The academic and campaigner Maurice Glasman has made something of an impact in Labour policy circles with his ‘Blue Labour’ big idea. This appears to be yet another attempt to reduce the Labour Party to a repository for the prejudices of the dimmer members of the white working classes. Glasman wrote a lengthy manifesto article that is so diffuse I didn’t bother writing anything about it (and I thought of writing about it, as this is an obsession of mine.) Glasman’s nodding dog, theology lecturer Luke Bretherton, has written at length about the importance of religious traditions in particular:
Blue Labour is an emerging position within the Labour party that calls for a politics of the common good in which churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious traditions have a vital part to play… Something as hopelessly tradition-bound as religious beliefs and practices can only ever appear as a threat to what is ‘progressive’. By contrast, Blue Labour sees traditions, whether it is the customary practices for governing common land, the medieval working practices of the Billingsgate porters, or the religious traditions of Christianity, as having something to contribute to the formation of a just and generous common life.
But in an interview with Progress magazine, Glasman absolutely lets rip. In it he defines Blue Labour this way:
The blue refers to the centrality of family life, a recognition of the importance of faith, a real commitment to the work ethic, a very casual but nonetheless profound patriotism that people feel about England.
The interview quickly zeroes in on one issue. Guess which one. ‘The big monster that we don’t like to talk about… there was no public discussion of immigration and its benefits… Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration and the extent of illegal immigration.’
This leads Glasman to the standard apologia for the British far right: that the BNP is our fault for not carrying out BNP policies. Liberals, he says, have a ‘responsibility for the growth of far right populism currently manifested in the growth of the English Defence League.’ On the EDL, he accuses progressives of being ‘so opposed that you don’t want to talk to them, you don’t want to engage with them, you don’t want anybody with views like that anywhere near the party.’ Instead, Labour should ‘build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party.’
It’s worth remembering that the Labour right can be as loony as the Labour left. The idea of carving a road back to power on a fringe minority group of career racists, migration obsessives and ex-casuals is so mad, so awful, that you wonder why Glasman is taken seriously. He clearly is being taken seriously though – Progress is the Labour policy wonk oracle – so it’s worth looking at the Blue Labour idea in detail.
Family, faith and flag
Glasman and Bretherton place a huge emphasis on traditional grassroots faith movements and workers’ co-operatives. You could be reading their articles on a 1930s pamphlet, with its rich smell of ink and effort, rather than on a monitor or glossy paper. And this is the problem. Blue Labour relies on a romantic vision of 1930s working class life, full of firebrand Christian socialists and soapbox organisers, that no longer exists in reality.
Religious observance has gone through the floor and is still falling. Many working class jobs have been made redundant by automation and technological advances: many of those that remain are now done by the bourgeoisie – seriously, I have known warehouse workers with PhDs, and Home Counties girls who drive the city bus. Significant parts of the middle class have sunk to the income levels of the proletariat.
Plumbers earn more than call centre operatives, yet the one is supposed to be ‘bourgeoisie’ and the other ‘working class’. Class should be predicated on income, not tradition and cultural signifiers. Most people aren’t worried about family, faith and flag – they are worried about poverty and the cost of living.
Immigration – the economic argument
On immigration, Glasman says, the last Labour government ‘occupied a weird space where we thought that a real assault on the wage levels of English workers was a positive good.’ This is the obvious Polish builders complaint – Eastern European workers can live on less and are undercutting British wages.
I’ve yet to see solid evidence that this does happen – in fact the economist Chris Dillow presents a strong case that migration actually pushes UK wages up. Even if the myth is true, could we really protect British builders by kicking out the Poles? Globalisation is a real thing whether we like it or not – a policy of Mussolini-style autarchy will not save the British worker from exploitation.
Nick Cohen has written that the first task of the left today should be to establish global labour rights to balance the global rights of capital. Instead the British left has retreated into silo nation politics. This week there was more shocking news from the Chinese IPad suicide factories. Research by labour NGOs at Shenzhen and Chengdu factories revealed horrific working conditions, including military-style drills and public humiliations, crowded dormitories, restrictions on personal and family life, exhaustive overtime and a basic wage of £5:20 a day. This actually compares quite badly to the life of a plantation slave in the American Deep South. It is the kind of story that makes you believe that the human history is nothing but varying shades of darkness, and that progress is a dream and a joke.
This became a huge controversy last summer when workers began to throw themselves from high windows to escape their misery. The corporate follow-up was telling in its cruelty.
The company’s initial response to the suicides was to bring in monks to exorcise evil spirits. The chief executive later suggested workers were committing suicide to secure large compensation payments for their families. Workers were even asked to sign a document promising not to commit suicide and pledging that if they did their families would not claim more compensation than the legal minimum.
What does Blue Labour have to say to our Chinese comrades? The answer seems to be a resounding fuck all.
