Blue Labour Fantasies: In Defence of the Liberal Bourgeoisie

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.’

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11 Responses to “Blue Labour Fantasies: In Defence of the Liberal Bourgeoisie”

  1. modernityblog Says:

    I never thought BoI’s people would sink so low, but looking at the current crop they are just Tories by another name:

    http://www.manchestersalon.org.uk/people.html

    “Hilary Salt

    Hilary Salt is a qualified actuary and a director of First Actuarial plc.

    She started her career in the insurance industry before moving to the consultancy sector.

    After qualification, she took a break from actuarial work to study politics and modern history at Manchester University. But the actuarial world called her back and she now advises a wide range of clients including local businesses, national trade unions and a number of not for profit organisations.

    She is also the independent advisor to the Technical Advisory Group reviewing the NHS Pension Scheme.

    One of Hilary’s day jobs is chairing a board of trustees and she brings these skills with her to salon meetings. Thankfully salon attendees rarely need too much controlling so she concentrates on teasing out contentious issues and making sure everyone with something to add gets to contribute to the discussion. Hilary thinks the national Debating Matters competition provides just the right challenge to 6th form students keen to argue their corner and plays a prominent in its success in the nothern regions.”

  2. Paul Murdoch Says:

    hmmm..

    “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.”

    Unspeakable? Hardly, it’s been going on for years…and, if we decide to engage in a spot of ‘pop-social anthropology’ and allow the term “prolier than thou” as a coherent and meaningful attribute inherent in a certain much reduced sector of the working class, then surely we must also commit ourselves to the designation ” useful bourgeois idiot”; out of a regard for balance, if nothing else. And might, indeed, then feel justified in thinking that the frequently estimable Ms Hanley, has traded her soul for a Waitrose loyalty card.

    Also, a careful reading of Mr Dillow’s ‘strong case’ reveals it as spurious self-serving conjecture, cognisant of its own improbability and counter intuitive status, lacking any probative foundation and almost certainly another blatant case of wishful thinking. It is anything but ‘strong’ and even if he were able to cite some correlation – which he doesn’t, so presumably can’t – then he would still need to bridge the chasm separating it from objective causation.

    The Observer piece on the ipad plant was heartbreaking; a real indictment of that strain of globalisation which is wrecking so many lives. It might have been lifted straight from Naomi Klein and, for once, I’m totally in agreement with Nick Cohen. I find it odd that you should cite it and then declare “Globalisation is a real thing whether we like it or not” without delineating the myriad forms that “Globalisation ” can take. It’s just too imprecise and amorphous a term; and, to suppose that it can encompass both the potential for global labour rights and solidarity and that strain of body-and-soul-destroying trash capitalism imposed by political and financial elites, reveals it as an inconsistent myth. It has all the precision of the description ‘liberal’.

    Other than that..nice piece…especially on the Brendan O’Neill/Spiked crowd’s unrequited appropriation of the working class-don’t bother saying it…I’m fuckin sure you think I fit exactly the same bill..but let’s not forget

    a) I’m working class
    b) I’m not a smart cunt writing columns solely for their contrarian shock value
    c) It’s at least 30 years since I claimed to be a Marxist..I probably dropped it around the time I started shaving every day…which would probably prompt Chris Dillow to suggest a connection between democratic socialism and Bic razors.

    You’re also in danger of committing what I’d term the “Deep-Fried Pizza Fallacy” in relation to the British working class. There’s a total dissonance in many would-be liberals’ stance on inter and intra societal judgements. They wouldn’t bat an eyelid as they scanned an article on relative “quality of life” statistics between, say, major British cities. However, the hypocrisy latent in their failure to accept deep-fried confectionery, rampant alcoholism, indigestion of industrial quantities of narcotics and a certain laissez-faire attitude in the social utility of Stanley blades as ingrained cultural -and consequently inviolate – traditions and practices when analysing Glasgow’s lowly status, when set against their relativistic acceptance of their own rank failings and those of other classes and societies is quite jaw dropping. Shite is shite everywhere and whenever it lands; yet middle-class liberals seem to have developed an unfailing blind-spot when it’s on their own doorstep.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      ‘And might, indeed, then feel justified in thinking that the frequently estimable Ms Hanley, has traded her soul for a Waitrose loyalty card.’

      No, she has worked hard to better herself, and should be congratulated, not insulted

  3. paul murdoch Says:

    Well, that’s me told.

