Show Hide image

“I didn’t go into politics to be a hero to the Mail"

When Maurice Glasman called for a freeze on immigration, his fellow Blue Labour supporters distanc

Until very recently, I would not have believed that I would share with Rupert Murdoch the need to make a public apology. But though I would not go so far as to say that this is the most humble day in my life, it does rank with the worst of them.

There are rules that you learn in community organising that inform effective action. "Relationships precede action" is an important one and "Don't allow the position to move ahead of the relationships" is another. A third might be "Don't engage in theoretical speculation in the Fabian Review". I have been punished, and rightly so, for forgetting rules I used to teach and it has felt quite wretched. There is a saying in Italian that there are two kinds of idiot, and the bigger idiot is the one who didn't mean it.

Being described as the "voice of reason" by the Daily Mail is not, as David Cameron says of the cuts, "what I went into politics for". The worst part of it is that Blue Labour is a form of collegial politics, the work of many hands with varied opinions. It was just beginning to find its common themes - about relationships, power and action, democratic resistance to the exploitative pressure of capitalism, broad-based coalitions in support of the common good that defy power elites, and the radical potential of tradition - when the Fabian Review piece was republished in the Daily Telegraph on 18 July. Then it was suddenly all about immigration.

I am sorry for the crassness and thoughtlessness with which my views on immigration were expressed. I made a few mistakes early on and should have learned the lessons. It did not cross my mind that anyone could think that I support the English Defence League (EDL), which I consider a thuggish and violent organisation. When I said in an interview with Progress magazine in April that we should listen to supporters of the EDL, I was arguing that the best way to defeat fascist organisations is to engage with their supporters in a politics of the common good that addresses issues of family housing and safer streets, the living wage and a cap on interest rates.

These are policies that defy market distributions and strengthen the form of common life that we call democratic politics. In the Progress interview, I was making the point that these were not really features of New Labour and that there is a relationship between disconnected elites and right-wing populism. I thought it was an internal discussion with eight Labour Party members and one who couldn't decide whether to renew. But it ended up in the Sun. If I had known that would happen, I would not have used the term "EDL" or said Labour had "lied" about the extent of immigration.

This was a big mistake on my part, as Labour's tradition has always been defined by building relationships between those who are divided: immigrants and local people, atheists and believers, men and women. I knew that the biggest danger was that this would be mistaken for right-wing populism, because the language of Blue Labour is vivid and emotional. It is patriotic, and tries to honour what is honoured by people and work with that. It was a mistake, but I thought I could be forgiven because it was the first time and I had to learn. I vowed to stress in future that this was an anti-fascist, broad-based, democratic and relational politics.

My argument is that Labour was robust in defeating fascism and communism precisely because it had the faithful support of a working class that was loyal to its own form of radical traditionalism. There is a battle with a nationalist politics going on in England and, to win it, we need to work with people whom we have lost; people who feel abandoned and betrayed. Our elite institutions, the City, parliament, the police and the media, are all corrupted in the eyes of the people.

That is the root of fascism: a rage against invisible power and the will to destroy the hold that the elite have over honest, hard-working people. It is also the source of the Labour tra­dition, which emerged from the limits of liberalism and Marxism and argued for ­organised resistance to the rule of the rich through the democratic renewal of ancient ­institutions. This was to be achieved through broad-based organising
between estranged communities: Catholic and Protestant, the skilled and the unskilled.

Labour represents a sublime tradition that I am only just beginning to appreciate. We defeated fascism in Britain with ease, and were not undermined by Stalinists or Trotskyites. For a large part of its history, Labour worked with the idea of a democratic constitution within firms, so that workers would be treated with respect and have power in their working lives. The honouring of work, and its degradation by capitalism, were the common experiences that brought people together and around which Labour organised. There is still exploitation at work; and there are still issues of corporate governance and vocational training and standards that can form the basis of a Labour politics of the common good. That is the point I wanted to make, but it didn't come out that way.

My conversation with the Fabians has been crucial in developing my arguments. So when they asked for an interview I felt honour-bound; and I respect the interviewer, Mary Riddell, whom I find intelligent and fair-minded. I still do. She came to my flat and we spoke on my kitchen balcony. The conversation was wide-ranging and enjoyable. The only problem was that I forgot it was an interview and when I remembered, I thought, it's the Fabians, they'll understand. It ended up on the front page of the Telegraph and then in the Daily Express.

In the part of the conversation about immigration, I was pursuing an argument about democratic politics, not stating a position. Mary asked what I would do about it when there was nothing anyone could do because of European Union law. The first response should have been to say that we need to reimagine the EU. It began as a partnership between Germany and France to resist the commodification of land. The German social market economy, with its vocational training, city parliaments, worker representation on boards and regional banks, is a huge inspiration for me and for others involved in Blue Labour. It has proved more successful than our financially driven, transferrable skills economy. I wrote my PhD on the German social market economy (published as a book, Unnecessary Suffering, in 1996). German ordoliberalism and the social and Christian democratic traditions have all provided important insights, which I have drawn upon in my own thinking. The German social market economy has also proved superior to its rivals in terms of innovation and change. This is a big deal.

The European Union should be about strong city democracy and pro­tection of vocational institutions that preserve knowledge, trust and ethics. Instead, we've got the free movement of capital and people, an EU built around bank takeovers. A crucial part of the Blue Labour agenda is reimagining the EU and returning it to its original principles, which were about strengthening the democratic resistance to a free market in labour and land, in human beings and nature.

I think Labour should take the lead in building democratic alliances across Europe to reassert both democratic politics and international solidarity. I have good relationships with academics and politicians all over Europe who are thinking the same thing - people who are, like me, disappointed with the EU and who wish to see it change.

The cornerstone of my approach to internationalism is my total commitment to free and democratic trade unions in China. The workers there are being exploited without being able to organise resistance to their degradation. We need to support free and democratic trade unions all over the world and renew our organisational solidarity. No one benefits from a low-wage economy other than bosses and tyrants. This is part of the renewal of Labour as a force for democracy and liberty.

Instead of saying all that, I made the argument that a free and democratic people are capable of making their own decisions about immigration and that "we are not an outpost of the UN". That included stopping immigration. What I did not say was that, in the debate, we must be sympathetic to both the immigrant and local populations. They can do harm to each other, or they can build a common life together in which differences and common interests are recognised.

The most important consideration concerns the conditions of poor workers: they should not be played off against each other and nor should newcomers be used to implement a de facto incomes policy that undermines working arrangements, both tacit and formal. This does not lead to economic efficiency or innovation, but to a low-wage, high-churn economy that guarantees neither status nor security for the workers.

For the past decade I have worked through London Citizens with faith communities, many of them immigrant churches and mosques. This has been transformative for me. I have learned that many immigrants put great emphasis on their faith and that this is to be respected. It is precisely because it is necessary to build a common life with new neighbours that we should try to understand their conception of the good and work together on what can be agreed.

The Living Wage Campaign was created and driven by faith communities as a common expression of their conception of the good. In an exploitative system driven by the creation of insatiable desires, we need all the good we can get. The renewal in the years ahead of the common life of our cities, from a combination of new materials, the creation of novel forms of civic life and relational solidarity, is an in­spiring prospect.

What I have learned, above all, is that the present political economy leads to the exploitation of both local and immigrant. If I had been talking about this with Mary seriously, and not casually, I would have mentioned my support for the regularisation of illegal immigrants and my work with the Strangers Into Citizens campaign. I would have spoken more considerately about how hard it is to generate solidarity among people who do not know each other. I would have said that the levels of immigration over the past years have been unprecedented in our history, and how important it is to recognise both the challenge and the possibilities that flow from this. As it was, I talked about what it was possible for a democratic polity to do in principle.

It was a failed action that generated the wrong reaction. It generated not debate, but denunciation; it did not improve relationships but threatened them. It was bad political craftsmanship, and that is unforgivable. There is great energy and beauty in Blue Labour when it strives towards the common good by building alliances and relationships between estranged positions. There is much wrong, however, when it stumbles into an ugly position without honouring the complexity of the ethics and human concerns. Agitation ought to be for a purpose, and this was conversational arrogance. If you mess up, you "eat crow", as they say in the US. That's a golden rule, and I have had to eat loads, and will have to eat more before the true position can be heard once more.

Ed Miliband has opened up great possibilities with his handling of the Murdoch affair. There are now dreams to dream: about the BBC as a regional force for the public interest and for local accountability, vocational training and broadcasting of music; of a renewed local press funded by local banks and owned by local people; of introducing a balance of interest within every institution, in every sector; of a bold Labour politics that brings hope and energy to the people and is worthy of their renewed ­respect and trust.

It ill be a relief to many that I intend to take a vow of silence for the summer. I will reflect on what I have done right and what I have done wrong. And I shall learn from my experience. I will ask how I can help Labour generate a winning agenda by bringing politics and power to people who are alone and bereft, and a vocation and childcare to those without assets. For the vices of arrogance, vanity and carelessness, I am sorry.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at London Metropolitan University

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror