Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour isn’t working

New Labour’s estrangement from working people is at the root of its problems. Blue Labour is where it should go next, Maurice Glasman tells Robert Philpot

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‘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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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress


  • Faith, family and giving a passing immigrant a good kicking? Sounds great. Hey maybe we could offer affiliate status to the poor misunderstood EDL? Remind me which side of the battle of cable street were we on? Jesus. If this is the future of the labour party I’m off.

  • Hear, Hear Maurice – Labour are destined for the backbenches for a very long time unless they embrace these astute thoughts from Maurice Glasman. If they also throw in the policy of supporting an English Parliament and parity of public spending ( in comparison to the devolved nations ) then Labour could be back in power at the next election. Oh and good riddance to the likes of Geoff.

  • see the aggression! that’s what racist working class love, they do not want good for society but to feel better than the next man.They will sell responsibility for power by proxy ,competition/aggression when buying a ticket for a football match .But coming together in groups to do ‘ good ‘ unlikely. They pay tax and expect it to be distributed by elected government and that’s it,they think Politicians are well paid so get on with it .Local government ? now there’s the rub because immediately they would come up against legislation which would make racist views unwelcome,and mixing with toffs would stall them too.But throwing bananas on football pitches etc that can all happen at the footy where they can relax and feel powerful for no hassle.Look what a big thing football is in our society ,why? And if ‘working class ‘people are so true to Labour how come they didn’t get them elected?

  • We’ve been waiting for a long time now for Labour to engage with the Cornish identity -Cornish patriotism- in a constructive and progressive way. We want devolution to Cornwall and a Labour party that offered that would win in the Duchy. Give us a referendum on creating the civic and empowering governmental structures that have so well served in Wales.

  • Give us a break – Labour would rather choke on their own vomit than utter the word English or England. That goes for the Tories and Lib Dems as well.

  • Romans ,Vikings,Normans…few hundred years……then,Afro-Caribbeans encouraged and needed to help rebuild after WW2 .Indians,Pakistanis from a continent we occupied and grew rich from along with all the other colonies of Empire…how did we get to be 6th richest nation? We choke on our dept to other peoples Helen ,England-Shakespeare-cup-o-tea etc all well and good .But a national identity that turns it back on where it has really come from is not worth having. Look at the Royals still visiting Commonwealth (WEALTH) why? this is England.

  • In order to be taken seriously commentators need to learn to distinguish between the English and the British. It was the British who created the BRITISH EMPIRE. The colonists included the Scots and the Welsh, arguably in greater proportion than the English. Afro-Caribbean surnames are predominantly Welsh and Scottish and we need not look too closely as to why that should be! However under the BRITISH Labour and Coalition Governments those countries have been encouraged to celebrate their nationhood and history. It is pure Anglophobic prejudice that is apparent in the comments here. That prejudice applauds the Scottish and Welsh nationalism that has ensured their own national governments but denigrates England and denies England the restoration of its parliament, the mother of Parliaments. That prejudice enabled Gordon Brown to deny that Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights was an English achievement and he called it British . That prejudice tarnishes our national flag with mendacious accusations of racism when it is the British flag that has been used by the far right. That kind of prejudice should not be tolerated by those that call themselves ‘Progressives”

  • I do beg your pardon,you are quite right.after I wrote I did think the same myself and I had also thought about the Irish who came to Scotland because of the famine.Sorry,purely an omission,not a frame of mind

  • Extraordinarily sensible. Glasman hits an outer if not inner bullseye on immigration. Like many others in our party, he’s realised there’s no moral component to immigration whatsoever. If a country needs more people it’s a very good idea. If it doesn’t, it’s merely stupid, and place insane burdens on our hard pressed welfare state. Realising that, it’s easy to understand the anger of working people who know that a grossly overcrowded country is least fair to them. The place where our party should be if it ever wants power again, is on the hard right of the soft left. That is, Blue/New labour. (There are tory left wingers whose views are also compatible with that). The rump that remains should think seriously about joining the Lib Dems.

  • So, that’s right, then: we are to reach out to the disaffected racist, homophobic, lager-drinking, junk-food eating, ‘Sun’ reading, reality -TV watching, white-van driving bigot who forever insists that none of ’em ‘ave ever done anyfing for ‘im who, we believe, is Labour’s natural constituency? Meet them every day in places Glasman has never been or likely to go. Or have I got it all wrong and I should cancel my escape from the Royal Wedding?

