As Ed Miliband gathers opinions and considers the future policy direction of the Labour party as part of the Policy Review, there has been much debate recently about whether or not to pursue ‘Blue Labour’, as proposed by the academic and Labour peer Maurice Glasman. Blue Labour, a response to ‘Red Toryism’, aims to put co-operatives and the community at the heart of the lives of ordinary British people, and is a rebuttal of New Labour’s strangling embrace of neo-liberalism, which left swathes of grassroots Labour supporters feeling alienated and ignored by the party leadership.
Glasman has a point, for throughout the history of the ‘people’s party’ there has been a split between liberals, state socialists and those who favour co-operatives and more local organisation – many Labour MPs today are also members of the Co-operative Party, and since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century the Labour movement has been associated with local organisation and mobilisation.
Martin Pugh in his 2009 book “Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party” argues persuasively that the real dilemma for Labour through its history has not been attracting liberal support, but attracting hard-working but low-paid voters from the temptations of the Conservatives: many ordinary working class communities share the Tories’ patriotism; love of the armed forces (many of them have close relatives or friends serving in Afghanistan); desire for home ownership and a tough stance on law and order – why did so many vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, read the Daily Mail, and in a few cases drift to more extreme parties through fear of their jobs because of immigration and globalisation? Pugh stresses that when Labour came into being many voters were torn between it and the Tories because of these economic concerns, plus social beliefs like temperance or the role of the Church in schools.
Where Glasman takes the wrong path, in my view, is in his attempt to respond to Cameron’s Big Society by mimicking it and advocating a further retrenchment of the state, along with a return to a 1950s-style focus on the family, the flag, and feminism being almost unheard-of. That’s not ‘Blue Labour’, that’s just conservatism. If we as social democrats want to see equality of provision across the board, we need to expose the Big Society for what it is: a cover for cuts dreamt up by Steve Hilton when the Tories needed to be seen to be shedding the aura of Thatcherism.
If Labour is to win elections again without ditching our principles – to do so would be an insult to people like the families of those killed in Norway – we need to ‘re-connect with the grassroots,’ to use the spin-doctors jargon, by addressing, or at the very least appreciating, the legitimate concerns of the hard-working folk who keep the economy growing and keep money coming into the Exchequer. Instead of Big Society initiatives, we need to take the lead on key issues like housing, providing ample employment for deprived communities and young people generally, and not simply dismissing people’s concerns about migration and welfare dependency. That does not mean leaving the EU, saying we should only have British jobs for British workers, or undertaking humiliating fit-for-work tests like those currently going on under Iain Duncan Smith. It just means listening to those too well-off to be on benefits but on low wages, as well as staying true to proud values like tolerance. If we go some way to pointing out these worries in opposition, whilst criticising the Con-Dems’ unfair cuts, the sought-after swing voters will follow, and we may just wake up to find ourselves in government again.