Memo to Blue Labourites: tone down the nostalgia

There was no golden age and the party must not idealise the working class.

Cast your mind back to the Labour Party conference in Manchester last year. For the gaggle of assembled political journalists, pundits and television cameras, various moments in the new leader's speech on 28 September stood out: the story of his Jewish parents fleeing the Holocaust and arriving on our shores as refugees; the call to a "new generation" of Labour "optimists"; his promise not to oppose the government just for the sake of it; and his defence of civil liberties and denunciation of the invasion of Iraq - prompting his brother, David, to voice his displeasure from the audience.

My ears, however, pricked up when the younger Miliband reached the section on "the good life". "We must be on the side of communities who want to save their local post office, not be the people trying to close it," he declared. "We must be on the side of people trying to protect their high street from looking like every other high street, not the people who say that's just the forces of progress."

Miliband concluded this particular section of his speech with the line: ". . . the good life is about the things we do in our community and the time we spend with family." It wasn't the rhetoric that we had become used to hearing from Labour frontbenchers - least of all Labour frontbenchers of the Brownite, statist variety. This wasn't "Red Ed", the caricature promoted by right-wing media commentators and Blairite supporters of his elder brother; this was "Blue Ed", emphasising the value of local communities and neighbourhoods, of human relationships above economic relationships.

Pitfalls

Blue Ed - the Miliband that is getting married, signs his name to his (second) son's birth certificate and speaks of the "good society" - is a fan of "Blue Labour", a political tendency launched by an academic named Maurice Glasman at Conway Hall, London, in April 2009. It wants to reclaim the reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity that Glasman says defined the Labour Party before the advent of the "remote, bossy and managerial" welfare state in 1945.

Ennobled in the New Year Honours List, Glasman has free access to Miliband and is often seen ambling around the leader's suite of offices in the Norman Shaw South parliamentary building. He has been the subject of profiles and interviews in the Guardian, Observer and Prospect, and on the pages of this magazine three weeks ago. On 15 April, the Blairite commentator Philip Collins, writing in the Times, said that the Blue Labour account of the party's decline "seems to me bang on the money".

Is it? Some of the criticism of Glasman from Labour traditionalists has been misguided and ill-informed. In a bizarre intervention this month, the singer and activist Billy Bragg tried to link Blue Labour thinking to "free-market dogma" and an "economically liberal agen­da". But Blue Labour, like its civic communitarian counterpart in the Conservative Party, "Red Toryism" (© Phillip Blond), wants to tame the excesses of global capitalism. Glasman has been at the forefront of community organising inside the City of London and, in particular, the campaign for a living wage.

Yet there are several pitfalls that the nascent Blue Labour tendency must avoid falling into if it is to influence Labour's ideological and policy direction between now and 2015.

First, it mustn't demonise the state. To pretend that the state is the font of all evil plays into the hands of the small-state, free-market right - in David Cameron's dishonest formulation: "It is more government that got us into this mess." In fact, the state, not society, rescued Britain from the collapse of the banks.

We can all agree that inefficient, impersonal and bureaucratic government, big or small, is a bad thing. But the state, in and of itself, is not, as Ronald Reagan once claimed, "the problem". To quote another president - Barack Obama, in his speech this month on the US budget deficit - it is because of the government that "we've built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce . . . Each of us has benefited from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result."

Second, Blue Labour must not demonise immigration. Glasman attracted the attention of the Daily Mail and Daily Express on 16 April when he was quoted as saying: "Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration . . . and there's been a massive rupture of trust." However, blaming migrants for a lack of decent housing or secure jobs sits oddly with a world-view that also recognises the destabilising nature of global capitalism and financial markets.

Golden years

Blue Labour types tend to idealise working-class communities and turn a blind eye to enduring racism (and misogyny) in those groups. Glasman believes Gordon Brown's ill-fated encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale last year symbolised New Labour's hatred for working-class people. Not only is this sweeping hyperbole but Duffy, let's recall, referred disparagingly to eastern Europeans "flocking" to this country.

My anxiety is that Blue Labour advocates, obsessed with winning back the fabled C2 voters, are willing to take the words of the late Tory MP Eric Forth as their motto: "There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted and they need to be represented." But, as one of Glasman's fellow-travellers, the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, has argued, if Labour becomes the voice of a "sour, shrill, hopeless politics it will die".

Third, Blue Labour must avoid idealising the past. Community and family ties may have been defining characteristics of the past, but so were disease, poverty, homelessness and racial and sexual discrimination. Memo to Maurice: tone down the nostalgia.

“Glasman is on another planet," says a shadow cabinet minister. "He has this romantic, nostalgic view of a Labour Party that never really existed. When I joined my local party as a teenager, there were six people at the branch meeting. There was no golden age."

Forget the past for a moment. What does the future hold for Glasman and his distinctive views? A senior member of Team Ed tells me that Miliband is deeply enamoured by the Blue Labour approach to society and the state. But is this just a case of a new leader looking for innovative thinking? And how long will it last? The omens aren't great. Just ask Phillip Blond.