Voice of the heartlands

Maurice Glasman was an obscure academic living above a shop in Hackney when he was made a peer. Now,

In January, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, addressed the annual conference of the Fabian Society. His speech was a prolonged mea culpa for the sins of New Labour in government. To those who had deserted it at the 2010 general election, the party, he said, appeared to have been "in thrall to a vision of the market that seemed to place too little importance on the values, institutions and relationships that people cherish the most". The remedy? "Rooting our values in traditions and ideas that go beyond the bureaucratic state and the overbearing market."

Attentive listeners will have been struck by the rhetorical similarities of this speech with some of what Miliband's elder brother, David, had said during the Labour leadership campaign last summer. In the Keir Hardie Lecture that he delivered last July, David, too, had talked about the need for Labour to revive some of its dormant traditions. "A life fit for human beings," he declared, "is about more than money and benefits. It's about responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory, values that used to be engraved upon the Labour heart."

It was refreshing and, frankly, a little disconcerting to hear a left-of-centre politician speak in this way - especially one as closely identified with the New Labour project as the elder Mili­band. Gone were the bloodless platitudes about "fairness" and in their place were the language of virtue, "love" and "friendship" and an appeal to a specifically English tradition of personal liberty and independence.

As is often the case with speeches of this kind, the lecture was the work of several hands. One hand was especially prominent: that of the north London-based Jewish academic and community organiser Maurice Glasman, born in 1961, who until recently had been toiling in relative obscurity as a lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University. "I worked very closely with David on the Keir Hardie speech," Glasman tells me. "It was a very good experience but he did not put [my ideas] at the centre of his agenda."

Now, it looks as if the younger Miliband is doing just that. In November 2010, Glasman received a phone call from the Labour leader's office. "They said, 'Would you like to be a lord?'" In February, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill in the London Borough of Hackney. (Glasman is a north-east London patriot: he lives in a flat above a shop in Stoke Newington and supports Tottenham Hotspur.)

I meet him at the House of Lords. At the entrance, we negotiate a slightly uneasy encounter with the Labour peer Michael Levy, a patron of the Jewish Free School in north London, where Glasman studied before going on to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, to read modern history. He is far more comfortable joshing with catering staff and porters as we try to find our way through a labyrinth of narrow passages to the terrace of the Palace of Westminster, where he wants to smoke a roll-up.

Once we're settled at a table overlooking the Thames, Glasman tells me about the reaction of his "working-class" family members, his students and the "secretaries at work" to his ennoblement. "There were tears of joy and a sense that this was a recognition of a life's work that they are connected to." But from his "middle-class" family and colleagues, "There was just a sneery: 'Oh, this must have been a very difficult decision for you.'"

The loathing that his colleagues displayed for the institution into which Glasman had just been inducted is typical, he says, of a political "rationalism that I think is completely unreasonable". It is contemptuous of inherited institutions and regards tradition as "synonymous with conservatism". This attitude drove the constitutional hyperactivity of the early New Labour years, the legacy of which is, Glasman thinks, an unresolved "question of England". "There is a political void where England should be," he has written. "While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy devolved government, the English do not govern themselves."

Glasman's critique of the botched constitutional settlement that New Labour left behind is part of a much bigger story he tells about an English political tradition that the left has ignored for too long. What he calls "Blue Labour" ("blue" because it stresses a conservative strain in Labour ideology) is about getting the party to see that it belongs in a long "national tradition of resistance" to various forms of domination, from the Norman conquest, through the enclosures, to the Industrial Revolution.

By this account, the Labour Party's commitment to "parliamentary socialism" is not, as the Milibands' Marxist theorist father, Ralph, maintained, an aberration or wrong turn, but rather its very essence. Glasman has emphasised Labour's historic "attachment to the language and sensibility of the politics of the common good and [its] commitment to a central role for the inherited institutions of governance that represented the interests of what used to be known as 'the commons'".

“England was alone in Europe," he tells me, "in that we didn't go for the sovereign will on the one side, nor the divine right of kings on the other, but, in essence, resisted the Norman conquest through an assertion of both liberty and tradition. I see Labour as the embodiment of that tradition in modern times."

If the mention of "liberty" and "tradition" evokes Edmund Burke as much as it does Ernest Bevin, that is no accident. The historian and former Labour MP David Marquand remembers the first time he met Glasman. "It was at a talk I gave about Burke. There was a debate between me and Anthony Barnett, who was saying all sorts of anti-Burke things. Glasman waded in very powerfully on my side of the argument." Some liberal commentators have ridiculed Glasman's eulogies to Burke and his fondness for Tudor statecraft, suggesting that there is something unworldly about his vision of merrie England. It is not immediately obvious what purchase such ideas could have on a world in which, as the Times columnist David Aaronovitch puts it, "People . . . have a power they enjoy using - to decide for themselves what shower gel to use, where to go on holiday and . . . where to live and work."

But Glasman would say that liberals routinely overestimate people's ability to choose where to live and work and that, at the same time, they downplay the corrosive effects that a flexible labour market can have on settled ways of life. Here, he borrows from the work of the Hungarian political theorist Karl Polanyi, who argued that the labour movement emerged in the 19th century as a form of "social defence" against the dislocations that accompanied the development of a "self-regulating market".

In the last two decades of the 20th century, the institutions that had been erected as checks on the market atrophied, where they did not wither away altogether. While in government, first under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, Labour did nothing to stop that process. "Both Blair and Brown," Glasman says, "signed up to a capitalist-progressive form of globalisation, in which working-class people were the biggest enemies of change.

“The irony of it was that there was no signi­ficant private-sector growth. Instead, we got all of the pathologies of globalisation: endless churn, disconnection, and so on."

Just deserts

Glasman qualifies his assessment of the New Labour years. "Where Blair will always be superior to Brown is that he didn't accept that the welfare state was OK as it stood. The paternalistic money transfer to the poor as long as they stayed in their place - he didn't accept that. Brown [had] an uncritical approach to the market and the state. At least Blair had some critical views of the state, though an uncritical view of the market."

James Purnell, who got to know Glasman after resigning from the cabinet in June 2009, says that a significant chunk of the Labour Party membership was "completely in tune with New Labour on poverty, on welfare and on work. But it was more sceptical of Tony Blair on globalisation. Maurice is that tradition made flesh." This is a direction in which Ed Miliband may be less willing to follow, however - for, as well as emphasising the values of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity, Glasman gives the notion of just deserts a prominence that it has not previously had.

Debates on the centre left about redistributive questions have been dominated in recent years by a conception of justice as "fairness" - a conception derived from the work of the American political philosopher John Rawls. But as Purnell points out: "At its most simplistic, the Rawlsian theory would say that even our ability to put in a shift is morally neutral. There is something about [this] view that abstracts from the reality that some people work hard and some people don't. And if you don't recognise that, you are leaving out something that is not only popular with the electorate but is key to our moral vision."

Marquand concurs and observes that, for all the talk of love and friendship, this is not a particularly "soft-hearted" tradition. "There is an element in all this," he suggests, "that chimes with the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor." It is not clear that Miliband would be comfortable with such a muscular outlook. But, in any case, Glasman is under no illusions about how far his writ with the Labour leader runs. "There's no way on earth that this is going to come out as a Blue Labour agenda. But that's not the point. The point is that we are part of a project with some intellectual energy and I'm really interested to see how it moves."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

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