Chuka Umunna is the Member of Parliament for Streatham; he is a member of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition
At the next General Election, we must be able to explain what the country will look like after five years of Labour government and what vision we offer; as Ed Miliband sets the party’s direction of travel, Blue Labour has much to offer.
A year ago this month I was immensely privileged to become Member of Parliament for the area I love and have called home since my birth. I have relished every week in the role and still pinch myself when I arrive in Westminster every Monday morning.
Since joining the Commons, most debate has revolved around the economy and the extreme deficit reduction programme being pursued by the Conservative led government. In its downgraded growth forecast in March, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted GDP growth of 0.8% for the first quarter of 2011; ONS statisticians now tell us the economy undershot this by 0.3%.
That the economy has been flatlining since the government took office is deeply worrying when one considers the full force of its measures have yet to feed through.
As the shadow chancellor Ed Balls has made clear: there is no disagreement on the need to address the deficit – despite coalition claims to the contrary. Where the disputed terrain lies is around the speed and depth of reduction and what that means for growth and jobs. We have been engaged in trench warfare on this point month after month because we believe the government is jeopardising the recovery.
That will continue so long as the chancellor keeps faith with his belief in “expansionary fiscal contraction” – the notion that as the public sector retrenches, the private sector will automatically step in to fill the gap.
The composite purchasing managers’ index – that consolidates surveys of private services, manufacturing and building – suffered its biggest drop since 2008 last month, suggesting George Osborne is profoundly misguided on this.
The next General Election
Yet, if the Coalition runs its full course and achieves its spending cuts (a big “if”), the bulk of the fiscal contraction will have been delivered with a £110 billion a year consolidation by the next General Election. With much of that contraction complete, the debate then will have moved on.
What if, having been subject to £80bn of spending reductions and £30bn of tax increases, the British people determine that it hurt but it worked? What will be the offer then? The point is not that Labour should not continue making the case against government economic policy – we should and their policies are certainly hurting and not working right now – but we cannot presume the pain of government cuts will deliver victory in 2015.
At the next General Election (which could fall earlier than 2015) people will want to know what Labour’s offer is beyond opposition to cuts. What will the country look like after five years of Ed Miliband’s premiership? What vision will we be offering? It is unrealistic to expect a complete response to these questions a year on from a heavy defeat but a complete answer is a prerequisite to our next General Election campaign.
Ed is leading from the front on this – he recognises we have much work to do and has spelt out the task ahead: rebuilding the British Promise – the prospect that each generation will pass on a life of greater opportunity, prosperity and wellbeing to the next; the urgent construction of a political economy that prioritises the long term and works for all; a great revival of our commitment to the civic bonds that pull us together; and the need to become a movement once again.
At the root of this is a belief in our innate mutual dependence. We believe individuals should be given the freedom to flourish, thrive and prosper, not just economically but in spirit and heart too. This can only be achieved in the context of a strong, cohesive society supporting each of us and our families in that endeavour, promoting the common good.
This is where our offer begins, before it is boiled down to a language, narrative and message that easily transmits on to the doorstep. These essential tenets speak to something in each and every one of us-– the desire to get on, ambitious not just for ourselves and our families, but for the communities we live in as well. It is key to what Maurice Glasman – along with Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford and others – have been arguing long before their thinking was tagged with the “Blue Labour” label.
The Market and the State
What I call “bad capitalism” – unrestrained capital, highly speculative, obsessed with the short term, dismissive of the ties that bind – acts as a barrier to this notion of the good society; whereas “good capitalism” – one that is entrepreneurial and productive with good democratic corporate governance – can smooth the path to a better tomorrow.
The state, fostering greater fairness and equality, has an important role to play – not as an overbearing top down manager but, far more importantly, as a partner, enabler and friend in our pursuit of this vision. In this context, Ed Miliband is pursuing an agenda that moves the party beyond both the prospectus offered by Labour in the 1970s and 80s, and the formula adopted in the mid 1990s and noughties – the British people need a programme that speaks to the circumstances in which they find themselves in 2011.
In his recent Observer piece, Glasman said:
“The Labour tradition understands something important about capitalism, which is that finance capital wishes to pursue the maximum returns on its investment. To that end it exerts great pressure to turn human beings and nature into commodities.”
Left to its own devices, unrestrained capital fixated on maximising the bottom line delivered slave wages for some of our fellow citizens pre-1997 when wages as low as £1.20 an hour were common and legal. This is why Labour implemented the 1998 National Minimum Wage Act and why many in our party, rightly in my view, now advocate going further and implementing a Living Wage.
In his Fabian Conference speech earlier this year Ed Miliband said “our economy was too vulnerable to the [financial] crisis because we were too reliant on financial services”. He was right – in 2007 our banks invested just £50 billion in manufacturing but a whopping £800 billion in complex financial products.
One solution to this offered by Glasman is the concept of regional banks prohibited from lending outside their region, making capital available locally to businesses and households, countering the City effect of “sucking all surplus to speculation, and [engaging] in the necessary task of generating real private sector growth in the areas that need it”. This is pro business and promotes “good capitalism” – it deserves due consideration.
