Despised or Disorganised? Reflecting on Blue Labour | Edward Anderson
A decade on from Blue Labour architect Maurice Glasman being made a Life Peer, Edward looks back on a movement that never managed to fulfil the undoubted promise.
Time flies. I recently saw the article by Poppy Cockburn here about whether Labour is a viable vehicle for social conservatives and I was reminded that a decade ago, a most unlikely man was finding a way into the House of Lords. Or as Maurice himself would call it, “A place for those who have committed terrible crimes.”
It was an incredible rise for the chain-smoking Jewish Spurs fan, who up until then had been a relative obscure academic quietly doing some fantastic work in community organising. Of note was his work campaigning for a family wage within some of the poorest immigrant groups in London, a campaign that would morph into the Living Wage the UK sees today.
By the time I first met him in 2013, he had already been excommunicated from polite circles for his left-wing views on immigration (as in, he wasn’t a massive fan of allowing businesses to have a completely unlimited supply of labour) and for this he would be condemned. Those who had been sniffing around (including, hilariously, the at least two-time advertiser of unpaid internships and all around liberal Chuka Umunna) were quick to distance themselves and it looked like the road had run on this project. In many ways though this represented a release for Glasman, who was now unconcerned about needing to stick to the ‘correct’ line and started to draw a circle of others who were looking for a home.
People like Phillip Blond, whose excellent book Red Tory contained many of the ideas that Blue Labour would come to draw on, but had seen his philosophy side-lined after the 2010 election; or David Goodhart, who had found himself described as a “liberal Powellite” back in 2004 by Trevor Phillips (himself convicted of ‘wrong think’ since) for suggesting that too much diversity undermines the foundations on which left-wing politics is built. By 2013, Goodhart had crossed the Rubicon with his book The British Dream and had become persona non grata in the polite dinner circles he used to swim in.
From my perspective, I had come at this from my working-class background and a rather unhealthy obsession with fan owned football clubs. The great power of Maurice was he provided a language for those of us who had read our labour history, wanted the ‘good life’ to be possible for people who weren’t well off but had no desire to sign up to the right-wing liberalism of the modern progressive. It was just remarkably refreshing to have Maurice, as a House of Lords member come out and say: No, people aren’t evil scum for wanting to have a sense of stability and yes, there was more to left-wing politics than Polly Toynbee. It was as if someone had brought to life the pages of Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (read it) and it was chain smoking its way to creating a genuine space in the Labour Party for us again. So, what came next?
In honesty, nothing. At least nothing tangible and in many ways, the criticisms that Blue Labour made of the Labour Party (a lock out for those not living or working in London and obsessed with theory over action) were just as evident in Blue Labour. It was quick to identify the problems but where was the call to action that declared we are taking this a step further? That yes, we are going to start to support people (I don’t mean financially) who want to be Labour Cllrs and this is a real attempt to build up a place in the party where those now described as ‘somewheres’ can flock. Sadly, whilst your average bloke at 1874 Northwich was out there doing Blue Labour politics without realising it, Blue Labour was stuck in the seminar hall.
The referendum brought some action ably led by Brendan Chilton, it would start to see Paul Embery emerge (who was binned off by the FBU for campaigning on his own time against the EU) and on the night, the Blue Labour analysis had been shown to be correct. There was a significant base of traditional ex labour voters who swung that election. The EU result had saved Labour from the annihilation that UKIP would have delivered if the result had been to remain. Surely now was the chance to take that momentum and build a base of people who wanted to step it up for elections. Again, sadly not.
A well-known quote amongst you on here is that politics is about winning and the lack of any attempt to start to turn Blue Labour into an electoral force, as opposed to just a talking shop, meant that Blue Labour’s role seems to have been to just play Cassandra. That’s really of little comfort to those of us who could not afford to live in London. Blue Labour is described as a pressure group but to do that you actually have to apply, you know, pressure. When you have zero councillors and practically no membership support, why should anyone else care?
After organising one final event in October of 2016 at the home of Enfield Town FC, I had exhausted all options and had to bugger off. I would see Maurice one more time, when I briefly lived in Birmingham and he was speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in 2018. He was still turning a phrase in between fag breaks (“that’s how I think of liberalism, as a kind of illness.”) but it seemed the moment to build something greater had passed. In 2019, the problem Blue Labour had foreseen and warned about came to pass, with the annihilation of Labour in working class areas out of the London fiefdom. Again though, what had Blue Labour actually done about it since 2016?
Was it all a waste of time? Well personally there are still people who, despite meeting only briefly, have left a lasting impressing. People like Michael Merrick, whose talk on the human price working class people must pay to even attempt a move up the social ladder is required listening. Perhaps most surprisingly is that in America, there are conservatives such as Oren Cass at American Compass now attempting to form a post-liberal consensus. The language of worker representation, an industrial policy and promoting the revitalisation of Trade Unions all sounds eerily similar to what Blue Labour was calling for over a decade ago.
In many ways, intellectually Blue Labour has been more of a success than most. For me though, the real tragedy of Blue Labour is not that it failed to get working class people back into the Labour Party or that it didn’t build a base of local councillors who could embody Blue Labour values in practical politics. It isn’t even that it failed to build a pathway for all of us outside London’s magic circle. No, sadly I can’t help but feel that the real failure is far worse… It’s that Blue Labour never really tried.