Immigration – the community argument
If we’re going to have an ‘honest and open debate’ about immigration then let’s at least be honest about what is really being demanded by the other side.
David Cameron says he wants to get immigration back to 1980s/1990s levels, ‘which is tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.’ Probably this is the lowest he can get it, without damaging the economy and breaking international law.
Let’s assume that Cameron fulfills this promise, in the timescale he set out. Will the BNP and the EDL simply say ‘Okay, fantastic, you’ve addressed our grievances, we will go away now’? Will the antimigration monomaniacs in the media and the public say ‘Great, thanks for addressing our legitimate concerns, we will get back to grown up politics now, and accept that we don’t always get exactly what we want’?
I don’t think so. Because what we get from the antimigration side is not just an economic argument against, but what is euphemistically termed a ‘cultural’ argument against. These people want the government to legislate based on the vague feeling of unease that they experience when they hear a foreign language spoken in the street.
And to assuage this feeling of unease we would have to not only close the door to new migrants, but to deport people who were born here, whose families have lived and worked here for generations, but who don’t fit because they have different languages and skin pigmentation.
In a brave article for CiF, Lynsey Hanley pointed out two unspeakable truths: that working class racism does exist, and that it predates the 2000s migration boom. She asked the Blue Labour apologists to ‘remind themselves of the dockworkers’ marches in support of Enoch Powell, of support for the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s and for the National Front in the 70s. It’s a form of dirty protest with a long history, and which, alas, has yet to die.’
This is not, of course, to say that all working class people are racist. Working-class journalist Andrew Anthony pointed out that there are more interracial relationships among the working class. But the racist element is there: and in small communities it can dominate.
Britain is littered with tiny pockets of stasis and corrosion. Occasionally we get a glimpse under the rock – as with the murder of Sophie Lancaster, a young goth woman killed because of her strange dress and hair, in the Lancashire town of Bacup where non-whites ‘get fired-bombed out of their houses and given a whack with a baseball bat to make sure they get the message.’ Lynsey Hanley was not an Islington Guardianista liberal. She grew up in the working-class provinces of the Midlands.
The worst thing Labour could do is to ditch its ‘metropolitan elite liberal values’ purely because it is being bullied by populists who love to bandy that phrase around. They’re the same values I embraced as a provincial working-class teenager, who was desperate to hear a view of life that wasn’t paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful, misogynist and racist.
Hanley’s honesty provoked the usual bitter swagger of prolier-than-thou rhetoric, and predictable accusations of liberal elitism. But millions of people take Hanley’s journey. They are born in small, ugly communities centred around family, faith and flag. They work hard, study hard, and escape to the cities, and embrace the secular and cosmopolitan way of life that is, I’m delighted to say, our future.
It’s increasingly fashionable to pretend to be working class, and to invoke the working class to support just about anything – a woman from the Institute of Ideas recently mounted a class-based defence of antisemitic football chants. I think therefore it’s worth linking to my Shiraz comrade Jim Denham‘s post, in which he quotes The Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.
Update: According to Dan Hodges at the NS, the Blue Labour project has now imploded.
Blue Labour, the informal Labour policy group established by Ed Miliband advisor Maurice Glasman, is to be effectively disbanded.
Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Middlesex University academic Jonathan Rutherford have both informed Lord Glasman they no longer wish to be associated with the project following an interview given by the controversial peer in which he expressed a belief that immigration to the UK should be completely halted.
Asked by the Daily Telegraph‘s Mary Riddell whether he would support a total ban on immigration, even if just for a temporary period, Lord Glasman replied, ‘Yes. I would add that we should be more generous and friendly in receiving those [few] who are needed. To be more generous, we have to draw the line.’
The Telegraph profile is the latest in a series of increasingly eccentric interviews and public appearances given by the Labour Peer, in which he has attacked David Miliband, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Neil Kinnock, and claimed his agenda is influenced by Aristotle, Miles Davis, Aldo Moro, Lionel Messi and the Pope.
Last month Labour Justice spokeswoman Helen Goodman circulated a critique of Blue Labour to all members of the Parliamentary Labour Party in which she claimed, ‘[Glasman] characterises as female all the aspects of New Labour he dislikes, whereas all the characteristics he applauds he draws as male. It looks more like something suitable for the psychotherapists’ couch than a political tract.’
‘If Glasman thinks we will all greet this with an ironic post-feminist smile, he is wrong. How can we in a country where 1,000 women are raped each week? He seems to be harking back to a Janet and John Fifties era.’
One source close to Blue Labour said, ‘Both Cruddas and Rutherford repeatedly told Maurice to tone it down, but he ignored them. Their view is the Blue Labour brand is now too contaminated to continue with the project in its present form. They still hope it will be possible to salvage some of the ideas and themes, but Maurice’s actions have made supporting Blue Labour in its present incarnation untenable.’