The wisdom of Labour’s dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen

Blue Labour has been a reawakening for the Labour Party - but it coincides with a yearning for a half-remembered dream and risks alienating the broad centre-left.

Social democracy and statism have never been synonymous. The capture, by peaceful means, of the architecture of state power has been a key landmark on the parliamentary road to socialism since its inception. However the labour movement emerged from of a groundswell of civic action and a desire for self-determination by individuals, families, communities and workforces, whose political horizons were not fixated simply on the state.

As such, in promoting the ‘Big Society’, David Cameron has cleverly and quite defiantly marched into traditional Labour territory.

Maurice Glasman is therefore right, through his Blue Labour campaign, to reclaim the social and civic space beyond the state for the labour movement. Yet while the moniker ‘Blue Labour’ works as rhetoric – not least as a genial play on ‘Red Toryism’ – and is very tweetable, it is based on a misappropriation of conservatism.

Worse, it suggests that the big society does in fact belong to the Conservatives, therefore rendering Labour the squatter. The Blue Labour campaign encompasses many valuable insights, chiefly its challenge to New Labour’s version of modernity.

As I have argued elsewhere, a profound acceptance of globalisation encouraged New Labour leaders to take a neoliberal approach to society and the economy that often undermined the aspects of life that we value the most.

This is strongly associated with Blue Labour’s powerful depiction of a Labour Party disconnected in organisational terms from the day-to-day realities of its traditional supporters among the working class, and therefore in breach of its duty to engender and embody democracy.

As Anthony Painter reports in Labour’s Future, Blue Labour also speaks to an important turn against the managerial, instrumentalist state among Labour’s base, and towards values such as reciprocity. However, as Stuart White argues in the same volume, the task is not simply to reflect these values but to radicalise them.

Blue Labour’s greatest difficulty lies, however, in its endorsement of conservatism. Given the characterisation of the big society agenda as a smokescreen for cuts and privatisation, Glasman says ‘there is nothing conservative about this government’. Real conservatism, for Blue Labour, is about tradition, defensiveness against undemocratic change, and the valorisation of associative bonds.

While not wholly inaccurate, this understanding omits conservatism’s quintessential commitment to an unequal social order. Roger Scruton, the revered conservative philosopher and son of the working class (and a thinker admired among the Blue Labour ranks) defended inequality in powerful terms in The Meaning of Conservatism.

Conservatives will happily embrace novelty if it reinforces a natural, unequal order; yes, Margaret Thatcher championed the New Right but she was also as conservative as they come. Similarly, David Cameron answered criticism regarding his Eton education during the 2005 Tory leadership contest by joking that he was trying to become leader of the Conservative Party, not the Communist Party.

Clearly, Blue Labour confuses conservatism and conservation. But assuming we could forgive the ideological lapse, is a politics of conservation worth pursuing for the Labour Party?

Jonathan Rutherford has argued that:

“Labour’s historic task is to organise to conserve the good in society… and to nurture it back into existence when, like today, it has been reduced to piecemeal.”

Such statements beg inevitable questions around when the good life existed and how it was determined, and suggest that society can never be better than it has been at some point in the past.

The early forebears of the labour movement in the nineteenth century may have had a more holistic conception (and arguably experience) of the good life than their postwar descendants, and their campaigns may have been about defending a way of life as well as demanding their share of the fruits of modernity.

But what is not in doubt is that their enemies were by and large conservatives – upholding a different vision of what should be preserved or indeed nurtured back into existence – acting in defence of capitalism, just as they had defended feudalism in the face of liberalism a century before.

Home, identity and belonging are very precious things, but they are not simply given or discovered, even at the best of times. Always, they are forged through experience of the real world. The challenge for Labour is not to celebrate the past, but to work with the grain of real life today to build the communities that can give rise to the good life for all.

Blue Labour’s nostalgia trip risks inadvertently contributing to the demonisation of ‘benefit scroungers’ and immigrants, the agents that are often charged by the right with destroying ‘our’ traditional way of life and undermining an exclusively English sense of ‘fair play’.

