Sunday, 1 May 2011

Blue Labour should not denigrate the past

Blue Labour must learn from Labour's past not simply denigrate it.
The latest idea to spring forth in this era of Big Society politics is that of Blue Labour. In simple terms it could be summarised as a left response to the Big Society agenda.The main architects of the idea are academic Maurice Glasman, Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Mark Stears, an Oxford University academic.Professor Glasman developed the idea out of his own experiences with community organising in London Citizens. Based on the principles of US academic Saul Alinksy, community organising brings together faith communities, student bodies, trade unions and others. Community organising focuses on bringing large numbers of people together to exert pressure on public and private bodies to achieve the aims set by the membership. There have been successful London Citizens campaigns arising from the grass roots including the living wage and Strangers into Citizens campaign, which aims for a regularisation of undocumented workers.Blue Labour is defined as a small-C conservative form of socialism that attempts to return to the roots of the pre-1945 Labour Party through encouraging the political involvement of voluntary groups from trade unions through churches to football clubs. Put simply its flag, faith and family a mixture of social conservatism and economic interventionism. "The resources for Labour's renewal lie within the practices and history of the Labour movement. Blue Labour reminds the party that only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity," says Professor Glasman, who talks of getting away from the commodification of labour by finance and the need for the democratisation and regulation of capital. The attraction of the idea to the Labour Party leadership is no doubt its effort to win back what are perceived as parts of the working class that have been lost, while retaining those parts of the middle class (or middle england) which according to new labour folk law have been won over. Not surprising then perhaps to find former Blairite work and pensions minister James Purnell supporting the new movement. He believes the way forward is a combination of new and blue labour.Blue Labour attacks both New and Old Labour. Glasman accuses New Labour of just letting the market run wild, unregulated. Then, the withdrawal by New Labour from the economy led to a manic embrace of the state. "New Labour's public sector reforms were almost Maoist in their conception of year zero managerial restructuring," said Professor Glasman who typifies the New Labour approach to the economy as at best managerialist."Old Labour was worse. Entirely disengaged from democracy in the economy, its renewal in our cities or in the party and held in thrall by an administrative and rational conception of the state and the use of scientific method to achieve its ends, by the 1970s it could barely generate the energy to win an election, let alone redistribute power to ordinary people," says Professor Glasman.The danger here is that the Blue Labour supporters themselves adopt something of a return to year zero approach, denying history. It is not a very progressive way to move forward by claiming all that what went before was wrong. Some of the democratising of industry ideas Glasman alleges to promote were closest to fruition when Tony Benn was an energy and industry minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s. It was a time when there was some genuine democratisation of the workplace beginning to take place, with legislation like the Equalities Act passing onto the statute book.It is wrong to denigrate the state, as it was the very vehicle that produced the NHS, the welfare state, decent comprehensive education and helped alleviate poverty.Similarly there seems to be an underplaying of the role of trade unions in community terms. Despite the media rhetoric, trade unions have been and remain some of the most democratic organisations in the land. They play a vital role linking to all the parts of community that Blue Labour believes so important. It was the unions who came out in their 100,000s recently to demonstrate against the government's cuts agenda. There needs to be a more nuanced approach from Blue Labour as to where the trade unions fit into this brave new world.Cruddas has been a favourite of the unions for years, supported by many of them in his bid to become deputy leader of the party three years ago. He understands the trade union movement and will no doubt have ideas as to where they would fit into the blue labour project. His own positioning in Blue Labour makes perfect sense, declaring recently that he was "a big fan of the big society." And in terms of his own formation, highlighting that Bobby Kennedy and Pope John XXIII played more important roles than Keir Hardy and other Labour Party luminaries. Cruddas and the other promoters of Blue Labour will have a careful line to tread if their ideas are to resonate with the wider labour movement. The unions cannot be alienated. The role of the state cannot be denigrated, the argument has to be for a new type of state not anti statism. The other danger for Blue Labour is that it just does not define clearly enough what it stands for, in steering a course between new and blue it could end up a mere child of the ill fated third way, much trumpeted previously by Blair and Clinton. There does no doubt need to be a way found to create the broad tent that Labour used to occupy across the races and classes. Plotting such a path though must involve learning the lessons of the past in order to build for the future, not simply adopting the position of the historical amnesiac.

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