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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.