Blue Labour in fact, joins the pandering to a phoney ‘squeezed middle’ demographic comprised of people who believe they are just as poor and insecure as their parents and grandparents were, only less happily. And it takes at face value the fact of working class conservatism, assuming that Conservative voters in poor areas understand conservatism the way that Blue Labour thinkers do; in fact, there is a strong libertarian streak in working class conservatism which has been largely overlooked.

Glasman is justifiably admired for his work with London Citizens, but the exaltation of London Citizens by Blue Labour is an interesting case in point. London Citizens adopts a defensive posture in many ways, but fundamentally works to bring into modernity, groups that are otherwise excluded from the benefits and possibilities of modern life.

It is not community organising for its own sake, but for the kind of housing, education and employment opportunities that should be available to all in contemporary Britain.

Glasman argues that the Living Wage, for instance, is conservative because it is essentially about enabling family life. This may indeed be one of its main objectives, but by advocating a form of wage-fixing and invoking the principle of equality, the Living Wage agenda uses very progressive means to get there.

The Labour Party would be a more vibrant and effective organisation if local party meetings were to resemble, even slightly, a London Citizens gathering. But ultimately the two are not comparable, and Blue Labour’s take on London Citizens seems to speak to a worrying apolitical attitude within the campaign.

It may be desirable for Labour to do more community organising, but as an organisation committed to acquiring formal political authority, it is by necessity an organisation of political activists. What it means to make ‘public policy’ is changing, and Labour needs to be a lot closer to the communities it wants to represent, but it should not be forgotten that making policy is what parties are for, and that politics – the thing that determines the bearers of policy-making power – is ineradicable.

Blue Labour has been a welcome moment of reawakening for the Labour Party. In many ways it puts both the ‘social’ and the ‘democracy’ back into social democracy, and its key ideas could help Labour to win the argument on the big society. But like most wake-up calls it coincides in time with a yearning for some half-remembered dream, and in its current guise the campaign risks alienating the members of a broad centre-left assemblage that only Labour can lead.

22 Responses to “The wisdom of Labour’s dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen”

  1. NewLeftProject

    The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry

  2. allen_osuno

    The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry

  3. Pucci Dellanno

    The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry

  4. BendyGirl

    RT @leftfootfwd: The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen http://t.co/NTepItv

  5. Dave Citizen

    I agree that recognising the merits of improved community engagement must not become a substitute for coherent policy-making around real change. And lets not kid ourselves that real change isn’t needed.

    A collection of factors from the economic rise of India and China, food and other resource pressures, ever rising populations and a straining environment mean that delivering a better Britain for the majority is going to involve step change. Ed Milliband seems to realise this and I am hopeful that he will take the tough policy-making decisions required to offer a coherent promise of improvement for the many.

    His comments about the role Britain’s extreme inequality plays in holding back economic and social progress are most welcome. Creating the policies needed to bring the country’s land, property and other productive resources back into the hands of small business entrepreneurs and others who can use them most effectively in the majority interest is going to take time and guts. I hope the allure of easy or early power won’t again consign Britain’s majority to further decline in the interests of the few.

  6. Ed's Talking Balls

    This kind of wonkish gobbledygook is too prevalent. ‘Red Tory’ and ‘Blue Labour’: what a load of nonsense.

  7. KeeptheRedFlagFlying

    The admiration for Roger Scruton, who crawled out of the woodwork under Thatcher, indicates the utterly abject, ideologically spineless character of Blue labour. Left foot in the mouth.

  8. Leon Wolfson

    Craig: Absolutely!

    There is definitely a large element of “can’t see the woods for the trees” going on with individual policies. If Labour want to lead the left, rather than splintering it (leaving many people without a party they can realistically vote for), then they need to BE a party of the left.

  9. Extradition Game

    RT @leftfootfwd: The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry #NewsClub

  10. Selohesra

    There is really so little difference now between between the parties that it is quite amusing to see all of them protesting so loudly about each other and justifying their own existence. Oh for the days of a proper Thatcherite Conservative party and a genuinely socialist Labour party. At least we would have a proper choice then.

