On 18 October 2010 a group of around twenty Labour politicians, advisers and academics met in The Butler Room, University College, Oxford. The meeting was part of a failed attempt to create a new synthesis between New Labour and what became known as Blue Labour. Five years on, following a decisive election defeat, the question for the Labour party is whether that fledgling alliance can be revived.
The October 2010 meeting was the first of four discussions, jointly hosted by four academics, Maurice Glasman, Marc Stears, Jonathan Rutherford and Stuart White. The idea was to stimulate new thinking in the Labour party, which had been ejected from office after thirteen years in power. As people began to take their seats around the table, Maurice Glasman stood outside, smoking. This is not an unusual sight, but on this occasion he was calming his nerves. He was about to present his paper on ‘Labour’s Radical Tradition’.
Glasman’s rise to political prominence had already begun with a high profile essay in Prospect magazine but he recognised the opportunity in front of him. In the room were a collection of political advisers, past and present, including Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Phil Collins, and Gordon Brown’s special adviser, Stewart Wood. Sitting alongside them were Jon Cruddas MP, Tessa Jowell MP, David Lammy MP (who I was working for at the time), David Miliband MP and Douglas Alexander MP.
Maurice Glasman’s paper characterised the Labour party as ‘the child of a cross-class marriage between a decent working class Dad and an educated middle class Mum’. The Dad, he argued, represented trade unions, mutuals, building societies and the cooperative movement. These were non-state institutions, designed to help people organise around their interests. They carried with them small ‘c’ conservative instincts, such as the importance of personal responsibility, the value of family life and the dignity of work.
By contrast, Glasman argued, the Mum represented the Fabian tradition in Labour, made up of ‘of ruling class public service, the architects, scientists and writers’. Unlike the Dad, the Mum focussed on overriding goals like equality rather than underlying principles like ‘give and take’. This wing of the party tended to see things from the top down and was more likely to think that the State knew best: it had nationalised industries rather than organised in workplaces. More recently it had believed that clever policy could bring an end to ‘boom and bust’.
Glasman argued that the middle class Mum had won the battle for Labour’s soul. Labour had lost touch with its decentralising, organising tradition and had come to rely on government doing things for people instead. As a result, people had lacked the power to assert their own interests as employees or consumers. Meanwhile, they had been bossed around by a remote and bureaucratic State. The task was for Labour to revive a tradition that understood the ‘limits as to how a person could be treated by political authority, and by economic ones too.’
The new approach, Blue Labour argued, would focus on putting power directly in people’s hands. Specifically, it would aim for a balance of power within institutions, so that no one interest would be able to dominate others. There would be a balance of power between bosses and employees in workplaces, users and professionals in public services, consumers and companies in marketplaces, men and women in families, developers and residents in neighbourhoods – and so on.
The aim would always be to encourage dialogue, negotiation and compromise. No-one would have it all their own way – and that would be the point. The State would not have to know everything, or need to tell everyone precisely how to behave. Rather, its job would be to rebalance power, so that people could speak to their own interests and strike reasonable compromises with one another.
Glasman need not have been nervous. Several people questioned the gender type-casting but few disagreed with the fundamental premise. The wrong tradition in Labour had become dominant. After the financial crisis, Labour needed to find ways to think and speak about capitalism without relying on the State to do everything for people.
In the following weeks, Marc Stears, Jonathan Rutherford and Stuart White presented their own papers to the group. Jonathan Rutherford looked deeper into the cultural conservatism of parts of the labour movement. Marc Stears considered what kind of leadership a new, less centralising approach to politics would require. Stuart White, a liberal philosopher, argued against cultural conservatism but agreed with the need to decentralise power.
When the meetings were first organised, in June 2010, it had been assumed that David Miliband would be the Labour leader by this point. He was the front runner in the leadership election and had proven receptive to parts of the Blue Labour analysis. In July he had given the best speech of his leadership campaign, bringing together New and Blue Labour themes. Delivering the Keir Hardie lecture in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, he argued that the Labour party needed to mine traditions from its past to make itself relevant again. Labour’s enduring insight, he said, is that ‘human beings and nature are not commodities to be bought and sold at the best price. Neither are we units of provision to be effectively administered by the State’ The speech continued ‘The Labour Party alone understood the peril posed to the working people of our country by an unregulated market and an interfering state, a system which banned trade unions and imposed the Poor Laws.’
Jon Cruddas, an important figure on the Left of the party, described the Keir Hardie lecture as the ‘most important speech by a Labour politician for many years’. It sealed his support for the elder Miliband. Meanwhile, the impeccably Blairite journalist John Rentoul wrote about the speech in glowing terms. Reading all 4,400 words of the speech might seem a lot, he said, but ‘it really is worth it’. A new synthesis between New and Blue Labour had begun to emerge.
By the time of the first Oxford meeting, however, Ed Miliband had been elected Labour leader, beating his brother by the finest of margins. The younger Miliband had positioned himself to the Left of his older brother in the contest, making the running, for example, on retaining the 50% top rate of tax. By instinct, he seemed more comfortable with the State playing a more interventionist role – and less amenable to the emerging New Labour-Blue Labour synthesis. He had been invited to take part in the Oxford meetings but had declined. Blue Labour’s thinkers had made some friends in high places, but it remained to be seen whether they had the ear of the new leader.
In the event, Ed Miliband sought to coopt Blue Labour. In February 2011 Maurice Glasman was enobled as a Labour peer and Marc Stears, already a long-standing friend of Ed Miliband, later became his speech writer. Initially Liam Byrne, who also attended some of the Oxford seminars, was placed in charge of the policy review, only to be replaced by Jon Cruddas, who in turn appointed Jonathan Rutherford as an advisor.
In opposition, Labour began to sound a bit like Blue Labour, notably adopting the Conservative language of ‘One Nation’. Ed Miliband argued that State redistribution could only go so far, and that reforms were needed to the way markets work, tackling inequality at source. Some individual policies crept into the offer – local banks, based on the German model, for example made it into the manifesto via Jon Cruddas.
However, Ed Miliband’s brand of Labour never accepted the argument about the limits of what the State should do for and on behalf of people. The Opposition may have sounded like Blue Labour – the Dad in Maurice Glasman’s original paper – but it acted more like the party’s Fabian wing. Labour promised to increase the top rate of tax, pledged to set energy prices, backed state regulation of the press, opposed the creation of new free schools and demonstrated an instinct to ban anything it didn’t like. Labour went into the election with previous supporters worried not just about its ability to tackle the deficit, but also about its latest brand of state interventionism.
One manifesto policy summed up the problem: the pledge to increase the minimum wage to £8.00 by 2019. The policy was criticised by some on the Left as being too timid, but the real problem was the way the level was set. New Labour had established the Low Pay Commission (LPC) as an independent, social partnership institution to help set the minimum wage each year. The LPC was structured to bring employers, trade unions and the Government to into dialogue with one another before any decisions were made. They would consult the evidence and negotiate with one another, sharing power in the process.
Miliband’s promise sidelined the LPC and its method of social partnership. Instead of dialogue and compromise, power would be centralised in a few politicians who claimed to know what was best. In 2015 Labour already knew what the minimum wage should be four years later. It symbolised a return to the idea of an omniscient government, determined to direct things from the centre. Rather than extend the idea of social partnership to other institutions, as Blue Labour argued, Labour was undermining it.
Following Labour’s election defeat, the question is whether New and Blue can pick up the pieces to develop something that is new, useful and electable. The two sides agree on a number of fundamental points. Both reject the idea that the State knows people’s own interests better than they do – or that everything can be managed by a few clever people in government departments.
This is reflected in New Labour’s appetite for public service reform which devolves budgets and decision-making to individuals wherever possible. This means, for example, choice for parents over schools and types of school, including free schools. But it also means a different way of managing the education system as a whole. For New Labour reformers, the test of whether an area needs a new school is not what someone in Whitehall or even the local authority thinks, but whether or not parents choose to send their children there. In other policy areas, devolving power means ideas like individual budgets in social care, which allow people to put together the packages of support that are right for them.
On public services, Blue Labour puts more emphasis on localism. It also cares more about the governance of institutions – whether, for example, parents and teachers are represented as school governors – than about choice between them. But the two sets of ideas are entirely compatible: the aim is to improve services by putting power in the hands of the people who use them.
Both New and Blue have a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. This reveals itself in a concern that welfare is a reciprocal deal. In office, New Labour described the problem as ‘something for nothing’ and introduced tough terms and conditions before people could claim out-of-work benefits. Blue Labour worries more about ‘nothing for something’, arguing that the system no longer provides proper protection for people who have a record of contribution. The policy prescriptions are different but complementary.
The shared concern for personal responsibility is also reflected on issues like saving. In government, New Labour tried to support saving through policies like the Child Trust Fund, which topped up money parents put away for their children. Blue Labour believes that means testing ends up punishing those who make sacrifices and put money aside. On housing, New Labour wants to help people realise the dream of home ownership. Blue Labour adds that home ownership also embeds people in communities and encourages people to care more about the neighbourhood they live in. The instincts are not identical, but they are close cousins.
Both New and Blue are fiscally conservative. They believe – rather than just concede – that Labour was spending too immediately much before the economic crisis. This is not the same as accepting that public spending caused the crash, or that more taxation and spending during the Blair years was a bad thing. Instead, it is an aversion to debt and a concern to balance the books each year.
New Labour has always emphasised education and infrastructure as drivers of economic growth. It sees education spending as a form of ‘social investment’. It would prioritise new roads, railways and runways. Blue Labour would add other priorities. For example, it seeks to borrow from the German model, so that local, mission-driven banks lend to small businesses, supporting private sector investment for the long-term. It believes employees should be represented on the boards of companies, so that companies listen to their workforces, and employees contribute more to the performance of their firms.
Blue Labour also wants vocations like plumbing to have the same status, regulation and career structures as professions such as medicine or the law. This would mean requiring occupational qualification for jobs like plumbing, just as we do for medicine or the law, to encourage professional standards and investment in training. Following the German example, Apprenticeships would be an entry point into more jobs, not an optional extra. These ideas go further than New Labour ever did in office, but it is not inconceivable that it could adopt them.
The harder job will be to bring New and Blue together on social issues where liberal and small ‘c’ conservative instincts collide. Immigration has already proved a flashpoint. The New Labour instinct is relatively liberal on immigration, where Blue Labour is not. There is no easy way round this. Complicating matters is the link to the European Union. Maurice Glasman has argued that immigration must become an issue of politics, not just policy. By this he means decisions ought to be taken by the British government, which the public can choose to either throw out or re-elect. This is a fundamental challenge to principle of free movement of people, which lies at the heart of the current EU settlement.
The Blue frustration with the EU does not stop there. Blue Labourites see the EU, in its current incarnation, as a centralising force which limits the capacity for democratic decision making about life in Britain. In particular, they believe the idea of a ‘single market’ has been stretched too far. What began as a desire to facilitate trade across national boundaries has, in the name of competition policy, become a resistance to governments setting their own policies on important areas like housing and financial services. New Labour, by contrast is more internationalist in outlook. Some of it architects wanted to join the Euro, not reign in the EU.
Family policy is another potential source of tension. New Labour placed a lot of emphasis on childcare policies designed to encourage women into work. Childcare centres were funded with support from the Treasury, which benefitted as the tax take went up, and from liberals concerned with equalising opportunity between the sexes. For Blue Labour, it is not obvious that the State’s role should be to encourage parents to leave their children with other people. It does not want to go back to old gender roles and does want to support families financially. But it would prefer the state took a more neutral position on whether childcare was provided by friends, neighbours and relatives, or formal childcare centres.
Beyond these particular debates ‘New’ and ‘Blue’ also have different sensibilities. Tony Blair famously described Britain as a ‘young country’, to the despair of small ‘c’ conservatives attached to Britain’s history, its traditions and many of its institutions. In office, New Labour sometimes appeared to elevate words like ‘change’ and ‘reform’ into good things in and of themselves. By contrast, Blue Labour’s instincts are closer to those who believe that all change is experienced as loss on some level.
These differences are serious, but they are not intractable. New Labour’s leading figures may be liberal on immigration, but all accept that immigration must be managed. Many also agree that the party has been too shrill in its attitude towards those who worried about the issue – many of whom voted Ukip. Similarly, New Labour may be pro-European, but it need not be uncritical of the EU. Modernisers could support a reformed EU which allowed sovereign nations to make more of their own decisions. For its part, Blue Labour may be small ‘c’ conservative, but it is also pro-gay rights and strongly anti-racist. It may want a different sort of economy, but it detests bureaucracy and does not want to tie business up with more regulation.
Most of all, it may be politics that brings the two sides together. Labour must somehow find an offer that appeals to the affluent South, Metropolitan London and a more culturally conservative north. It needs to win back middle class voters who voted Tory and working class supporters who have drifted towards Ukip. This is before the party even considers how to rebuild in Scotland. For such a fightback to be plausible, let alone likely, Labour will need to develop something broad and balanced enough to appeal to these different constituencies simultaneously. Neither New Labour nor Blue Labour can do this alone. Together, they just might.
Duncan O’Leary is Research Director at Demos @DuncanOleary.