    I’m sure she’s worked hard and deserves congratulations. However, when she adopts the disdainful and condescending tone she’s lately acquired to rebuke other working class people who didn’t manage similar success, she needs calling on it. I know there are some who certainly merit the criticism but then again there are others who through no fault of their own – blighted home lives as kids, a dearth of aspiration and opportunity at home, school or in the locality generally, or simply the fact that they weren’t especially academically gifted- were never likely to match her achievements. None the less, they might well be honest, hardworking, conscientious and ambitious but lack the talent to draw themselves out of relatively menial employment. They are perhaps even ambitious for their own children and have resolved to make sure that their kids eventually find themselves in a far more advantageous position re. employment.

    However the notion that they’re necessarily where they’re at through some combination of apathy, stupidity, laziness or an all pervading nihilism is not one that I find acceptable. Nor, if they fail to become enthusiastic advocates of open borders, should they be lumped together with the likes of the BNP or EDL in a lazy and unwarranted conflation hinting at xenophobia or racism. A desire to simply remain in work or maintain ones present standard of living and employment rights is perfectly understandable. How on Earth does that very natural urge suddenly become sinister or degenerate simply because the threat to their livelihood comes from foreign workers prepared to undercut the present rate of pay or accept less favorable conditions?

    What she, or indeed you, think the ‘acceptable’ reaction should be, I’m not sure. I can only imagine it should be a willingness to work harder and longer for less; or perhaps just a resigned acceptance that they’re sacrificing themselves for the greater good which, I presume, must lie in the wider neoliberal agenda. It certainly seems that otherwise the best they can hope for is to be dismissed as resentful little Englanders wallowing in their economic and political illiteracy. Exactly how can they win?

    On the whole, I’d say much of my antipathy towards the likes of Ms Hanley stems from the fact that I simply don’t buy the economic argument. I find it wholly implausible. Further, I’d say I’m perhaps a deal older than her…and you. I can remember the resentment I used to feel when people used to try and use their age as some sort of valid argument from authority. I’m fully aware of just how irritating and patronising that kind of approach can be. That said, I can never remember a time, whatever the economic or political landscape, when any argument, explanation, alternative approach or weird theory couldn’t find a ‘reputable and respected’ on-message economist or social scientist to back it. I am personally convinced, whatever the ‘research’, that a) immigration reduces wages at the lowest end of the earnings spectrum b) immigration massively benefits the corporate sector.

    I don’t deny its humanitarian benefits nor the increased vibrancy it affords society at large but, for me it’s economically divisive and all the sacrifices seem expected from the working class. Which, being the case, makes harangues from a supposed enlightened elite at some remove from the hardship just a touch condescending.

    By the way. Have you fully considered the value laden assumptions inherent in the phrase “better oneself”…especially when associated with an upward ‘class trajectory’?

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    It’s not that they haven’t made it. It is that they don’t want anyone to make it – that one must not rise above a certain level of mediocrity.

    The left says it supports social mobility – yet when someone from a working class background does make it, and has the honesty to admit they are glad to get out, then, the reaction is telling.

    Fact is, some small working class communities develop a mindset that lowers people’s expectations, and keeps them in their place. Your comment, that Hanley ‘sold her soul for a Waitrose loyalt card’ is indicative of this, I’m afraid.

    Of course this is a problem in other cultures; but certainly in working class culture. I meet many people in working class South Manchester who share the love of cosmopolitan values. I think people should be supported if they want something better than static provincial life.

    Couple of points perhaps I could have made clearer:

    1) In the post I take it for granted that the Polish builder problem exists, even though we have solid evidence against and only anecdotal evidence for.

    Do you think the many problems in the construction trade and with wage exploitation would disappear, if we simply got rid of the A8s.

    2) The point about the Chinese IPad farms was to emphasise the need for global labour rights. Undoubtedly this would improve working conditions for British builders as well as Chinese IPad workers. The Blue Labour approach seems to be ‘look after me and mine, fuck everyone else.’ That’s a popular view, I know. But for a socialist, it seems callous, and I think would ultimately be counterproductive as policy.

  5. modernityblog Says:

    It’s probably better to concentrate on the intellectual failures of Blue Labour, than bickering.

    New Labour and the remnants around Ed Miliband can’t admit why they failed, taking up Tory Lite policies, so they hunt around for implausible alternatives and as can be seen in the recent elections they’re not exactly winning people over.

