The Blue Labour band gets back together

It was "quite a moment", said Jon Cruddas, to be considering the legacy of Clement Attlee. The Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham had been invited to deliver the inaugural Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College, Oxford.

Addressing an audience of about a hundred people - dons, undergraduates and a handful of distinguished visitors off the train from London - in a scruffy second-floor lecture room, Cruddas drew attention to a set of demands issued earlier the same day (28 October) by Occupy LSX, the group encamped by the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. (His son is involved in the Occupy movement in Edinburgh, where he is at university.)

In calling for "democratisation" of the institutions of the City of London, Cruddas observed, the protesters had evoked the memory of Labour's greatest prime minister - Attlee once declared that the City of London was a "convenient shorthand for a collection of financial interests . . . able to assert itself against the government of the country".

Now, we tend not to associate such expressions of unalloyed radicalism with the man disparaged by his first chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Dalton, as a "little mouse" and belittled by Michael Foot as the "beneficiary [in 1945] of a victory he had done little to contrive". More familiar, though, is what Cruddas called the "orthodox Attlee" - bloodless, taciturn and modest (a man with "a lot to be modest about", as Churchill is supposed to have said), a "centraliser and a statist" whose administration took it as axiomatic that the man in Whitehall knows best and treated nationalisation not as a means to the ends of social justice, but rather as an end in itself.

It has been powerfully argued, Cruddas went on, that Attlee's victory in 1945, far from being the party's high-water mark, was in fact the moment that it all started to go wrong for Labour - that this was when it forgot about the depredations of unaccountable power of the kind represented
by the City and began instead to make a fetish of collective ownership. Cruddas noted, with a smile, that among those who have made this argument was the Labour peer and leading light of "Blue Labour" Maurice Glasman, who was sitting in the audience.

Glasman cometh

In late 2010 and early this year, Glasman and Cruddas, along with the Oxford academic Marc Stears and the cultural theorist Jonathan Rutherford - both also present at the lecture - participated in a series of seminars designed to re-evaluate Labour's political philosophy and held at University College (where Stears is a fellow). The seminars led to the publication of an e-book in May, which was widely reviewed at the time, but whose importance was subsequently overshadowed by the controversy that followed injudicious remarks about immigration that Glasman made in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Many observers assumed that l'affaire Glasman had put an end to Blue Labour, at least as a collective intellectual endeavour, as opposed to a solo, freelance enterprise. Yet here they were, the main players, Cruddas, Glasman, Rutherford and Stears, all in the same room. It was, whispered someone in the audience, like seeing your favourite band re-form for one last hurrah.

Attempting to rescue Attlee from the condescension of posterity, Cruddas played some familiar Blue Labour tunes: an emphasis on the politics of duty and virtue; the rejection of "individualism, empiricism and utilitarianism", pillars of a Fabian outlook that Attlee, for all his early collaboration with Beatrice Webb, seems to have rejected. (Cruddas's version of Labour history, like Glasman's, is decidedly Manichaean, pitting rationalistic, pseudo-scientific Fabianism against an ethical, Romantic tradition that goes back to William Morris.)

Attlee's most significant achievement, for Cruddas, was neither overseeing the establishment of the National Health Service nor slaying the "giants" of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. It lay not in 1945, but rather in 1940, when, by participating in the wartime coalition government, Attlee banished the lurking spectre of the Zinoviev letter and made Labour at last a national party.

This emphasis on Attlee's "radical patriotism" might seem eccentric, or worse - certainly many on the centre left have recoiled at Cruddas's invocations of "flag, faith and family". Yet he is right to point to "festering English resentment" and to a crisis of political representation in England that the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence will only make more acute. The question, unstated in the lecture but implied in everything Cruddas said, is whether the current Labour leader - like Attlee, a quiet man who makes a virtue of his lack of charisma - is capable of meeting that challenge.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman