Tangled Up In Blue

Tangled Up In Blue
Rowenna Davis
Ruskin Publishing, 241pp, £8.99

Few political factions have been as misunderstood as Blue Labour. Variously denounced as xenophobic, authoritarian and misogynistic, it has united such disparate figures as Tony Blair, Diane Abbott and Roy Hattersley in opposition to it. For Blue Labour's critics, the "Gotcha!" moment came in July when Maurice Glasman, intellectual godfather of the movement, called for a temporary freeze on immigration in an interview with the Fabian Review.

As this admirably clear-minded book by the journalist and Labour councillor Rowenna Davis argues, however, it is erroneous and self-serving of Blue Labour's opponents to define the group by Glasman's views on immigration. She rightly contends not only that Blue Labour ideas will survive but that they deserve to. Unlike the left and right of the party, Blue Labour offers a persuasive critique of both the state and the market as well as a renewed emphasis on reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity. Far from imposing alien ideas on the party, it draws inspiration from the pre-1945 tradition of guild socialism and thinkers such as G D H Cole and R H Tawney. As the author puts it, Blue Labour "moves away from the idea that the market takes all, the state provides all and the community makes no contribution".

Why then has the movement provoked such hostility and misunderstanding? One obvious answer is its name. For a party whose anthem of choice begins, "The people's flag is deepest red," there is something viscerally disturbing about the idea of a "blue" Labour. Yet as Tangled Up In Blue makes clear, Blue Labour was not merely or not only intended as a glib riposte to Phillip Blond's "Red Toryism".

Glasman explains to Davis that the term came to him with "horrendous clarity" after the death of his Labour-supporting mother, a working-class woman who was "strong for people, strong for family . . . strong for ethics". He recalls: "Blue was for the mood; my mum, you wouldn't describe my mother as happy." Blue Labour was a reaction against the neophilia and Day-Glo optimism of New Labour.

For Glasman, the death of his mother and the concurrent financial crisis became linked in his mind. As his mother's condition deteriorated, so did Labour's ability to represent the interests of its natural supporters. And he was appalled by the Brown government's decision to bail out the banks - "the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the Norman Conquest" - without imposing so much as a minimum lending guarantee.

But it was a speech that Glasman wrote for Brown that first hinted at his ability to revitalise the ideologically dormant Labour Party. In vivid prose, Davis tells the story of how Brown refused to attend the Citizens UK general election assembly until, just three days before the event, Ed Miliband forwarded to him an unsolicited text by Glasman. The result was one of the most remarkable speeches Brown has ever delivered. Glasman's text, with its classical allusions, religious overtones and emotional articulacy, allowed the son of the manse to find his voice again. Glasman became the object of a political bidding war between the Miliband brothers (he officially refused "to take sides in a family argument" but "felt more of a connection" with Ed), and he assembled a network of sympathetic academics, including Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears, Stuart White and Ed Miliband's chief strategist, Stewart Wood.

Despite his penchant for provocation, there is every sign that his influence will endure. Unlike comparable figures, such as Will Hutton (with whose brand of "stakeholder capitalism" Blair briefly flirted in his January 1996 speech in Singapore) and Blond, Glasman has not been disowned by his political patron. Ed Miliband's speech to this year's Labour conference, like his previous address on responsibility, was indebted to Blue Labour. His call for companies to include workers on remuneration committees was prompted directly by Glasman. Blue Labour also helps to explain Miliband's new-found interest in welfare reform. His commitment to allocate social housing according to behaviour, and not just need, reflects a belief in reciprocity and a rejection of the anonymous state. And his decision to elevate Glasman to the Lords was a sincere attempt to provide him with a permanent political platform.

Although Davis offers a highly sympathetic account of Blue Labour, she is alert to its shortcomings. At a time when the Prime Minister believes, absurdly, that "big government" is to blame for the financial crisis, there is a danger that Blue Labour will reinforce the anti-statist consensus. I remain sceptical of any movement that believes a reduced role for the state can be reconciled with a strict commitment to egalitarianism. Empirical evidence from the Nordic countries and elsewhere suggests that fairness can be guaranteed only by active government. But, for rousing Labour from its intellectual slumber, we owe a debt of thanks to Glasman.

George Eaton is a staff writer for the New Statesman

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?