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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage