Following Labour’s defeat at the 2010 general election, a new intellectual movement, close to the new leader Ed Miliband, began to gain ground within the party. “Blue Labour” is most closely associated with the academic and activist Maurice (now Lord) Glasman and a small group of intellectuals and politicians. The Blue Labour agenda is set out in an ebook from 2011, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White), at the core of which is a powerful critique of Labour Party thought and policy since 1945. While many Labour supporters, activists and politicians see the achievements of the Attlee administrations as the apogee of the party’s history, Glasman and co. argue that Labour took a fundamentally wrong-turn after the Second World War, jettisoning an earlier Labour tradition of working class struggle, mutual assistance and self-help in favour of a top-down, elitist and bureaucratic model of social democracy. The principle authors argue that this basic settlement survived both the revisionism of Tony Crosland and the changes wrought by New Labour in the 1990s, contributing to the defeat of 2010, and the situation where Labour has alienated large swathes, not just of the middle class electorate, but of its traditional core working class vote as well.
The ebook is unashamedly iconoclastic—at least to those schooled in a more orthodox reading of Labour party history—but perhaps its most unexpected claim is to the mantle of conservatism. In an essay entitled, “The future is conservative”, the cultural theorist Jonathan Rutherford argues that Labour
…needs to rediscover England’s radical traditions that are rooted in the long political struggle against dispossession. This includes reconnecting with an English socialism that grew out of the struggles for land and for the ownership of one’s own labour against the forces of the market and of arbitrary power. In this post-crash era, and in the wake of unregulated globalisation, Labour needs to develop a politics of belonging and a reform of capitalism that draws on the traditions of the common good and a common life.
New Labour, argues Rutherford, was, in the end, insufficiently attentive to those left behind by globalisation, those whose jobs and communities had been sacrificed to the vagaries of the market. Rutherford argues that Labour must reconnect with the long tradition of English radicalism, stretching back over centuries, grounded in the struggles of ordinary working men and women attempting to resist the dispossession and commodification that accompany the spread of capitalism. His conservatism is about the importance of stability and continuity in work and local communities and in recognising the importance of rootedness and a sense of home.
There are strong hints here of the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s insistence on the centrality of the experience of home to English identity: “England was first and foremost a place—though a place consecrated by custom.” Scruton is certainly a thinker Blue Labour likes to engage with. In a recent blog post for (the appropriately titled) Conservative Home, the Labour party’s Policy Co-Ordinator, Jon Cruddas MP (also a contributor to The Labour Tradition), reflects on Scruton’s new book, How to be a Conservative: he describes his Conservatism as a love of home. By which he means the common life and inheritance that belongs to “us”, the people, and which grows out of everyday life. Home is our customs, habits and language, our neighbourhoods and the landscapes we live in. It is also the generations who have been and those to come, the history of our country, and our memories. It is not ethnic in its origins, but it requires integration into its membership.
As the final line of this quotation suggests, a conservative politics based on a love of home has major implications for immigration and the status of immigrants. In his earlier work, England: An Elegy, Scruton suggests that recent hostility towards immigration is not a manifestation of racism but rather a reaction to the disruption “of an old experience of home”. Cruddas is certainly not afraid to draw attention to what he sees as the destabilising effects of immigration which, along with rapid economic change, threatens “peoples’ sense of belonging and security”. This puts him at odds with many on the left, including many Labour party members and politicians who are highly suspicious of critiques of immigration. The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Diane Abbott, has been particularly critical of Blue Labour and an approach based on, “…blaming immigrants and stigmatising incomers”. According to Abbott, Blue Labour is irredeemably backward looking, not just in its attitudes towards immigrants, but also to women, wrapping itself “…in a sort of Hovis commercial nostalgia for the world we have lost.”
But is Blue Labour really the stagnant, reactionary creed people like Abbott (and Tony Blair) have suggested? There may indeed be a greater scepticism about mass immigration than we are used to hearing from senior Labour figures, but it is tied to a broader recognition of how fast and dramatic changes can destabilise and unsettle communities. Blue Labour sees immigration going hand in hand with neoliberalism which, for the last thirty years, has wrought enormous changes upon communities and individuals ill-adapted to cope with them. The political class responsible for ushering in these changes, a class composed of members of all three major parties, are now reaping the consequences in the form of widespread public distrust and the rise of UKIP. Crucially, the type of conservatism preached by Glasman, Rutherford, Cruddas and co. is a “radical conservatism”, which seeks to resist the disrupting and commodifying tendencies of markets: “…conservative in valuing relationships, work, family and community…radical in defending the labour interest, and sharing out power, resources and opportunities between members of society.” (Cruddas).
It will inevitably, and quite rightly, be asked, though: has any of this had any real impact, or filtered through into party policy? Certainly we do not hear the term ‘Blue Labour’ bandied about so much these days, and Ed Miliband has suffered sharp criticism from Maurice Glasman, in recent years. As Lilia Giugni has pointed out in a recent post for Politics in Spires, Miliband’s approach to new ideas has been a pluralist one, with many different voices and groups within the party contributing to the debate about the party’s direction. However, a plausible case can be made that the spirit of Blue Labour is in evidence.