  11. Harry Barnes

    Whatever peculiarities New Labour delivered, it was based upon the simple (if inconsistent)idea of marrying together the freedom of the market with social justice. Can Blue Labour be grasped hold of in such simple and understandable terms? In their e-book, Jonathan Rutherford says “Labour’s future is conservative. It needs to discover England’s radical tradition…” Well there is a marriage for you. Tony Blair used to attack conservatism. Not just the old pre-Thatcher conservative tradition which at one time could be found in the Conservative Party itself, but former socialist traditions in the Labour Party. So if Blue Labour is rejecting Blair’s attack on old views of socialism, which bits of which forms of socialism are they defending? Or is it all just a form of academic fudge? Clarity might not be enough, but its a good start. Just what is Blue Labourism?

  12. Dave Citizen

    Spot on Leon – the last thing this country needs right now is a squabble on the left over New Labour / Old Labour, blue labour etc. I think Ed Milliband understands this and is quite rightly taking time to confirm the key principles around which Labour will create policies and give leadership.

  13. George McLean

    Labour thinks that working people showing their strength and solidarity over pension cuts is walking into a Tory trap. Now … how else can we divide the working class …?

  14. Real Social Democrat

    Ed Miliband is a spineless type of Blairite who is borderline Thatcherite and right-wing to the core, yet is too steeped in cowardice to admit so.

  15. mr. Sensible

    This question I think there’s a balance to be struck between appealing to Labour’s core vote and trying to win more votes elsewhere.

  16. E Firman

    To me, London Citizens locates the problem with the people, not political policy. A strategy of ‘Change the people to change the status quo’.
    Andy Burnham’s support for Land Value Tax is the only policy idea which challenges neoliberal monopolist power. Land and natural resources can never be a self-regulating market, because these are finite. Hold them out of use and the price goes up. Speculation in other words. Policies like the Living Wage become ineffectual because any gain in wages gets captured by landlords charging higher rent. Same with publicly funded infrastructure which increases the value of proximal land by billions. Unless a tax on these unearned gains is introduced, none of Labour’s economic policy ideas will stem the flow of value from labour to profits.
    http://www.labourland.org/

  17. Leon Wolfson

    Great, a tax which would be passed *straight* onto private tenants. It’d be disastrous, especially for poorer renters, since housing benefit wouldn’t cover it. Most landlords wouldn’t hesitate for a moment, seeing it as an *expense*.

    A far better idea is differential rates for not income and investments, but different rates for earned and unearned (including rents), unearned tax being on /profits/ (and a significantly higher rate).

    Separately, a tax on unused properties is a good idea, but that’s quite different from a LVT.

  18. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry #NewsClub

  19. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Unless Labour appeals beyond it’s “core vote” as you call it, it will lose election after election after election.

    The reason Labour’s greatest electoral asset ever, Tony Blair, did so well, was that he did just that and “middle England” voted for the party in their droves.

    I hate to say it but I’m beginning to think Ed Miliband does actually get it, although being under the control of the union dinosaurs it’s unlikely he’ll be given enough leeway to implement any necessary changes to Labour to make it electable.

    There are those misguided Labour activists who believe that the party can win an election by shifting to the left but as the forthcoming public service strikes are about to demonstrate, this country will simply not put up with selfish behaviour from the outdated unions…

  20. Richard

    “in fact, there is a strong libertarian streak in working class conservatism which has been largely overlooked.”

    Indeed, they were never keen on temperance campaigns for example.

    The problem Blue Labour poses for “progressives” is that its conservative instincts (Monarchism, patriotism etc) are anathema to them.

  21. Daniel Pitt

    The wisdom of Labour's dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen: http://bit.ly/m1TMI2 writes @CraigPBerry

  22. Is Blue Labour the anti-thesis of New Labour? | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] sceptical about such change. You will become small-c conservative. Enter Blue Labour (pdf). This, says Craig Berry, endorses a conservatism of “tradition, defensiveness against undemocratic change, and […]

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