‘My favourite quote from Saul Alinsky’, begins Maurice Glasman, ‘is his definition of a liberal as someone who walks out of the room before the argument begins.’ It is not something that Glasman himself could easily be accused of, while the reference to Alinsky, the founder of modern community organising, is an unsurprising one. Until he was offered a peerage by Ed Miliband in the new year’s honours list, Glasman, a lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University, was perhaps best known for his decade-long work with London Citizens and its Living Wage campaign.
But now, as he finds himself somewhat unexpectedly on the Lords’ benches, Glasman is ready to have that argument. Indeed, he describes ‘blue Labour’, the body of ideas developed by Glasman, fellow academics Marc Stears and Jonathan Rutherford, and Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, as ‘a completely agitational idea to provoke a conversation about what went wrong with the Blair project’.
While Glasman’s thinking has begun to pepper the speeches of Labour’s leader, to whom he acts as an informal adviser, he is not an unalloyed critic of New Labour: ‘In the early Blair days’, he suggests, ‘there was very strong language about family, there was a very strong commitment to what he called Christian socialism, there was a very strong discourse on responsibility and the work ethic, there was a real love of the history of the Labour movement, there was a real understanding of … the daily experience of people’s lives. There was a real combination of tradition and modernisation and I think the key to Blair’s success was that alchemy.’
Blue Labour, argues Glasman’ is ‘an attempt to improve and strengthen the early days of New Labour … It is the place where New Labour needs to go next.’
‘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,’ he suggests.
Flag, faith and family, the oft-cited shorthand for the blue Labour agenda, is not, Glasman is keen to point out, ‘a phrase I have ever uttered myself’. Nonetheless, it is its ‘excessively polemical’ nature, rather than the sentiments themselves, with which Glasman finds issue. But he is dismissive of any suggestion that blue Labour mythologises an age when women knew their place, ethnic minorities were second-class citizens, and respect for family life translated into the persecution of gay men. ‘I’m Jewish, so I know that story’, he responds. Instead, he believes, there are two sides to England: ‘the monarchist, reactionary, Anglican supremacist ruling-class England’ and ‘the Labour movement England’. The story of the latter is ‘resistance to the domination of the rich and powerful’ and the attempt to have ‘working people recognised’. It’s that story – stretching back to 1066 when people resisted the king and the Normans, through the assertion of the rights of the Commons against the king in parliament, and the resistance to the enclosures – that Glasman believes Labour should honour and reconnect with.
Critics, however, will argue that Glasman’s call for Labour to marry tradition and modernisation suffers from the same desire to triangulate, or split the difference, between difficult choices that New Labour was so often accused of. Glasman disagrees: ‘Any successful coalition that comes out now will be a blend of the traditional and the modern. Blue Labour is paradoxical, not contradictory. Politics is always a mixture in that way and successful strategic politics weirdly is rooted in that.’ That belief in balance and in recognising the paradoxical without shunning it is central to Glasman’s thinking.
Glasman’s critique of New Labour defies the normal left-right categorisation. He has a visceral dislike of statism and bemoans the decline of the trade union right which shared that disdain. His admiration for the former AEEU leader, Ken Jackson, appears to stem from his ‘quite militant working-class objection to bossy progressivism and a certain type of public sector managerial Fabianism’. For similar reasons, Glasman has little time for ‘the Kinnock-Hattersley-Brown position which says that the problem with the last Labour government was roughly that we didn’t spend enough money. Now I don’t think that’s taken particularly seriously anywhere and I certainly don’t think it’s taken seriously in the present leadership.’
New Labour’s approach to globalisation, immigration and its conception of fairness, however, lies at the heart of the party’s estrangement from working people, believes Glasman. Globalisation, he argues, may be a fact, but it is not a fate. ‘There are different strategies of … mediation and the one that appeals to me most is the one pursued by Germany.’ Indeed, the strength of the German economy throughout the downturn is evidence that we cannot ‘really argue with the superiority of their model’. Glasman is keen to reel off a host of its features – robust vocational training, regional banks, works councils and what he terms a ‘distribution of the burdens’ between workforce and management. He contrasts them with Britain where there has been ‘a massive increase in managerial pay, massive sovereignty of managerial control, always the workforce having to pay the price, and industrial decline and a lack of real private sector growth.’
But it is immigration and multiculturalism which has become ‘the big monster that we don’t like to talk about’, claims Glasman. Mass immigration under Labour, he believes, served to ‘act as an unofficial wages policy’. The party’s position, Glasman contends, occupied a ‘weird space where we thought that a real assault on the wage levels of English workers was a positive good’. More seriously, he charges the last government with having acted in a ‘very supercilious, high-handed way: there was no public discussion of immigration and its benefits. There was no election that was fought on that basis. In fact there was a very, very hard rhetoric combined with a very loose policy going on. Labour lied to people about the extent of immigration and the extent of illegal immigration and there’s been a massive rupture of trust.’
It is here that that Glasman’s ‘paradoxical position’ is once again apparent. He has, he believes, ‘no concerns that the future of the country’s going to be pluralist’ and is himself from a family of immigrants but believes there has also ‘got to simultaneously be solidarity, and there has been an erosion of solidarity’. The party’s conception of equality is problematic, he suggests. ‘There have to be ways of honouring the common life of people who come [as immigrants],’ he believes, but it also not the case that ‘everyone who comes is equal and has an equal status with people who are here’.
Similarly, desert and history, not just need, have to be factored in to Labour’s conception of fairness. Citing the argument that ‘I’ve paid my taxes all these years and yet I get bumped out by people who’ve just arrived on the basis of need’, he argues that the party has ‘got to not view that as reactionary [or] bigoted but as a real violation of what people actually mean by fairness. We’ve essentially devalued our language by making things the opposite of what they mean, and losing “fairness” – which we did at the last election – was actually a catastrophe for us because when we said “fairness” people thought we meant privilege, privilege for the new, privilege for people who don’t work, everything calculated on need and nothing done on desert.’
Perhaps most controversially, Glasman calls on progressives to recognise their ‘responsibility for the generation of far-right populism’, currently manifested in the growth of the English Defence League. ‘You consider yourself … 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.’ This, he believes, is to ignore ‘a massive hate and rage against us’ from working-class people ‘who have always been true to Labour’. The solution, he says, is ‘to build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party. Not dominant in the party, not setting the tone of the party, but just a reconnection with those people that we can represent a better life for them, because that’s what they want.’
That process begins, argues Glasman, by understanding that ‘working-class men can’t really speak at Labour party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist’. Labour’s challenge, believes Glasman is to defy Alinksy’s definition of a liberal and ‘open the space for people to be able to speak of their own experience and concerns and not walk out of the room’.
Photo: David Levene / Guardian News and Media 2009
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