Labour plays the blues

Restoring the party’s working-class roots means battling Boris Johnson—and the tide of history

Leaf Arbuthnot

The Blue Labour figurehead and peer, Maurice Glasman, has a name for where his party finds itself post-election. We are talking over lunch in a clanging canteen at the House of Lords. Characters from the nation’s past are drifting around with food on plastic trays; in the corner, Kenneth Baker is silently tucking in.

“It’s called Planet Fuck,” Glasman says, leaning forwards to ensure that no one in the vicinity is ruffled by his swearing. “Have you heard of Planet Fuck?” I shake my head. “It’s really interesting,” he says. “It’s a Labour planet miles away, where up is down, right is wrong and good is bad.”

Few may be familiar with this topsy-turvy celestial body but the picture Glasman paints of Labour in 2020 is only too recognisable. December 12 delivered the worst result in the party’s history since 1935. The Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats. Gains were made in places where the Labour party had come into being, and once been considered unassailable. Voters in the post-industrial north—the fabled “red wall”—who had endured nine years of austerity cast off the revulsion their forebears had long nursed for the Conservatives, and lent them their votes.

For Glasman, the drubbing was predictable. In fact, he called it: in 2016, he warned in the New Statesman that in three years’ time, the Labour party would likely face “a defeat comparable to 1931”. Action was needed to renew the party’s covenant with the working poor. They had been ignored and condescended for too long.

His warnings were ignored too. Glasman, who grew up in Palmer’s Green in north London, shot to prominence in the early 2010s when his vision for a Labour movement that stayed true to the party’s working-class origins caught the eye of Ed Miliband, who elevated him to the Lords in 2011. For a time, it looked as if Glasman’s bold ideas would shape the priorities and policies of the Labour party. Then Miliband lost his appetite for Glasman’s earthy radicalism, which extended to the possibility of putting a brake on free movement. “I made the team,” Glasman recalled, “but not the game.”

Blue Labour is tricky to characterise and since its inception has been hounded by accusations of misogyny, racism and nostalgia. It came into being as a sympathetic riposte to the Red Toryism espoused by Phillip Blond, a conservative theologian and think-tanker, who in 2009 called for a “new communitarian settlement” that would shatter oligopolies and recapitalise the poor. “The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics,” Blond wrote in an influential essay on the Red Tories. “And this is precisely the wrong place to be.”

Glasman, then an academic and activist, was discussing Red Toryism with his wife one evening in 2009. The financial crisis was roiling on. His mother—a devout socialist whose family had fled pogroms in Russia—had just died, and he was aghast at Gordon Brown’s decision to bail out the banks. If nothing else, Glasman declared, he felt himself to be “Blue Labour”. His wife sensed the import of his realisation at once. “That changes everything, that phrase”, she said. 

Glasman’s Blue Labour has since gathered a loose network of academics and MPs who feel that Labour has been taken over by urban, middle-class, avocado-munching liberals who do not understand or even like the working class. Labour has been depleted, Blue Labourites argue, of ideas and ideals. But seeds for renewal can be sifted from the party’s rich past.

For Glasman and his brethren—overwhelmingly male—things have been going south for Labour since 1945. Patriotism, family and faith are now no-go zones for the Left, which doesn’t know how to talk about such values. Labour, he argues, is the child of a “cross-class marriage between a decent working-class dad and an educated middle-class mum. The marriage became increasingly abusive, which is why it is necessary for the grandparents to step in and play a more active role”.

When did the rot set in? In the post-war period, Glasman says, “the big state became dominant, which left the working class quite powerless”. By the time Margaret Thatcher came along, institutions and traditions once sustained by workers had been all but dismantled, leaving her free to do as she pleased. Then under Blair, “Labour completely abandoned any kind of socialist political economy and just accepted the market, whilst becoming hyper-liberal in its welfare and state policy”. More recently, the party flicked two fingers at Labour Brexiteers by pledging to hold a second—or “people’s”—Brexit vote.

The overall effect, as Glasman sees it, is that Labour has ceased to be about “doing things together” and become a party of “free stuff”. Or to use a distinction made by David Goodhart, affluent and educated “anywheres”, who believe in globalisation and free movement, have finally won the arm wrestle. Labour “somewheres”, who are more provincial, traditional and rooted, have been sidelined.

The MP Jon Cruddas, a key Blue Labour figure, says that the group had two priorities from the start. The first was to address “Labour’s long-term disassociation” from the working class, who were increasingly casting their votes elsewhere. The second was to “address the inability of the party to talk in any serious way about the failures of modern capitalism”. Cruddas and other Blue Labour thinkers fear that without a change in direction, the party will wither, like social democratic parties across Europe.

‘The Arcadian vagueness of Blue Labour is the least of its problems. The question, now, is whether it can find a home for its ideas in Labour as it is presently constituted’

Blue Labour is an amorphous group disinclined to be boxed in by a manifesto. Yet it is not lacking in policies, all of which reflect its rejection of the present capitalist liberal consensus. It backs the creation of German-style regional banks that would open up access to capital across the UK. It is fervently pro-apprenticeships and pro-guilds, and would establish land trusts for house building, as well as parish communes to allow locals to play a bigger role in shaping their neighbourhoods. If catapulted to power, Glasman tells me with some relish, Blue Labour would close down half of Britain’s universities and turn them into vocational colleges.

If all this sounds radical, it is. But Blue Labour ideas are undergirded by a yearning for return. New is old; “the future”, as the Blue Labour thinker John Rutherford has put it, “is conservative”.

It makes sense to categorise this approach as left-wing economically and right-wing socially. But it is hard to imagine the sort of country it would actually produce. The literature around the group—books, speeches and so on—stresses the importance of “relationships” and “connection”. When I ask Glasman to defend Blue Labour’s relevance to someone like me (not working class, not male, not interested in apprenticeships), he says that Blue Labour offers a “politics of meaning” inspired by Catholic social thought, and a “way of working with others to negotiate and achieve the things you care about”. He adds, with a grin, that life under Blue Labour “would be a problem for you as a classic millennial, in that it would involve having relationships with other people”. I laugh, a little. I do have relationships with other people. I already work with others to achieve things I care about. What, precisely, is the goal here?

The Arcadian vagueness of Blue Labour is the least of its problems. The question, now, is whether it can find a home for its ideas in Labour as it is presently constituted. Glasman, Cruddas and a number of other Blue Labour thinkers I spoke to are not optimistic. The group is not backing any of the leadership candidates, bar Angela Rayner for deputy. Of the three standing for the top job, Lisa Nandy seems the most in tune with Blue Labour given her tireless, in fact parodied, emphasis on neglected towns. But when I mention her to Glasman, he rolls his eyes and reminds me that the Wigan MP recently mounted a passionate defence of free movement.

In any case, the distaste Blue Labour thinkers have for influential people and factions within the party is amply reciprocated. The group has an image problem, to put it mildly. Many politicians who have previously shown interest—David Lammy, Ed Miliband, David Miliband, Chuka Umunna—are either now uninterested or out of the game. Younger party members tend to see Blue Labour as retrograde, sexist, even racist. When I mention that I am writing about the group to a 27-year-old Labour activist friend of mine, she replies, via WhatsApp, simply: “Interesting.” Then: “They suuuuuuckkk.”

While there is recognition within Labour that things must change, it seems unlikely that MPs or the membership will kick their established culture anytime soon. In any case, doing so could be counterproductive, alienating the middle-class voters Labour badly needs to survive. Now that Brexit is being “done” by the Conservatives, perhaps little may be gained by showing belated scepticism about the benefits of globalisation, free movement and trade.

It is also far from clear that the working class that Blue Labour seeks so devotedly to serve is interested—or exists in any coherent way. “Blue Labour essentialises the working class in a 19th-century form which it no longer adopts,” Phillip Blond, the Red Tory pioneer, argues. “It takes an overly static view of what the working class is and has no ideas of how to embrace its new forms.”

“Most people don’t see themselves in a class spectrum unless prompted,” Goodhart points out. “The industrial working class doesn’t really exist any longer. It’s become a tiny group within a much looser class system.”  He accepts, however, that Blue Labour is right in its analysis that the Left has been “taken over by liberal, educated, politically minded graduates, whose instincts are absolutely miles from Middle-Englandy instincts.” Yet Blue Labour has always lacked the heft and political nous to be effective. “It never threw up a great political organiser.”

Another issue is that Blue Labour does not know how to talk about women, or even attract very many of them to its cause. For a movement that bills itself as passionately pro-family and pro-relationship, that is an oversight. Blue Labour has been accused of idealising a period in which women were mostly constrained to domestic roles. I take my critique to Glasman, who accepts it “with humility and penance”.

“The autonomy of women has been hugely important to all of us,” he says. “But somehow that didn’t come across. There are women in the movement but it is the case that we’re not a primary source of affection for women.”

As I see it, the biggest problem Blue Labour faces is that the Conservatives might steal their lunch. It is impossible, yet, to know how far Johnson will go in his vow to reward his new blue-collar voters. The decision to go ahead with HS2 and pump money into bus services is certainly suggestive. As Goodhart says: “Our politics is already post-liberal and Blue Labourish, in a way. The Tory party now partly occupies that space.” Blond agrees. “The new political reality is post-liberal,” he tells me. A battle is underway on the right too, between Red Toryism and traditional Thatcherism. “We will probably end up with an unsatisfactory amalgam of the two,” he says.

Blue Labour’s struggle for oxygen within Labour reflects a paradox that has both hampered and energised the left for decades. On the one hand, Labour is internationalist and sees itself as a player in a global struggle against oppression and exploitation. On the other, it is fiercely localist and aspires to fight the little guy’s corner. Balancing these two interests requires a nimbleness it seems to have lost.

It speaks to Blue Labour’s openness and idealism that no one within the group seems bothered by its marginalisation, at least for now. Rather than chase the coattails of the leadership contenders, Blue Labour figures are concentrating on building networks and trust in working-class communities. The day after the election, Glasman says, Blue Labour’s Twitter following grew by 20,000. He is perfectly prepared to engage with the Conservatives as they “consolidate their new class coalition”, because he thinks Labour is out for the long haul. When the party comes to its senses and realises it needs to return to its roots, Glasman will be waiting. But his hopes are not high.

“Labour has built its entire modern project on the triumph of free movement, globalisation, technology, universities, the middle class,” Glasman tells me. “For them to comprehend that the future is conservative is just impossible.” Labour, he adds: “Is like a family after a car accident, continuing as it was before. Understanding will take time to work its way through. If the party cannot win back the affections of the working class, it’s doomed. Blue Labour views its role as bringing sanity to a completely demented and bereft party that hasn’t come to terms yet with its loss.” Earth to Planet Fuck—anyone receiving? 

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