  • Without a doubt there is a crying need almost desperate need to develop a new narrative, a new perspective a new approach to immigration. We are a nation of immigrants. Just in the last 60/70 years, we have experienced waves of migrants from the Europe. • The Huguenots fleeing religious persecution • Jewish People finding sanctuary from the Nazis • Irish labour who were responsible for building of our great railways and canals. Our Leader Ed Miliband is the first generation of his family born in this Country . Within 2 generations Ed’s communities are now mainstream Britain. This is the key issue ‘How do we speed up the journey of changing a migrant to a citizen’ Historically, immigrants have revitalised reinvigorated and regenerated our nation. This is the message we should acknowledge, advocate and now drive. Some people say you can’t talk about ‘we are a nation of immigrants’. We as a Party had stopped listening, Stopped engaging Stopped resolving the problem of people who are our core voters. A progressive policy on immigration should be Holistic, based around the central theme of ‘we are a nation of immigrants’, coupled with policies that stops employers walking away from agreements, devaluing conditions, reducing standards and wages at work. As well as creating more quality jobs, by building more Council houses, schools, universities, local hospitals and GP surgeries. We went to war on lie, why can’t we give leadership to our nation on facts ?

  • The hostility towards working-class culture and customs and – dare I say it – snobbish attitude towards working people here is precisely why Labour lost so many of their votes. If we look and sound like a nannying, lefty liberal middle-class metropolitan party who lecture the working-class then we can sow up the Guardian vote, but continue to lose support from those who are rooted in ordinary everyday lives – the very people we seek to represent and defend. There isn’t – as Glasman has articulated, within Blue Labour a sense that we should return to 1960s Alf Garnet attitudes towards race and homosexuality etc (a complete misunderstanding of his thesis and only underlines how out-of-touch the liberal left is in understanding working-class concerns), but an honest analysis of why globalisation has failed ordinary people. What can we do to address these failures? Why do they feel ignored and left out of the economic and political systems?

  • That would be the same Tom Long, above, that comments all over the web calling for an English parliament because “ENGLAND ( not Britain ) will be denied the Conservative Government it votes for due to all the Labour MPs returned by Scotland, Wales and NI”? Sorry if I don’t take your deepfelt concern for Labour’s electoral prospects too seriously…

  • well you hardly need to visit the Delphic oracle to know that globalisation has failed ordinary people exactly because they are left out of the economic and political system because of Capitalism,its the rough with the smooth isn’t it and no one has the answer as to how to engender the will to modulate Capitalism and legislate a more generous attitude to the underclass .

  • The anonymous (and very bitter, ignorant and snobbish) writer of the 5th post clearly hasn’t been to a football match in the last 20 years, if at all. Throwing bananas at black players? Perhaps at matches in mainland Europe, but not in Blighty! Racist behaviour is swiftly dealt with at most if not all grounds these days. The “Kick Racism out of Football” is a rare thing – a sucessful anti-racist campaign, and one not controlled by Trots! Richard Johnson has written more or less what I was going to say.

  • Kamaljeet Jandu, we are not really a nation of immigrants at all. The majority of the nation’s inhabitants possess a genetic (celtic) heritage that goes back thousands of years. The “immigrant” status of the British people is frequently and lazily exaggerated on the left. As for the immigration of the past few decades, it has certainly been a lot but still only accounts for a small percentage of the total population. The reason why people won’t accept this idea that “we are a nation of immigrants” is not just because it’s electorally suicidal but because it’s also simply incorrect.

  • oh do you mean the Celts from central Europe or the ones the Pixies made out of shamrocks and sausage meat and left under a mushroom ( “der’s not mushroom ere mate,diddle de dum twinkle de dee”)

  • Do any of you seriously believe that we EDL would want anything to do with a Labour party that has betrayed us, time and time again. They have destroyed this country, millions losing their jobs and homes, a national debt that generations of our children will be paying for. A labour party that calls us bigots, racist and nazi and they, lol, want to “engage” with us. That’s really funny. Arthur.

  • ‘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.’ Oh really? How convenient that it also pigeonholes anyone who immediately disregards the ridiculous call for New Labour to pander to the extreme right. The left has been destroyed by people like Maurice Glasman and the blue-blooded, red skeined politicians who frequently focus their attacks on the Left. The Tories couldn’t even muster a government after two of the most unpopular prime-ministers ever and a huge inancial crisis, why would you advocate following their agenda? I suggest you read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and discover what everyone always knows. The only thing that destroys the strength of the left, is infighting within the left, it destroyed the last Labour government, and you wish to do it again, alienating your core support by chasing after EDL supporters that’ll never support you. If there’s one thing you should learn from the right it’s the solidarity they show at all times. Division is weakness, unity is strength.

  • Reading the commengts ehere I wonder whether anyone has understood anything Mr Glasman has said. I don’;t think he’sinterested in the surface layer of politics but the underbelly the real guts of it. Marx wrote about the commodification of people and my goodness have we not got it? As I understand it Glasman is advocating listening to people to find ouit why they might support the EDL not to condone but to understand and to use what is learned to help bkild communities not split people assunder. There seems to be more spite than venom in people’s expressions of their views. Not a good start.

  • […] 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’.”  ( […]

  • […] 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’.” ( […]

  • […] 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’.” ( […]

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