return to the values of ‘flag, faith and family’, a socially conservative outlook that acknowledges many people’s attachment to older, perhaps more communitarian and patriotic, ways. More subtly, it is an attempt to reconnect the party with some of its roots in pre-welfare state Labourism, a pre-Beveridge world of working class community, co-operatives and self-help that owed as much to Methodism as Marx. Recognizing most people’s deep attachment to place is a crucial bedrock. Mutual bonds forged in local communities and families are seen as vitally important. Religious belief is acknowledged as giving meaning to many lives. At its most truculent it is a somewhat reactionary roar against universalism, globalisation and liberal elites. Potentially it speaks to a group of voters who do not want their lives, families and communities torn apart by turbo-capitalism and an indifferent, distant state. 

Where is the betting angle on this? It is possible to put together an argument that Starmer will only win when he can integrate enough Blue Labour thinking to help retake the Red Wall and middle England. As Matthew Goodwin repeatedly tells us, there is a large contingent of voters out there who are economically left but socially conservative, and, who, in his words, “retain a firm desire to uphold national traditions, myths and symbols.” Corbyn was pure poison to voters with these kind of attachments. Starmer will need to change the party to attract them back. Simply continuing to serve up policy that keeps the woke activists in the university towns happy will not suffice. 

Those of us punting our beer money should always keep an eye on the deeper undercurrents that are flowing through parties. How blue-tinged Labour becomes under Starmer could decide the next election.

Rotten Borough

Rotten is long-standing poster on PB who was heavily involved in local politics in the Midlands before retiring to lick his wounds.

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