Blue Labour is over but the debate has just begun

To give voice to the mood of the country, Labour must be both conservative and radical.

On Tuesday Peter Mandelson and Socialist Worker both attacked Blue Labour. Both used name calling to score political points. Both missed the most obvious point. Blue Labour no longer exists. Call it a movement, call it a project, call it what you like, last week the small group of people associated with the Blue Labour idea disbanded itself. The article by Maurice in this week's New Statesman does not alter this fact.

The brand was destroying the politics. Where there should have been dialogue there was growing polarisation. Instead of care around sensitive issues there has been the political equivalent of ram-raiding. The idea that debate involves 'throwing grenades' wins some headlines but only encourages a counter reaction; back came the grenades. Stoking controversy is good for the media but after a time it becomes lousy for the politics.

The debate which started only last year in May 2010 now needs to broaden itself out and involve more people. The e-book The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox was never the 'Blue Labour bible'. It was about beginning a vigorous and open debate about Labour's future. We need to develop it both across the Labour Party and outside it.

Labour's future does not lie with Blue Labour, nor does it lie with New Labour, but with a synthesis of ideas and politics. It means understanding the conjuncture we are in in order to create a winning electoral politics that will transform the country for the better.

I would argue that this conjuncture requires Labour's politics in England to be both conservative and radical. If Labour can inhabit this paradox and capture its insights it will give voice to the mood of the country. The future is conservative. I do not mean it will be Conservative with a political upper case 'C' - the right has no understanding of this moment. Nor do I mean it will be conservative with a lower case social 'c'. Rather it will be characterised by a social and cultural mood that Raymond Williams calls a 'structure of feeling'. This mood exists on the edge of our collective vocabulary and it has yet to find articulation in politics. If Labour can give it a voice, it has the opportunity to construct a new hegemony.

This mood is about a desire to conserve, protect and improve the fundamental elements of social life which are people's relationships and family, their sense of belonging and identity, the continuity of home and place, and the human need for social security. When individuals have these goods they can aspire and strive for something more in their lives. When too many people lack these goods, society is divided, anxious, insecure, and distrustful. This is currently the condition of England following three decades of deindustrialisation, globalisation and market-driven reforms.

The morbid symptoms of this condition erupt into the body politic in rage against immigration and, amongst a disturbing number, a suspicion and hatred of Islam. There is a deeply felt grievance at the unfairness of a system which does not seem to care about the hard working who live by the rules. It's a belief that those who need help don't get it, while those who don't deserve it get all they want. The upshot is that people with long term illnesses and disabilities are scape-goated and accused of being benefit cheats. Ask people about England and many answer that the English look like a beaten people living in a country without a future for its children. There is a loss of hope and its absence creates a corrosive cynicism: politicians line their pockets, the banks steal, and the media lie and cheat. A feral elite is a law unto itself as it steals from the common wealth and pursues its own selfish interests. Here we are, living in a disorientated culture unable to answer the question it keeps throwing up at us - who are we?

Yes, its a crude and simplistic description. It doesn't take account of the good things that we have, but I'd argue that this is the mood that will shape our politics over the next few years.

The economic historian Carlota Perez has made a strong case for why such times as our own can give rise to collective desires for reform and reparation. She argues that successive technological revolutions over the last two centuries have created distinct surges of economic development that progressively extend capitalism into people's lives and facilitate its expansion across the planet. In these surges, the productive structure and the institutions of governance and society are transformed by the driving force of finance led capital accumulation. The revolutionising of the instruments and forces of production extends commodification and market relations into society. Old ways of life disappear, or they lose their former preeminence and coexist with the new.

In the last three decades Britain has been experiencing this kind of finance-driven capital accumulation that has powered the transition from the Fordist era of mass production to the age of new information and communication technologies. Perez argues that these kinds of transformation always end in an economic crisis, followed by a period in which there exists political opportunities to rebuild productive capital and create institutions for a more equitable society.

Marx would disagree with this evolutionary economics and the primacy it gives to technology as an determining force, but it nevertheless echoes his description of capitalist modernity as a world in which, 'all that is solid melts into air'. Socialism has been about conserving human values and society against this destructiveness. Today as the neo-liberal hegemony begins to fragment there exists an opportunity in the decade ahead to rebuild the counter-movement and construct a new left of centre hegemony. The future is conservative, and it will be radical. Blue Labour might be over but the political debate has only just begun.

Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories