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“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

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain