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21 July 2011

Blue Labour: sorting the wheat from the chaff

If Blue Labour can ditch the sexism and dog-whistle stance on immigration, it might be worth listeni

By Ed Rooksby

“Blue Labour” is in serious trouble — perhaps even dead in the water. In a remarkably ill-judged interview with the Daily Telegraph, the faction’s most prominent intellectual, Lord Glasman, emphatically pushed the “self-destruct” button, calling for draconian immigration controls that even Andrew Green of Migration Watch says go a bit too far.

What many regard as the toxic and dangerous elements of Blue Labour thinking are well known. The brouhaha surrounding Glasman’s recent comments on immigration have, indeed, thrust one of these firmly into the limelight. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the sorts of comments Glasman made in the Telegraph don’t really come as much of a surprise. Right from the beginning, the Blue Labour project has sought to promulgate deeply unpleasant ideas which effectively pitch what some Blue Labourites call “the white working class” against “mass immigration” which is singled out (wrongly) as a key determinant of falling wages, increasing joblessness, and so on. Glasman’s notorious comments about the EDL are…well, notorious. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel that the protestations of figures such as Cruddas and Rutherford in relation to the Telegraph interview ring rather hollow — are we expected to believe that they had no inkling, up until now, of Glasman’s views on immigration?

I’ve been sharply critical of Blue Labour elsewhere (here and here) and so it would be easy to crow about its current difficulties. But it would be a mistake for anyone to attempt to dance on Blue Labour’s grave. For one thing, it’s not at all clear that Blue Labour is dead and buried. There is certainly scope for some sort of salvaging and regrouping process. The second reason not to crow is that there are some valuable aspects to the Blue Labour project, and it would be a shame to see these ditched along with the less attractive parts. Let me be clear about this. I think that much of what Blue Labour has said is poisonous. Beyond this, furthermore, I’m not at all convinced by much of the rest. But it does have some valuable ideas that are often overlooked amongst the angry denunciations. Given that the Blue Labour project is now in flux, it seems a good time to sort out more clearly what we think about it in considered and nuanced terms.

There are two interesting elements of the Blue Labour approach I’d like to draw out — firstly, the idea of “conservative socialism” and, secondly, what they have to say about market forces.

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The prevailing political wisdom tends to present the modern political ideological landscape as a linear spectrum with conservatism at one end of the scale and socialism at the other, with liberalism somewhere in the middle (a reflection of liberalism’s ideological self-image, which likes to present itself as a “moderate” compromise between two extremes). In this view, the notion of a “conservative socialism” is an oxymoron. In fact, the ideological landscape is much more complex than that (though I wouldn’t want to reject the left-right axis). In some ways, socialism does indeed share much in common with traditional forms of conservatism (while in many others, of course, the two are radically opposed). Socialism and social democracy are, in great part, political and ideological expressions of working class defensive struggles — battles to defend communities and ways of life from the corrosive depredations of market forces. Blue Labour is quite right to point to the affinities between conservatism and socialism. They are clear that the concept of “conservative socialism” is not necessarily an oxymoron — but is (or can be), rather, the expression of a creative, dialectical sort of tension at the heart of the labour movement tradition. Blue Labour thinkers have a sensitive grasp of the ways in which political traditions always embody a series of messy paradoxes — and that paradoxes can be sources of creativity. Done in the right way, this sort of thinking can make for productive and innovative political engagement which is able to sidestep the various sterile dead-ends of established political discourse.

One of the most remarkable things about Blue Labour is that it is not afraid to talk about capitalism in critical terms — a welcome development in the contemporary debate within Labour. Here, again, Blue Labour draws on some pretty sophisticated resources and concepts. Glasman, for example, often refers to the ideas of Karl Polanyi. In opposition to the facile and ahistorical assumptions of neoclassical economics, Polanyi was clear that capitalism was not somehow “just the way things are” and neither was it a direct reflection of “human nature”. The economy is not autonomous of political decisions and choices and, indeed, could and should be brought under greater social control. This provides the intellectual basis for Blue Labour’s criticism of neoliberalism and New Labour’s devotion to the “free market”. Encroaching “commodification” of human existence and the natural environment can and should be resisted, in Blue Labour’s view. Further, market forces should be subordinated to politically defined social priorities. Blue Labour figures tend become rather vague on specifics in relation to how this might be done (and I’m very sceptical about how serious they are about this). But in the context of the recent history of Labour Party debate, it’s radical thinking indeed.

If Blue Labour can ditch the dog-whistle politics on immigration and “multiculturalism”, the absurd sexism, the romantic-nationalist guff about patriotism and flag, it might be worth listening to.


Ed Rooksby teaches political theory at Southampton University.