Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Blue Labour too conservative

While the ‘Blue Labour’ idea put forward by Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford, Maurice Glasman and others is superficially attractive, it isn’t the way forward for New Labour or for our party.

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Beyond motherhood, apple pie and the frequent use of a dog whistle it offers little to the party moving forward.

‘Blue Labour’, a new way of doing Labour politics based around ‘family, faith and the flag’ is in many ways the inverse of what made New Labour strong. Based on fantasy, not grounded in reality. Frightened of change, not accepting of it. Embracing our own conservatism, not challenging it. And, most importantly, offering not a better tomorrow but a defence of yesterday.

The great achievement of New Labour was in presenting and creating a Labour party that accepted modern Britain, not one that harked back to the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s. The great trap of ‘Blue Labour’ is in a fantastical vision of a Britain that never was and we cannot defend. While we might wish to defend traditional working class communities and patterns of living from demographic change, technological innovation and a globalised economy, we can’t, short of adopting an ultra-Luddite, ultra-protectionist agenda, with all the awful consequences that would entail. We can build new communities for the twenty-first century, but communities based around high-tech industry and green jobs will be fundamentally different from the old communities they replace.

More importantly, New Labour not only accepted the realities of inevitable political and economic change, but it accepted and harnessed them to create a new and better world, whether through redistribution or the teaching of new skills. Sending the majority of British people to university will fundamentally change the communities that people live in, but we shouldn’t mourn the old world but should instead look forward to the new one. The ‘Blue Labour’ alternative would see the party offer the ‘managed change’ that this month’s editorial; a slightly worse version of yesterday, not a better version of today.

A political promise that offers a defence of yesterday, not a better tomorrow, is the biggest flaw of ‘Blue Labour’. Whether in backing the white heat of Wilson, the shock treatment of Thatcherism or the ‘young country’ of Tony Blair, the British people have, in every election since 1945, supported the party that has offered the most optimistic vision of tomorrow. ‘Blue Labour’ is, avowedly and unashamedly, based upon conservatism; a pessimistic philosophy based on the idea that the best any government can offer is a defence of yesterday. When Blair railed against the ‘forces of conservatism’, he was attacking the notion – from any side of the political spectrum – that our best days were behind us, or that the best hope of government is to return to a mythical yesteryear. New Labour at its best is based upon the conviction that our best days lie ahead; that we can improve teacher quality through schemes like Teach First, that we can modernise our economy using high-speed rail, that we can reduce crime and increase employment. This belief is what we lost in 2010 and must recover and use as our guide to victory in 2015, not a grim determination to cling onto yesterday. 

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • Hello Stephen, it’s not just that I disagree with you – you would expect me to say that – but I think you miss the point of the argument. Personally I’m not stuck in the past, nor interested in returning to the past, nor do I think that the past is some idyll. We are arguing for a politics with roots in our political traditions and in the traditions of our country in order to find the resources we need to shape our future and to provide us with the kind of cultural and philosophical depth that will enable us to develop an enduring politics and ethics. New Labour was fine when the going was relatively easy but it lacked intellectual confidence and by its end it had become technocratic and had lost its moral compass. Its electoral coalition was shallow and it has broken apart. It is time to move on, not reject the important and valuable parts of New Labour – it won Labour an extraordinary three terms in office – but to develop beyond it in order to create a politics for this new conjuncture. New Labour was more a methodology than a political philosophy and it was unable to build a genuinely different conception of society than the one that’s been on offer for the last thirty years. The kind of conservative socialism I’m arguing for is above all about the primacy of democracy over capital, society over the market and human relationships over commercial transactions. It is a politics that has deep roots in the past and powerful traditions that can help us confront new problems. Dog whistle politics arise when a politics is brittle and superficial and too timid or too weakened to confront the real issues. It is not about dog whistle politics. There is never simply a future; it always has a past on whose patterns it is created. The kind of progressive politics you promote tends to forget this. It does not know what to do about the serious predicament Labour is in- particularly in England. It has no viable political economy and it lacks the wider analysis and the political resources to confront the challenges that we face.

