Blue Labour and the Left

Blue Labour has a bad reputation in left-wing circles. Many perceive it to be racist, conservative, patriarchal and anti-state, summed up with the view that it is about “flag, faith and family”. While there has been widespread criticism of Blue Labour by many sections of the British Labour left, concern not only exists in Britain. For example, I helped organise a Fabian Society event with Maurice Glasman, a key figure in Blue Labour, in Sydney and got the NSW Left to promote. There was some criticism that we should not be promoting such an event.

Understandably a lot of the hesitation comes from what people think of Glasman on issues of national identity and a perception that Blue Labour is about social conservatism. The framing of Blue Labour as a “radical conservative” tradition has not helped win fans on the broader Left. Many are uncomfortable with what he has said about immigration and nationalism in particular, dislike of how he framed the middle-class Fabian and working-class traditions of the political wing of the labour movement in highly gendered terms.

But to dismiss everything Glasman and Blue Labour has said is wrong and foolish. There is a lot from Blue Labour’s analysis to draw on and much of it is already in common use. For example, the idea of community organising and building a relational approach has already taken hold in parts of the Left here, most notably through the Sydney Alliance. Glasman has been heavily involved with London Citizens, the London counterpart to Sydney Alliance. Similarly, focusing on the common good is nothing new with Australian academic David McKnight talking about similar issues and using the same language nearly a decade ago.

Blue Labour’s focus on importance of relationships, place and work also has much to offer. They are all fundamental to personal identity and anchor our lives. Maurice Glasman has also championed ideas of mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity and community ownership, all drawn from important Left traditions that some argue has been lost.

Many in Left may feel uncomfortable with Glasman’s suggestion that it should ditch talk about equality. It is not because Glasman is opposed to equality but rather he argues for most people it is an abstract concept rather than being grounded in everyday life and common sense. This everyday politics and common sense has more in common with those associated with Stuart Hall and Marxism Today than the conservative Right.

Blue Labour also draws on Karl Polanyi, who arguably should be to social democrats what Hayek is to the free market Right, particularly his concerns about commodification. It is most powerful because its language about commodification is something that much of the Left has lost. It is the ‘moral critique of capitalism’ that historian Frank Bongiorno argues Labor has lost. The resistance to the dehumanising effect of the commodification of labour is a fundamental part of organised labour. That is the element of conservatism within the Left, resistance to the radical nature of free market liberalism. The Left has always sought to decommodify education, health care through guaranteeing universalism and rejecting basing value on economic benefits of decisions and actions.

In many ways aspects of Blue Labour could serve as a powerful and useful critique of the politics of the Hawke-Keating era and its top down, elitist and market driven politics. Nostalgia for those politics still runs deep despite it being the source of many of the ALP’s current problems.

While there is much from Blue Labour that is of use, there are many aspects I disagree with, most notably immigration and nationalism. Even supporters have acknowledged its shortcomings in Australia. For example, Nick Dyrenfurth has said this on immigration.

There are also questions about Blue Labour’s vision for the role of the state and communities. David Walker has rightly pointed out that while there is a focus on power, the two unanswered questions are: who pays? and what about professional skill? What happens when the community and those with expertise disagree? Windfarms and floridation are two immediate examples that come to mind. It is also unclear about who gets to define what the ‘common good’ is and how. It reinforces my belief that while Blue Labour has a strong critique but it does not offer a lot of good solutions.

I am also wary of Glasman’s idolisation of Germany. Mark Blyth has highlighted that the German economic miracle is far from one. It has relied on freezes in real wages, an increased labour force from the intergration of East Germany and the impact of the Euro making German exports more competitive. The German social market economy was designed afer the Second World War in response to the perceived threat of socialism. Its basis, ordo-liberalism, seeks a competitive enterprise economy.

Furthermore, he points out that not every country can be a Germany and run a surplus, some need to run deficits, just as for someone to save, someone else needs to spend. This idealisation of Germany risks generalising ideas, policies and institutions that cannot be generalised.

Blue Labour also seemingly has little to say about the challenges we face. It is unclear what it has to say about the impact of technology and how it is transforming the economy and society. Can technology aid its vision of strengthening relationships and a sense of place or is it disruptive? What are its implications of technology for the future of work and what does that mean for its vision? Then there’s challenges across the Western world such as climate change and an ageing population, let alone how to grapple with the waves of mass migration caused by conflict (and soon climate change).

If a Blue Labour approach was to be adopted in Australia, it is unlikely it would look the same as its counterpart in Britain. The historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that we had our own version Blue Labour through Mark Latham. I’m not sure given Latham’s tendency towards neoliberalism, albeit tinged with working-class nostalgia and contempt for anything associated with the New Left.

