Maurice Glasman writes:
The Labour tradition is far richer than its recent form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism would suggest. Labour is a unique and paradoxical tradition that strengthens liberty and democracy, that combines faith and citizenship, patriotism and internationalism and is, at its best, radical and conservative.
That is the paradox that Blue Labour is trying to capture in order to renew the party and the movement as a powerful force for good. In order to do that Labour needs to recall its vocation as the democratic driver of the politics of the common good, a Labour politics that brings together immigrants and locals, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and atheists, middle and working classes.
The resources for Labour's renewal lie within the practices and history of the Labour movement. Blue Labour reminds the party that only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.
This is not a politics of nostalgia, as has been claimed over the past few weeks by some critics inside and outside Labour. It is a claim that practices and values crucial to what Labour is and stands for have either been forgotten, lost or wrongly downgraded in the party's list of priorities. Nor is it a defence of a vanished working class; it is a claim that the ethical vision of a humane society which led working men and women to found the party in 1900 is still relevant and vital today. It's good that the media is increasingly talking about Blue Labour, but "blue" should not be understood to denote insularity, fear of change and a rearguard action in defence of the white working class. By re-engaging with its history, Labour can revitalise Britain.
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. Labour politics is rooted in the democratic resistance to the commodification of human beings. The organised workers who resisted their dispossession and exploitation called their party Labour to remind us of that. Democratic politics, according to this view, is the way citizens come together to protect the people and places that they love from danger. Britain's forests, for instance, are more than an opportunity for the timber industry, as recent protests against privatisation amply demonstrated.
This always generates a rich and complex politics that is as much about cherishing what you know and love as about the pursuit of progressive ends. That is why Labour politics has always been radical and conservative, wishing to democratise ancient institutions such as parliament and the city councils.
Democratic resistance to the domination of capital through the pursuit of the common good is not really the way that liberals view politics or, more important, markets. They see the benefits but not the distress, the efficiencies but not the disruption, the choice but not the coercion. Labour has always understood both. This understanding is essential in defeating the liberal-led coalition – there is nothing conservative about this government – by developing a strong agenda for both regulating finance and generating regional private sector growth.
At London Citizens I worked on the Living Wage Campaign so that contracted-out cleaners, cooks and security guards could earn enough to feed their children without having to do two jobs.
I learned many things in those years and one of them was that, unless there were effective organisations, immigration led to a double exploitation, of the immigrants and of the locals. We ran a campaign called Strangers into Citizens so that illegal immigrants could build alliances and a common life with their new neighbours and colleagues. We ran the Living Wage Campaign to assert a common human status for all who worked in an enterprise or institution.
It was driven primarily by faith communities who asserted the dignity of labour and the importance of association. It was a resistance to the commodification of labour. The Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals and Muslims I worked with did not talk to me about changing divorce laws or prohibiting civil partnerships, about abortion or the hijab. We spoke about a living wage, about establishing an interest rate ceiling of 20%, about affordable family housing and community land trusts and about achieving a common status as a citizen of the country. We spoke about matters of common concern where we had common interests. A common life between the old and the new required the establishment of relationships between what was divided. It required new work agreements so that all was not relentlessly up for grabs in an exclusively contractual churn.
The very simple idea of people's relationships with others is what is at stake here. The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about. A political party that is a democratically organised force for the common good. In order to do this, Labour must establish those conversations that broker a common good within which party organisations such as Progress, the Fabians, Compass and the Christian Socialist Movement and Blue Labour talk and build a common programme.
Blue Labour has no nostalgia for old Labour and no illusions about the shortcomings of the new. Both Blair and Brown were recklessly naïve about finance capital and the City of London and relentlessly managerial in their methods. Blair developed a political alchemy that Brown failed to recreate, and it was between tradition and modernity. The problem was that his conception of tradition was superficial and his concept of modernisation verging on the demented: a conception of globalisation understood entirely on the terms set by finance capital.
The German economy with its worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation, in other words with high levels of democratic interference in the economy, emerged with a more efficient workforce, greater growth and with a genuinely modern industrial sector.
The paradox here is that vocational institutions decried as "pre-modern" and "Jurassic" preserved a knowledge culture that facilitated a more efficient response to globalisation than managerialism. The democratic representation of different economic interests turned out to be more efficient than leaving decision-making to the money managers. So Labour needs to engage with diverse interests in corporate governance and place greater stress on vocational rather than transferrable skills.
The control of the City of London in regional investment must be broken and local banks established that could enable people to have meaningful jobs and live closer to their parents. Modern economies require trust, institutions that uphold non-pecuniary values and strong constraints on capital. Again, this is not nostalgia but it does defy a view of modernisation defined by the unimpeded flow of money and people.
The withdrawal by New Labour from the economy led to a manic embrace of the state. 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. "Human resources" and "teaching and learning" laid down the law and there was no departmental mediation. This was typical of New Labour public sector reforms. Managerial, arrogant and ultimately doomed. Labour should know that, unless the workforce is engaged and committed, change remains, in the worst sense of the word, aspirational.
Old Labour was worse. Entirely disengaged from democracy in the economy, its renewal in our cities or in the party and held in thrall by an administrative and rational conception of the state and the use of scientific method to achieve its ends, by the 1970s it could barely generate the energy to win an election, let alone redistribute power to ordinary people. So there is plenty to talk about.
The starting point for Blue Labour is that the banking crisis of 2008 marked the end of New Labour economics and opens up the possibility for renewal. The tradition is strong and the party should honour it. In its explanation of the crash it must point to the volatility and vice of finance capital and the necessity of a balance of power within the firm and stronger institutions to constrain capital and domesticate its destructive energy.
The lessons of New Labour are not to have a contemptuous attitude to the lived experiences of people but work within them to craft a common story of what went wrong and how things can be better. To bring together previously separated political matter in the pursuit of the common good.
In his Fabian speech in January, Ed Miliband set out the direction of travel. He stated his opposition to the domination of capital and an exclusive reliance on the state for redress. He expressed a desire to "change the common sense of the age" through renewing democracy in politics and the economy and opening the space for people to build a better life together. The price of victory is a constructive alternative and it will be crafted by all elements of the tradition.
There are great times ahead for the Labour party.