How to win the future: why Blue Labour is the way forward

In a world so highly individualised, what we need is a cultural rather than an economic politics.

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Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics
Edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst
I B Tauris, 288pp, £14.99

Only those who do not realise where politics is going will dismiss Blue Labour as a work of nostalgia. It is a book of – and about – the future. It charts from the perspective of the British working classes what has happened to them as a result of the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. For the authors of its essays, the outcomes are clear: family breakdown, social isolation, economic impoverishment and a creeping desperation for a less eroded and more meaningful life.

In this analysis, the essayists are largely right and they are not alone. Across Europe, values-based polling confirms that working-class people in the developed world have not benefited from globalisation. Their wages are too low. They fear for their families and neighbourhoods; more generally, they fear for their country. Unprecedented rates of immigration coupled with a metropolitan sneer at their values have “un-homed” the bottom third of our society. Little wonder that the Union is at risk and people are voting for the SNP in Scotland and Ukip in England. But this just marks the Europeanisation of British politics, from Sinn Féin in Ireland to the Front National in France. Nationalism and protectionism are where the masses go if the elites abandon them.

This, broadly, is the assessment of the Blue Labour movement. Frank Field notes in his remarkable essay that, since 1997, Labour support has fallen by five million votes. During this time, the electorate grew by 1.8 million. The number of non-voters in 2010 – 15.9 million – was greater than the votes cast for Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined. The skilled working classes have been abandoning Labour and Labour cannot win without them. Field outlines the value gap between metropolitan Labour and the working class. He identifies a cosmopolitan disdain for patriotism and the endorsement of a social allocation system “that favours the newcomer and the social misfit” over those who exhibit decades-long civility and good behaviour.

The collection is an illuminating and at times moving account of a party that would like to reconnect with its base and its raison d’être. We have some policy ideas but not many – Blue Labour is primarily a statement of principle and an endorsement of the politics of high romantic idealism. In this, again, the authors are right –  voters are first moved by big ideas and then can be made loyal by the policies that realise them.

Here is the rub: there is little in Blue Labour to attract middle-class voters and too little to attract working-class people either. Despite its forward-looking stance, the language of the movement remains too trapped in the class it wants to restore as its foundation. The organised working class has gone and will not return. In its place, there are the shattered remnants of low-skill occupations (call centre workers, cleaners and low-level administrators), sole traders such as plumbers and small businesses that are struggling and doing well in probably equal measure.

Most labour forms are unorganised and are likely to remain so. Few on either side of the political divide think that the public-sector union model in teaching or council services works well. In the eyes of the successful, organised labour doesn’t reward talent and allows free-riders to benefit from others’ hard work. For the unsuccessful, organisation alone will not solve their chronic problems. The unions won’t raise workers’ wages or skill levels and they won’t embrace their wider needs. Tom Watson hints that unions should be involved in training and this is surely the right direction but I fear that few see the benefits of the community organisations extolled by Blue Labour.

Human beings are rational in their romanticism: they know what will benefit and what will harm them. There has been no convincing account, from left or right, of how ordinary people in the developed world can resist the damage wrought by globalisation. This is what Blue Labour should speak to and at times it does – in David Goodhart’s brave work on immigration, for example. Perhaps what is most of all lacking in the movement is any operational idea of an economically self-empowering society. The idea of a citizenry that is not wholly reliant on wages but owns and produces its assets and uses the public estate as a means of economic and social advancement would be more radical than simplistic and hopeless opposition to capitalism. This would be to rescue the “big society” from its abasement at the hands of those who see it as only a vehicle for volunteering. There is a modern world that can be spoken to and transformed but Blue Labour cannot yet reach it, because its focus rests on 19th-century models rather than those of the 21st century.

In a world so highly individualised, what we need is a cultural rather than an economic politics. Given that the governing metropolitan middle class believes in very little other than power, sex and shopping, repudiating this corrupted order would be both right and highly popular. In an impressive essay, John Milbank asks: if “the typical object of desire is still thought of as a commodity consumable by the individual in isolation”, what can we do to change what is desired? He answers by pointing out that this ignores the relational goods that we most value – family, friendship, love and communities. Similarly, we tend to tire of low-quality goods such as junk food and trash TV but derive more lasting happiness from higher-quality products. Can we re-create a culture that values both relational goods and quality products? This seems a more productive route than longing after earlier forms of working-class life. If we can recapture the Reithian spirit of the BBC in which equality doesn’t mean “all becoming the same”, as its contemporary advocates see it, but “equal access to things that are great”, that might be a revolutionary start.

It is here that Blue Labour hits the right tone – for example, in Michael Merrick’s passionate reinvention of social conservatism and in his defence of the traditional family, or Ruth Yeoman’s powerful description of the human need for meaningfulness. In a reversal of Marxism, it is the cultural superstructure that determines the economic base: better to begin from what people love before building a programme based on what we have lost.

Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst are to be congratulated. This is a wonderful collection that presents an alternative not yet pursued. Since, at the time of writing, the two main parties are tied in the polls and trailing well short of a majority, the first party to embrace a positive – rather than a reactionary – transformation in principles and policies will win the future. This is a start. For the sake of all that is valuable, let us hope it succeeds.

Phillip Blond is the author of “Red Tory” (Faber & Faber) and the director of the think tank ResPublica

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?