Whatever the future holds for Blue Labour, there are aspects of it that the Left can draw on. The Left should embrace its moral critique of capitalism which much of the social democratic Left has lost. Rejecting abstract notions and a focus on the everyday (place, relationships, work) to reconnect with people are also important. However, for all that it can offer, Blue Labour does not provide any answers to the bigger challenges we face in the 21st century and it is trapped by its own romanticism and idealisation.

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3 thoughts on “Blue Labour and the Left

  1. Blue Labour is right in many of its critiques of social democracy, labourism, communitarianism, marxism,and the other ideological traditions favoured by 20th Century Left. For all their positive effects on equality, they did not (and have not) led to the neighbourly-ness upon which a good society depends. The neighbourly-ness that results from empathetic relationships between people inhabiting a common place.

    This should be a social condition the Left strives for. And its a useful idea in helping to frame a response to a worldwide political moment freighted with fear of the other. Fears which are being stoked by right-wing activists. Nutters like Trump and cranks like Bernadi. Politicians who are trying to enlist a majority of people into a resistance movement against the cosmopolitanism that is encircling their favoured monochrome style of conservatism.

    Fear of the other is ultimately overcome by empathy. Blue Labour can be the battering ram. A future-welcoming, optimistic pitch that emphasis empathetic human relationships is the antidote to the xenophobia and chauvinistic nativism of the right-wing populists. But for Blue Labour to morph from an interesting idea into this meaningful ideology, it needs to evolve.

    The tradition’s emphasis on ‘faith, flag and family’ needs to fade out. Not because religion, patriotism and traditionalism is redundant. Instead, because the empathetic human relationships championed by Blue Labour do not now, and (probably) never have, been defined by these symbols. Pretending otherwise is wishful thinking. The left-wing equivalent of the right-wing’s nostalgia for yesterday.

    Blue Labour must be forward looking. Its principles need to lead to practical policies. And these policies have to be distinguished from policies that would have been pursued by 20th Century social democrats. In other words: if Blue Labor is a tool of analysis that leads to substantially the same results that a conventional social democrat could have produced, Blue Labour will have been a fad. It certainly would not have been the ideology that re-powered the Centre Left’s appeal.That idea that paved the way for 21st Century left-wing hegemony.

  2. Thanks, Osmond. This is a thoughtful piece. My sense would be that some of its ideas and language have gradually seeped into Australian Labor Party discourse over the last three or four years. Maurice’s visits to Australia have had some influence here, as has the translation/adaptation of his ideas to Australian circumstances by others – especially Nick Dyrenfurth. You make a very good point about the peculiarities of German historical experience and their implications for Glasman’s arguments.

    On Latham: I was perhaps a bit more cautious in suggesting a parallel than you indicate above. I agree that Glasman doesn’t share Latham’s neoliberal economics. This is what I said in the most detailed piece I wrote on Blue Labour (It’s from early 2012):

    ‘The Glasman show has some faint echoes of Australia’s Latham interlude. Like Glasman, Mark Latham celebrated the value and authenticity of popular culture and the traditional values of the working class, and he professed a robust nationalism designed to appeal to ordinary Australians. Like Glasman, he went out of his way to unsettle the pieties of a left-leaning Labor-voting intelligentsia, with his views on refugees, social responsibility and mutual obligation in welfare. And like Glasman, he did all this while, in reality, being part of the intelligentsia himself.’

  3. “Wrong and foolish to reject everything that Blue Labour has to say…” Or, another way to look at it: my grandmother doesn’t need to be taught how to suck eggs. There is absolutely nothing new or profound in the Blue Labour speeches and ideas. The positive aspects about community effort and building relationships are patently obvious ones that people in widely different part of the movement implicitly accept and already act upon. I’ve even known Conservatives who’d agree with those… without believing in the other nonsense that blue Labour espouses about ‘faith, flag and family’ being the be all and end all of human relations. Ask a homeless ex-serviceman how included in those they feel. And there is the other glaring problem with Blue Labour thinking – I will not, and never will, accept that in order to build a community for all, I have to exclude and stop caring about people on the margins of that community. I am not here on the earth to make some angry person feel validated about moaning about ‘how much money them bloody benefit scroungers get’ or about there being ‘enough homes for immigrants and refugees, but not for us, eh?’ How about a bit more challenging of so-called ‘common sense’ with actual analysis and understanding of the causes of social inequality and effective solutions that do not rely upon turning one excluded group against even more vulnerable ones? Where is the progressive Labour movement for that?

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