Blue Labour? A Socialist Response.
Nothing to do with Blue Labour.
In 2009 something called ‘Blue Labour’ was launched.
The venerable Lord announced that,
“Work and responsibility are core Labour values. I want to see a more relational state that doesn’t just provide personal care packages, but calls on people to meet each other, talk together and work together for the common good.”
Blue Labour’s plan for delivering the common good involves a revival of the Labour tradition of mutuals, co-operatives and friendly societies, the creation of local banks and a new system of worker representation on company boards.
And when it comes to the delivery of public services, it wants more localised provision and an end to what it sees as “Labour’s obsession with postcode lotteries”.
There was much in the informative programme’s to flesh out this sketch.
Labour politicians and activists described how their party has failed to appeal to working class ‘communiarian’ values, and class interests. They talked about New Labour’s view that, with the right training and help, we would largely all be winners from globalisation. How a metropolitan liberalism had ignored the fears of ordinary people – principally, it appeared, about immigration and crime. That Labour should get back to its pre-1945 non-Statist roots. Edwardian Guild Socialism was evoked (though in fact its principal theorist G.D.Cole was thoroughly socially liberal).
The social economist, Karl Polanyi was cited. In his Great Transformation Polanyi outlined how the Victorian free market was pushed through by state action that reached people from their traditional lives. It was coercive. Society reacted in “self-defence”. Unsaid by Blue Labour supporters was that Polanyi considered state sponsored reform pushed for by trade unions social democracy - and not only mutuals and cooperatives - to be part of this process. Or that the Guild Socialists wanted worker control, not their own vague ideas about ‘participation’ in company boards.
There remains the issue of alleged working class social conservatism – its ‘communtiariansm’.
A further blow to Blue Labour was dealt by Roy Hattersely. He pointed out, rightly, that while liberal issues were not a priority for most ordinary people, there was as a great deal of support for tolerant measures, such as backing for gay rights, in these strata.
There is little mileage in appealing to the majority of the British working class through religious morality In the US no doubt there are reserves of religious feeling that attract blue-collar voters to Christian supported politicians and campaign. This barely exists in the UK.
Where religion retains a strong hold on communities, some of its forms, such as Pentecostalism or hard-line strands of Islam, it often has such a reactionary moral tinge that even Blue Labour would shrink at embracing it. No doubt cracking down on poor people’s alcohol use (by steep price rises) would find favour there, as it does amongst some urban liberals and ‘heath’ moralists. But is the kind of coalition Blue Labour wants?
Globalisation is a problem: in the sense that shifting flows of capital equal shifting jobs and the relegation of large numbers of people to the Dole.
Localism, which we have discussed on this Blog, (Here) is no answer. Critics already note that Blue Labour is not so much distinct as part of ’Big Society’ conservatism.
How did James Purnell, who popped up during the programme, deal with this during his time as Work and Pensions Secretary?
He embraced the means described by Polanyi. Purnell took away as much of social protection as he could get away with. He shoved the out-of-work, via worthless ‘training’ schemes run by the ‘unemployed business’, into a deregulated market. He abandoned social democracy. Baron Freud, who helped Purnell and advised many of these measures, now works with the Liberal-Tory Government, and is behind moves to introduce workfare and hive off even greater parts of the welfare state.
We wonder if Blue Labour will go anywhere with this kind of support.
Its core ‘constituency’ is apparently, not just socially conservative but economically progressive. Or, more exactly, ‘interventionist’ . This is it has an interest not in obliging the poor or the employed to follow the market, but for the market to meet our needs.
New Labour was based on the premise that the likely winners from globalisation were its target audience. not the declining traditional working class. Ed Miliband has not dropped its own ‘blue’ rhetoric. He puts ‘hard-working families’ in many speeches, and no doubt considers place and employment important. Wisely, he does not evoke divisive issues of ‘faith’.
It is hard to see how Blue Labour can find a distinctive pitch in an already crowded political market-place.
For a much more serious effort to look at the politics, culture and economics of the contemporary working class see Owen Jones Here.
More on Guild Socialism here.
Review of Blue Labour’s E-Book, Labour and the Politics of Paradox – here.
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