As for the state, in the same Observer piece Glasman said:
“New Labour’s public sector reforms were almost Maoist in their conception of year zero managerial restructuring. As an academic at London Metropolitan University I lost count of the number of line managers that were assigned to supervise and assess me, but I do know that departmental meetings were abolished and academics had no decision-making power.”
We achieved a huge amount in terms of public service investment and outcomes, but any Labour member – like me – who has sat on a school governing body and witnessed the deluge of policies and procedures emanating from the Department for Education will recognise what Glasman refers to. And, in our time in government, there was a tendency – if public sector entities could not be controlled and managed – simply to contract out and transfer to the private sector when more collaborative and democratic options were available.
Newcastle City Council provides a good example. Its “City Service” which runs its ICT systems was the product of a successful in-house bid to transform local services led by managers (who believed in the creative capacities and commitment of council staff), the local UNISON branch and was supported by local people.
Tradition and nostalgia
Glasman has been accused of indulging in nostalgia, which some cite as the “blue” in Blue Labour. This misses the point. When the case is made for the conservation of certain cherished national institutions such as our forests, the post office, Dover Port or, in London, the Billingsgate fish market porters, it is not made for tradition’s sake but because these institutions are part of the social fabric of our country that bind us together – they institutionalise our social democracy for future generations, something we failed to do sufficiently enough in government.
Citing E P Thompson, Jon Cruddas explains tradition thus:
“It is a love of home, of place and of the local. It is a resistance against the uncontrollable forces of capitalism and dispossession; a struggle for liberty and democracy, to feel part of a community, for a sense of belonging that brings with it esteem and meaning.”
In this context, a return to traditions of the Labour movement such as the mutuals, co-operatives and organised citizens should be promoted – something our sister party, the Co-Op Party, has long advocated. It has inspired my parliamentary campaign to remutualise Northern Rock Plc, supported by many MPs.
The promotion of “faith, flag and family” – often used as a short hand description of the Blue Labour prospectus – has made some people distinctly uncomfortable. This is understandable because the phrase alone – admittedly one not meant for use as an election slogan – doesn’t do justice to Blue Labour thinking and requires closer examination.
Modern Labour always had a paradoxical relationship with faith. On the one hand, there was and still is a tension between the social liberalism that Labour has legislated for since the 1960s and the social conservatism of many of our faith communities; on the other hand, in my constituency there are more than 40 different places of worship and common to all of them is their promotion of association between individuals.
As Glasman puts it, different faith communities talk about “matters of common concern” where people have “common interests”. I met with a delegation from one of my churches recently and was lobbied about housing, school places and other issues affecting the entire constituency. I frequently have similar meetings with other faith groups – this will accord with the experience of every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
For me, “flag” talks to a sense of nationhood and togetherness. I was roundly condemned by some (on the Left) on twitter for attending street parties to celebrate the Royal Wedding in my constituency. I make no apology for doing so and am proud of the events that took place in my area. Thousands attended and what I witnessed was not some doe-eyed, adulatory worship of the Royal couple but a sense of pride in our country and a delight in the excuse to coalesce, relate, mingle and share some time with neighbours one often only sees in passing.
Moreover, a recognition of the importance of family is nothing new, nor would the proponents of Blue Labour claim it to be so. It lies behind Labour’s introduction of the plethora of parental employee rights in government, such as the right to request flexible working to better enable people to manage their careers and working lives around their families; likewise SureStart children centres were established to support young families.
The Vision Thing
Some say all this Blue Labour chat it is all rather self indulgent. Here was former MP Colin Challen on LabourList earlier this month:
“Let’s have no truck with [Blue Labour]. Instead of trying to fill our ransacked ideological kit bag with some new fangled ideology… let’s have some policies.”
Labour had plenty of policies in 2010, including a Post Bank, High Speed rail, broadband for all, more social housing etc. but we lost. We didn’t win for many reasons – a lack of vision, tying together those policies and giving a sense of what the country might look like after another five years of Labour government, was certainly one of them. That is why, far from indulgent, heavy lifting on what we’re for and the story we wish to tell is essential.
Others see it in the context of sticking to the centre ground and winning back middle class support. Blue Labour does happen to have cross-demographic appeal across the coalition of middle and working class groups that brought us to power in 1997 and whose support we will need again if we are to return to power. Good. What it is not is some crude tool for political triangulation.
Anyone doubting this should read what Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford said of such a political strategy in the New Stateman in January last year:
“The government calculated that it could triangulate the Conservatives and subject the underclass to punitive measures without alienating Labour’s core supporters… But the so-called underclass is not a class apart as the new right and the social investigators of the 19th-century tried to prove.
“It is an imagined body of people – chavs, hoodies, junkies – projected on to single mothers, the sick and parts of the working class impoverished by the impact of recession and unemployment.”
So the “Blue Labour” label can perhaps be misleading – “One Nation Labour” perhaps would be more appropriate, signposting Ed Miliband and Labour’s determination to win back support across the country and across all demographics. But let us not get bogged down in labels at this stage – its the ideas that matter and Glasman, Cruddas and co are on to something.
If I am wrong, let us hear your alternatives; the prize is a better Britain.