What became of Blue Labour?

A year later, there's barely a sight of the buzzword. But its ideas live on, writes Rowenna Davis.

Whatever happened to Blue Labour? Last year I wrote a book about a term that was causing political circles to chatter . Now the name has almost dropped out of existence. Its founder, Lord Maurice Glasman, has effectively been under house arrest in the second chamber after a string of controversial outbursts, the latest on this website. But one year on, Blue Labour is still the rising philosophy of Ed Miliband’s party. The players, the relationships and the policies are having an effect. The name might not be there, but the influence is.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech is set to focus on “predistribution”. Although the term is diabolically policy-wonkish, the concept is spot on. The starting position of Blue Labour is that previous governments were too hands off with the market and too hands on with the state. Predistribution wants us to change that balance. If you force employers to pay the living wage for example, then you don’t have to worry about correcting in work poverty through tax credits. This is central to Blue Labour’s call on the party to value hard work and reduce dependency, and it’s supported by shadow minister Rachel Reeves in a new Fabian pamphlet outlining Miliband’s ideas.

Ed Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” is underpinned by this philosophy. Take the leader’s emphasis on energy companies. If we split up this oligopolistic market and force the companies to compete, we would encourage them to suck out less in profit and dedicate more revenue to improving their offer to customers. Crucially, that means there would be less demand for winter fuel allowance. Similarly, demanding workers’ representation on the boards of companies would give them the chance to challenge fat cat salaries, and call for more profits to be given in wages. Improving vocational education is another way of increasing wages without relying on state redistribution. In economic terms, it’s developing a supply side policy for the left. To your average voter, it’s a way of making a real difference to people’s lives without spending huge amounts of money.

It’s true to say that Glasman is not as close to Ed Miliband as he once was, but he remains tight with people who are. Lord Stewart Wood is a big fan of Germany’s model of worker representation and vocational education, and Marc Stears, one of Ed Miliband’s best friends from university, is working at the heart of the leader’s office. They are both longstanding friends of Glasman.

Meanwhile, Jon Cruddas MP has been chosen to lead Labour’s policy review. Cruddas has been one of the biggest fans of Blue Labour in the parliamentary party (not that this says much) and his close friend Jonathan Rutherford is very close with Glasman. Ed Miliband knew that when he made the appointment. Cruddas is already showing his Blue streak, particularly his call for a referendum on EU membership. We can also expect to see calls for a decentralisation of the state, and a focus on what kind of society we want to build together, rather than an obsession with what processes we want to get there. The conference slogan championed by Cruddas – “Rebuilding Britain” – came from Glasman before anyone else.

The third area where Blue Labour is influencing the party is less well known, but still highly important. A new man has come to work in Ed Milband’s team, focusing on party organisation. Arnie Graf has come from the United States with a long track record of community organising, which Glasman has always admired. Older and wiser than your frantic special adviser stereotype, his gentle but strong manner has won round people from surprising quarters in the party, and last year he was given permission to conduct a root and branch review of its organisation. His report was never published, but he called on the party to open up, raising the possibility of open primaries and less top down control from London. Now he’s taking leave from his work in the US to continue here, and he remains something of a trusted elder to the Labour leader. Few know that it was Glasman who first convinced Graf to come over from the US, and that he was personally responsible for introducing him to the Labour leader.

Whilst all this is happening, Lord Glasman is not sitting still or acting alone. Out of the media spotlight he’s beavering away, building alliances and making new friends. This summer a big conference was held on the “Common Good” – members of the green movement and women’s groups were there alongside MPs and faith groups to discuss how to take the agenda forward. Glasman is also forming links with unions, particularly those representing the private sector, about how they can work together. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also working with the people of Dover to stop the privatisation of their port. A perfect campaign for Blue Labour, it’s about reengaging with the South, supporting private sector workers and mutual ownership. The relationships, the policies, the players – there’s a lot going on. It might not be called Blue Labour, but a rose by another other name…

A ferry sails past the Port of Dover, site of some very Blue Labourish goings-on. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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