Miliband’s poaching of the “One Nation” slogan was perhaps the most conspicuous sign of Labour’s new claim to conservative credentials and it has been carried through in the titles of a number of recent publications, including the party’s two major policy documents, One Nation Economy and One Nation Society. In the pamphlet, One Nation: Power, Hope, Community, the shadow Education Secretary and historian, Tristram Hunt, explains why he believes it is right for Labour to adopt Disraeli’s famous phrase: “…as we approach what often can feel like Victorian levels of inequality today, it is quite natural that we look to this era for political inspiration…a proper understanding of Disraeli shows that in certain extreme epochs it is possible to be both conservative and radical. We are currently enduring one such era.” Hunt explains how Disraeli’s ideas were set against the “liberal conservatives” of the Manchester School who promoted laissez-faire—”liberal conservative”, tellingly, being exactly the words David Cameron chose to describe his own political philosophy.
If recent reports are to be believed, ‘One Nation’ has been quietly dropped as the party’s slogan, due to a decidedly luke-warm public response. However, there is some evidence that radical conservatism is filtering through into more concrete policy proposals. In a recent publication, One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford cite several policies, ranging from the establishment of a British Investment Bank and a network of regional banks, to making benefits to unskilled young people conditional on participating in training, as indicative of their overall approach. It might be argued that there’s nothing inherently conservative about any of the policies they list and that they could quite easily be associated with a number of other strands of thought within the party. The idea of conditional unemployment benefits, for example, might just seem like yet another extension of neoliberal values into the welfare state—an extension of Blairite policy. But Cruddas and Rutherford no doubt see these policies (which also include greater devolution for English cities and regions and a major drive towards house building) as radical policies designed to restructure a skewed and inherently unjust economy, with a conservative emphasis on responsibility and the value of work:
The philosophy of One Nation is conservative in valuing relationships, family and community as the basis of social order and as sources of reciprocity and wellbeing. And it is radical in its promotion of justice and equality in sharing out the resources and opportunities between members of society.
The overarching aim of this small series has been to seek out conservatism in British politics today. Considering the multiple strands of conservative thought and practice, and the diverse nature of our political parties, this is an inherently complex and contestable project, which can hardly hope to arrive at conclusive answers. Nevertheless, in these closing passages, it seems worthwhile trying to outline some sharper conclusions, if only as a springboard for further discussion.
Firstly, I would make case the Conservative party under Cameron, particularly if considered as a joint political project with Nick Clegg and the other Orange Book Liberal Democrats, is, at its heart, a liberal beast. Its priorities in government have been to cut public expenditure, make inroads into the deficit, tackle perceived welfare dependency and inject market forces into areas where they have previously been lacking. Certainly, the Coalition has not been big on socially liberal reforms (gay marriage being a major exception), but nor has it been especially socially conservative—gone is the sermonising about “Victorian values” and “Back to Basics” which was a pronounced feature of the ’79-‘97 Conservative government.
Turning next to UKIP, there are clearly still interesting debates to be played out in a party that is only just reaching political maturity. Under Farage, the overall sense is of a Thatcherite continuity party, albeit one which has made its mind up about the EU and immigration. There are a number of old Tory favourites in their (current) policy-mix which the old party has dropped, notably the promotion of grammar schools, although it has to be said that Nigel Farage keeps pretty quiet about issues of sexual morality. Any deviation from the current tone is likely to come from a younger generation of UKIPpers keen on ramping up the libertarian agenda (particularly on the economic front) and trying to cleanse the party of some of its fustiness and amateurishness.
As for Labour, it is obvious that the bulk of party members will never warm to the idea of thinking of themselves as conservatives. But this was never the intention of the founders of Blue Labour. The project was about trying to identify where a party which had just suffered one of the worst election defeats in its history had gone wrong and seeking solutions from neglected intellectual and organizational traditions. It is easy to dismiss ‘radical conservatism’ as a bit of playful ideological cross-dressing, or even a dangerous exercise in the politics of nostalgia. But the potential electoral popularity of just such an agenda, if communicated effectively, should not be underestimated. Some on the liberal-left might be alienated by any move towards a left-wing populism that takes a more critical stance towards the EU or immigration, but they might just hold their noses and take the plunge if it also meant a more robust defence of the NHS and serious moves to rebalance and democratise the economy.
One issue that has not been touched on explicitly so far are the parties’ stances towards modernity and modernisation. For all the talk of conservatism, with its unavoidable associations of resisting change and looking to the past, it is important to note that being seen to be on the side of the future and progress remains important to all three parties. As mentioned earlier, Cameron, Clegg and other key figures in the Coalition such as Michael Gove, like to think of themselves (and portray themselves) as radical and ‘progressive’, dragging the country forwards into the global, liberal future—much like their role model, Tony Blair, did before them. Labour too, for all the attacks on Blue Labour’s alleged nostalgia, remains at pains to describe itself as the party of the present (and future). The publication One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal, which expresses a commitment to radical conservatism, is also effusive about the ‘new economy’, digital technologies and the networked society. Some might say that UKIP remains the odd-one out here, but while Farage, in his tweed suit, may exude lamentation for a bygone era, others in the party are fully signed up to the future, and what’s more, they see at as theirs for the taking. Douglas Carswell’s recent book, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy is built around his faith in the ability of communications technology to subvert and ultimately negate traditional political and state structures.
Developing this project further, it will be important therefore to consider in greater detail the different parties’ engagements with the language of progress and modernity and how this can be reconciled with conservatism.
This post is one of a three-part series on British conservatism. For the next two posts, see here.