    The wider issue is that socialism is almost a swear word amongst many Labour leaders, and the idea that they should orientate themselves towards the working class is an anathema to their very being, after spending years sucking up to the rich and metropolitan elites.

    So refried new Labour are in an intellectual dilemma, and Blue Labour will be no real solution.

  6. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “Your comment, that Hanley ‘sold her soul for a Waitrose loyalt card’ is indicative of this, I’m afraid.”

    au contraire

    I’m delighted for her. I’m just not so happy that she’s now turned on her own to some extent. I wish she hadn’t…and I know she’d argue she’s trying to deliver a well aimed kick up the backside to shake others from their lethargy so they can make it too, which is entirely laudable…but their are some-decent, honest, productive people who are never going to..sad but true…and she’s tarring them with the same brush. I’m especially fuckin annoyed with her since she’s the complete antithesis of a certain Ms Penny, whom I recall we recently discussed. Only from time to time Hanley seems to have ‘gone native’ and joined the sententious liberal pontificariat who’ll apply the finest traditions of ethnographic relativism to each and every conceivable society save their own working class…for whom they adopt a didactic Brodiesque disdain.

    Totally agree re Ipad exploitation, and I sure as hell haven’t got a solution to the Polish builder thing. (Incidentally I’ve met many Polish builders and I generally love them to bits…I know this smacks of “some of my best friends….” but, how else do you say it?)

    “The Blue Labour approach seems to be ‘look after me and mine, fuck everyone else.’ That’s a popular view, I know. But for a socialist, it seems callous, and I think would ultimately be counterproductive as policy.”

    Well yes…but as a society we seem to have elected a party more committed than ever to a Friedmanite ethic – I don’t think they’ve bared their teeth yet – you don’t get much more ‘fuck you’ than that…and I think people sense it and are trying to effectively circle the wagons before the storm.

    AND…I nowhere said I endorsed this Blue Labour bullshit. MY point was not that protectionism is a good thing; rather, whatever your view, it shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as indicative of xenophobia, racism or political or economic ignorance. It indicates self-interest; no more, no less. I don’t dispute the other stuff is often -very often- present as well but it’s not axiomatic.

  7. maxdunbar Says:

    Paul

    Self interest is a great thing but it can’t be the only thing, and it so often shades into a grotesque self pity. I’m sick of hearing variations of the comment that ‘Why are we giving aid to Africa when people in Britain don’t have jobs?’ Look after yourself, get the best for yourself and your loved ones but you must also have a sense of perspective and the acknowledgement that your problems are not the worst in the world.

    Re Hanley. I think what would be really hypocritical is if she had escaped to Islington, and continued to idealise her working class roots, without actually wanting to live in her working class community. Her approach is a lot different. She is exposing the dark side. It’s better to criticise your friends when criticism is needed, and it would be a disservice to working class culture to pretend that absolutely everything is fine.

    I don’t believe you are racist or xenophobic in any sense, whatsoever. We are constantly reminded that criticism of immigration is not necessarily racist, but we are blind to the fact that some of it IS racist. This wilful ignorance has led to the insane situation where we have a respected academic arguing that the labour movement should reach out to racist EDL supporters, in the name of anti-racism!

    Modernity

    I quite like Ed. I think he is underrated and he has some passion and some good ideas. The problem is that Labour machine politicians know they can get elected by campaigning on G spot issues like immigration and welfare fraud, without having to deliver positive material benefits for working class people.

  8. modernityblog Says:

    Max,

    I’m sure that Ed Miliband is a lovely person, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him as a good political leader or prime ministerial material.

    He’s unconvincing.

    He lacks bite.

    And above all, he is still tied to new Labour.

    This is the question that needs to be answered, in the eyes of the voters what is to distinguish him from Tony Blair or any of the other nameless place men that occupy the leading positions in the Labour Party?

    I’d say, very little, and from the complete lack of enthusiasm that voters have shown for the LP, recently they would tend to agree.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      We have a fundamental difference Modernity. I support New Labour. It won us three elections. And I think we are doing okay, considering the way we went out in 2010.

  9. ‘They Will Be Moving In Force, And Bringing A Grand Piano’ « Shiraz Socialist Says:

    […] debate comes back to housing allocation. Labour leader Ed Miliband, under the evil thrall of Lord ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman, appeared to reject the need-based model of allocation when he praised a project in […]

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