Maurice Glasman has led the Labour movement to attempt to understand itself again, and for that he deserves nomination for Most Influential Left-Winger 2010/11.
If there was a new school of thought born in the Labour party in the last year it was Blue Labour. It is an amorphous idea, but at least in Lord Glasman’s paper in the The Labour tradition and the Politics of Paradox, the tendency’s standard-bearer seems to define it as a recognition Labour has lost touch – on so many levels.
Labour has lost touch with its history; a post-Crosland Labour party’s obsession with ends has led to losing touch with the importance of means; Labour’s middle-class wing has lost touch with its working-class base…
But perhaps most of all, in an unrestrained capitalist economy, we’ve lost touch with each other.
No job is sacred, no one holds loyalty to an employer and no duty to a common good exists. Labour’s great mistake (and this is incredibly crudely abbreviated) was to put its faith in a remote state, and then when that failed, in the market. For Glasman, 1945 is when it all started to go wrong.
For Glasman’s problem with the UK in 2011 is that we do not value our relationships, and you do not build those relationships up through remote central state institutions like, for example, the benefits office.
He writes most passionately when writing about these relationships being based in an ancient tradition and being concerned with:
“The preservation of status, limits on the market, an attachment to place, starting with the common sense of people rather than with external values, and a strong commitment to a common life.”
The paper is an intellectual joy, something you could imagine Stephen Fry writing having completed a seven-year PhD in Labour Thought and History. But Glasman’s rollercoaster of Labour history is simply not accurate in places.
So, for example, he writes that Labour in England managed to unite the working class across religious and sectarian divides unlike leftist forces in other countries:
“In cities like Glasgow and Liverpool, as well as London and Birmingham, this was an extraordinary achievement, and one that Labour failed to draw upon in its search for ‘social cohesion’ during the last government.”
But that simply is not the case: in the 1945 Labour landslide, the Conservatives held Glasgow Central; in 1951, when Labour carried its greatest proportion of the vote five out of nine Liverpool seats were carried by Winston Churchill’s party.
This conservative support was based to some degree on Protestant, unionist, sectarian instincts of the electorate. Labour only managed to heal the sectarian divide after, in Glasman’s terms, the middle-class Fabian mummies had taken over.
More seriously, when he asserts that the 1945 settlement was a middle class power grab, he obviously has not done his reading.
It’s quite clear, for example, from David Kynaston’s brilliant Austerity Britain, that in industries like mining, it was trade unionists who were the most fervent supporters of nationalisation, and wanted nothing to do with workers’ control.
But that is to miss the point of Glasman. His intellectual history is economical in certain areas. Away from the intellectual seminar, what his conservatism actually means is either unclear (there is a lasting mystery over what Blue Labour says on gender) or becomes offensive (referring to a present immigration policy as turning the UK into “an outpost of the UN”).
But he has tapped into a feeling in the Labour movement that it doesn’t understand itself. From the Gillian Duffy moment during the 2010 election, to the revelation that Tony Blair was the Godfather of one of Rupert Murdoch’s children, there is a sense across the organisation that each part – leadership, activists, members, voters and trade unionists – do not know each other, or what they share.
Glasman distilled that sense, gave it a name and harnessed it to an intellectual project. And for that, he must be considered for the title of most influential left-winger in 2010/11.
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• Glasman: Businesses want Labour and the unions to be “partners in growth” – Shamik Das, September 7th 2011
• It may soon be time ‘to draw the line’ on Glasman – Daniel Elton, July 18th 2011
• The wisdom of Labour’s dalliance with conservatism remains to be seen – Craig Berry, June 19th 2011
• Britain faces a crisis of state and market legitimacy – Will Straw, May 11th 2011
• Is Maurice Glasman more radical than the nation’s youth? – Vincenzo Rampulla, January 18th 2011