Blue Labour. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty, colour cast New Statesman
Show Hide image

How to win the future: why Blue Labour is the way forward

In a world so highly individualised, what we need is a cultural rather than an economic politics.

Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics
Edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst
I B Tauris, 288pp, £14.99

Only those who do not realise where politics is going will dismiss Blue Labour as a work of nostalgia. It is a book of – and about – the future. It charts from the perspective of the British working classes what has happened to them as a result of the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. For the authors of its essays, the outcomes are clear: family breakdown, social isolation, economic impoverishment and a creeping desperation for a less eroded and more meaningful life.

In this analysis, the essayists are largely right and they are not alone. Across Europe, values-based polling confirms that working-class people in the developed world have not benefited from globalisation. Their wages are too low. They fear for their families and neighbourhoods; more generally, they fear for their country. Unprecedented rates of immigration coupled with a metropolitan sneer at their values have “un-homed” the bottom third of our society. Little wonder that the Union is at risk and people are voting for the SNP in Scotland and Ukip in England. But this just marks the Europeanisation of British politics, from Sinn Féin in Ireland to the Front National in France. Nationalism and protectionism are where the masses go if the elites abandon them.

This, broadly, is the assessment of the Blue Labour movement. Frank Field notes in his remarkable essay that, since 1997, Labour support has fallen by five million votes. During this time, the electorate grew by 1.8 million. The number of non-voters in 2010 – 15.9 million – was greater than the votes cast for Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. The skilled working classes have been abandoning Labour and Labour cannot win without them. Field outlines the value gap between metropolitan Labour and the working class. He identifies a cosmopolitan disdain for patriotism and the endorsement of a social allocation system “that favours the newcomer and the social misfit” over those who exhibit decades-long civility and good behaviour.

The collection is an illuminating and at times moving account of a party that would like to reconnect with its base and its raison d’être. We have some policy ideas but not many – Blue Labour is primarily a statement of principle and an endorsement of the politics of high romantic idealism. In this, again, the authors are right –  voters are first moved by big ideas and then can be made loyal by the policies that realise them.

Here is the rub: there is little in Blue Labour to attract middle-class voters and too little to attract working-class people either. Despite its forward-looking stance, the language of the movement remains too trapped in the class it wants to restore as its foundation. The organised working class has gone and will not return. In its place, there are the shattered remnants of low-skill occupations (call centre workers, cleaners and low-level administrators), sole traders such as plumbers and small businesses that are struggling and doing well in probably equal measure.

Most labour forms are unorganised and are likely to remain so. Few on either side of the political divide think that the public-sector union model in teaching or council services works well. In the eyes of the successful, organised labour doesn’t reward talent and allows free-riders to benefit from others’ hard work. For the unsuccessful, organisation alone will not solve their chronic problems. The unions won’t raise workers’ wages or skill levels and they won’t embrace their wider needs. Tom Watson hints that unions should be involved in training and this is surely the right direction but I fear that few see the benefits of the community organisations extolled by Blue Labour.

Human beings are rational in their romanticism: they know what will benefit and what will harm them. There has been no convincing account, from left or right, of how ordinary people in the developed world can resist the damage wrought by globalisation. This is what Blue Labour should speak to and at times it does – in David Goodhart’s brave work on immigration, for example. Perhaps what is most of all lacking in the movement is any operational idea of an economically self-empowering society. The idea of a citizenry that is not wholly reliant on wages but owns and produces its assets and uses the public estate as a means of economic and social advancement would be more radical than simplistic and hopeless opposition to capitalism. This would be to rescue the “big society” from its abasement at the hands of those who see it as only a vehicle for volunteering. There is a modern world that can be spoken to and transformed but Blue Labour cannot yet reach it, because its focus rests on 19th-century models rather than those of the 21st century.

In a world so highly individualised, what we need is a cultural rather than an economic politics. Given that the governing metropolitan middle class believes in very little other than power, sex and shopping, repudiating this corrupted order would be both right and highly popular. In an impressive essay, John Milbank asks: if “the typical object of desire is still thought of as a commodity consumable by the individual in isolation”, what can we do to change what is desired? He answers by pointing out that this ignores the relational goods that we most value – family, friendship, love and communities. Similarly, we tend to tire of low-quality goods such as junk food and trash TV but derive more lasting happiness from higher-quality products. Can we re-create a culture that values both relational goods and quality products? This seems a more productive route than longing after earlier forms of working-class life. If we can recapture the Reithian spirit of the BBC in which equality doesn’t mean “all becoming the same”, as its contemporary advocates see it, but “equal access to things that are great”, that might be a revolutionary start.

It is here that Blue Labour hits the right tone – for example, in Michael Merrick’s passionate reinvention of social conservatism and in his defence of the traditional family, or Ruth Yeoman’s powerful description of the human need for meaningfulness. In a reversal of Marxism, it is the cultural superstructure that determines the economic base: better to begin from what people love before building a programme based on what we have lost.

Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst are to be congratulated. This is a wonderful collection that presents an alternative not yet pursued. Since, at the time of writing, the two main parties are tied in the polls and trailing well short of a majority, the first party to embrace a positive – rather than a reactionary – transformation in principles and policies will win the future. This is a start. For the sake of all that is valuable, let us hope it succeeds.

Phillip Blond is the author of “Red Tory” (Faber & Faber) and the director of the think tank ResPublica

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496