Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Blue Labour is not the way forward

Former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once said, "The Labour Party is like a stage-coach. If you rattle along at great speed everybody is too exhilerated or too seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop everybody gets out and argues about where to go next." How right he was.

With Labour's savage defeat at the 2010 general election and subsequent return to the Opposition benches, many have been scratching their heads about what to do now no longer in power; where does the party go after 13 years of Blair, Brown and New Labour? It is, undoubtedly, an important question, and one all members should be asking themselves. It is also a difficult question. With recent Labour history having been so dominated by such a forceful and assured ideology (with a few forceful and assured figures to boot), it is obviously going to be hard to work out the party's purpose in the present day.

However, in this post, I would like to cover just one (very influential) idea which has come about as a result of this process - Blue Labour.

The man at the heart of this new tendency is Maurice Glasman, a political theorist and Labour peer. But it also has support from prominent backbench MP, Jon Cruddas, not to mention Ed Miliband himself, who wrote the preface to the group's main publication The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox.

I believe that Blue Labour, though it has some worthwhile ideas, is not the school of thought the Labour Party should adopt. And here's why.

I commend Maurice Glasman et al for identifying the fact that the Labour Party has lost the support of its core base - namely the working class. People who once considered Labour their natural choice are now voting otherwise, if at all. What's more, there has also been a rise in support for the far-right and racist British National Party. Does this mean that working class voters are all racist? In a word, no. During the New Labour years, the Labour Party grew further and further away from the working class voters it was supposed to represent. Under Tony Blair's leadership, the party cosied up to the bankers and the wealthy businessmen of the City. Labour grew increasingly friendly towards the market, freeing it even more from the shackles of regulation, allowing bonuses to soar to heights of monstrous stupidity. To put it bluntly, New Labour embraced, encouraged and espoused  neo-liberal economic policies. All the while, the Blair government adopted the rhetoric of "aspiration", "social mobility" and "meritocracy". Under New Labour, success in life was judged on the accumulation of wealth, and those who didn't climb the social ladder and leap longingly into the arms of middle classes only had themselves to blame. The party abandoned its working class voters, refusing to acknowledge that there was nothing wrong or shameful about not being middle class.

And did these neo-liberal policies improve the lives of the working class? Of course not. Like all capitalist dogma, neo-liberalism is grossly unfair. The working class had already suffered an assault on their very way of life by Margaret Thatcher - through the destruction of unions and industry. With Labour's victory in 1997, you would've been forgiven for thinking the party would set about ameliorating the problems inflicted by The Iron Lady's government. In some cases, they did. But for the most part, New Labour was nothing but a continuation of Thatcherism - working class jobs remained insecure, low-paid and non-unionised. It is no wonder that so many working class people felt alienated from and actively hostile towards what was once "their" party.

In times of recession and economic hardship, the extreme right always prospers. This is because these political parties offer easy and understandable solutions to people's problems; they provide them with a group to which direct all their hatred and anger. Ravaged by decades of policies which have a deleterious effects on their lives, many working class people inevitably began to support the BNP - because the BNP says, "Everything bad in your life is the fault of immigrants". It turns immigrants and foreigners into the convenient scapegoat. It is a myth, of course. And whole theses have been written on the overall benefits of immigration. But it is a myth with a lot of power. It is a myth, sadly, which Blue Labour buy into.

A key aspect of Blue Labour is social conservatism, and Maurice Glasman has said that he believes there should be a temporary ban on all immigration. By proposing these ideas, Blue Labour says: yes, immigrants are to blame for working class problems. This just simply isn't the case - the real blame for working class problems lies at the door of capitalism. It is capitalism and the relentless force of globalisation which has made working class life harder and harder. Blue Labour recognise this to an extent, urging a return to strong communities, co-operative businesses and a less enthusiastic embrace of consumerism. But at its core, Blue Labour is unacceptably welcoming of the immigrant-myth.

That is not to say the issue of immigration should not be debated. Indeed, I recognise integration is difficult and there will always be genuine racial friction among different groups. This has always been the case, and the way to overcome it is simple - education. Educate people about other cultures, about different ways of living, and soon prejudices slip away.

But immigration isn't the only aspect of Blue Labour policy which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The philosophy is, as afore mentioned, socially conservative. Their stance on crime is too right-wing. What's more, many have raised the issue that Blue Labour does not look very favourably of feminism. And then there is the phrase with which historian Dominic Sandbrook sums up Blue Labour - "family, faith and flag". I don't like that phrase, not one bit. Too often, "family values" means stay-at-home mum and go-to-work dad. "Faith", I believe, should not be a dictator in Labour policy (we do live, after all, in an increasingly non-religious society). And "flag" - well, it sounds a bit jingoistic. We can be proud of our country, of course, but that pride mustn't spill over into nationalism. Overall, this one phrase seems to be achingly nostalgic - looking back on a time where England consisted of happy little nuclear families, who all went to church on Sundays and rose immediately, hands on hearts, whenever the national anthem started playing. Like all nostalgia, it relies on an idealised view of the past.

Ultimately, Blue Labour does not go far enough in its critique of capitalism. It accepts the unwelcome effects of attachment to the free-market and the adoption of neo-liberal policies. But then it falls down in its position on immigration, which it side-steps, not truly confronting the root cause of working class racial tension. Its social policies are too conservative, and I will never embrace them.

So if not Blue Labour, what?

Personally, I would like to be a member of a Labour Party which admitted New Labour was wrong; though it did some good things, it didn't address the inequalities of British society. I would like to be a member of a Labour Party which said neo-liberal dogma and trickle-down economics are a recipe for disaster; they led to the global banking crisis, they made working class life in Britain harder. I believe the Labour Party must be radical in its approach. The Labour Party can offer a new way of looking at things. It can say, we put people before profit. It can say, we oppose the Tories' cuts and privatisation of public services. It can say, we are on the side of the workers. Ultimately, I want the Labour Party to offer the British people an alternative. I want the Labour Party to offer the British people socialism, to say - we could live our lives in a different way, in a free and open egalitarian society. We have lived for too long in a country bitterly acceptant of the fact that things are the way they are and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Now is the time for the Labour Party to make a stand and prove that that isn't the case. It can do it. And, with the Tories in power rapidly tearing to shreds the Attlee Settlement, it must. 

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