  • All that’s new is not gold. I hold no brief for “Blue Labour”, but Stephen’s comments typify a common misconception among self-styled progressives, on both the radical right and the centre-left, that there is something inherently unhealthy about mourning lost traditions or practices and that we must constantly adapt to market forces, set our faces towards the future and forget about the past. It is perfectly natural to feel nostalgic from time to time, and the experience of loss can be just as powerful a source of radical political commitment as the kind of misty-eyed vision of better tomorrows that we have been repeatedly offered by economists, politicians and entrepreneurs ever since the industrial revolution.

  • In that case it’s not blue it’s i know people do not like it these days but red, red as in the Labour Rose. But I suspect Mr Bush was once upon a time a Tory a lover of Thatcher, but once she left he quickly found Blair. Sadly right now Labour has little to offer me, and sadly nor has the Tories, the Liberal are dead or should be. so it’s going to be a very long time before i vote again.

  • Why do people hanker after the past? Isn’t it a foreign country? Perhaps they should get hold of a copy of David Kynaston’s social history of the fifties. If that is what you want then it is best you seek out the foreign country where it still exists, more or less.

  • Hi Jonathan, Thanks very much for taking the time to respond! I agree that in its 1997-2001 phase, New Labour was largely a methodology, not a philosophy. However, I think that from 2001 onwards, and particularly in its 2004-7 phase, it developed into far more than that, into a philosophy that argued for the use of market mechanisms to improve public services and people’s lives. Fundamentally, it recognised that, while the market is not always virtuous, it is next to impossible to resist it. This is my central problem with your ‘primacy of democracy over capital, society over the market and human relationships over commercial transactions’ line. Obviously, I agree that democracy, society and human relationships are more important than market forces; but what does that actually *mean* for the development of policy?

  • It’s not a question of “hankering after the past”, simply of recognising that the belief that, to quote New Labour’s old theme song, “things can only get better”, is a myth. Of course, to engage in any kind of political activity, one has to have hope for the future. But in the light of historical experience since the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the only defensible attitude towards the future is best summed up by Antonio Gramsci’s maxim: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. Having lived through the 1950s, I don’t need to read David Kynaston’s social history know that although there was much wrong with British society then – entrenched racism, patriarchy and homophobia, to name but three – some of the ways we lived then were better, both for individuals and for society as a whole, than the way we live now. Market and commercial forces were less rampant, residential communities were more cohesive, most people had to be careful about money and certainly did not regard owning, earning and shopping as life’s prime goal. Today, as we struggle to recover from the grievous economic and social consequences of the great neo-liberal crash and gear ourselves up to avert environmental disaster, we need to find ways of recultivating some of virtues that were practised by our forebears such as the ability to cope with austerity, moral and physical courage, and a commitment to fellowship with others. I see no sign whatsoever that the Labour Party understands any of this. The only political party with even an inkling of the problems facing our civilisation and the scale of the economic and social changes that will be required to overcome them is the Green Party. No wonder I have to keep on repeating Gramsci’s motto to avoid falling into despair when I come across Progress bloggers denouncing Compass for inviting Caroline Lucas to share the platform at its summer conference. Such petty sectarianism is despicable and shameful.

  • Notions of Blue Labour and Red Tory are full of paradoxes; it’s why I like them. The fundamental argument of Blue Labour is that some things are worth conserving – on the grounds of humanity, decency and solidarity. Any vision of a good society must reconcile itself with valuable institutions and practices that have existed in the past; but it must also offer a practical, better future. Much of the left these days tie themselves up in knots to defend the indefensible. One example is the current role of the state in welfare; of course there are valuable elements that can be conserved, but many on the left are even more conservative (with a small c) than those advancing a blue labour thesis. The idea that the entrenched inequality, poverty, and social injustice that has continued under the welfare state is acceptable is indicative of the failure of much of the left to offer contemporary solutions to contemporary problems.

  • probably just a phase,unless they get lost in maze or more importantly get us lost in one.What’s the objective? land ahoy or all at sea,clearly stated prayer for the people please.If individuals and communities have b….. all money how do they have power?? power to do stuff comes with tax collection or big swing boys in business/commerce , the tax collectors are appointed by voters ,the big swing boys simply do what they can get away with,they can’t be forced to be altruistic?

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