Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why Blue speaks of the moment

In his Times article on New and Blue Labour Phil Collins writes that ‘the lead partner has to come from the new Labour’ . As Graeme Cooke says in his Progress essay, the ‘new’ and ‘blue’ are the best critics of one another. So with this in mind I’d like to offer Phil a counter proposal.

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I don’t think ‘New Labour’ is going to be the lead partner, nor do I think ‘Blue Labour’ will be. However, I think ‘Blue’ speaks of the moment we are in and ‘New’ does not, and that the energy and ideas and sense of connecting to action lie with ‘Blue’. ‘New’ has been here and done that but doesn’t know where to go next. Here are some reasons why.

1. Blue Labour is about the politics of paradox. Paradoxes are ambiguities of meaning. They allow differences to find a synthesis and a new term rather than just contradicting one another. They offer politics the possibility of transformational alliances rather than just the soldering together of two positions or picking and mixing policies. We’re after neither new nor blue but a synthesis of the two rooted in Labour traditions which will be more than the sum of its two parts. Whether or not the 2015 election is fought on a static pick and mix of ‘new’ and ‘blue’ policies or a genuinely dynamic and evolving synthesis is open to question. We might have to wait longer.

2. Phil’s reasoning that ‘New’ must lead is based on the importance of winning the middle classes’ vote. Robert Philpot echoes this view in his article in the last edition of Progress magazine. But the point of ‘Blue’ is that it is not just about the ‘core working-class vote’. The key issues concerning the public are the economy, the squeeze on incomes combined with rising prices, distrust of bankers and politicians, anxieties about our children’s future (including our adult children), lack of housing, anger over immigration and over a welfare system that gives ‘something for nothing’, plus in England a sense of loss of a national identity. People want social protection, the desire for more time with friends and family. They are concerned about the vulnerable, and they value community. Aspiration matters but its changing – without the public goods of affordable education, homes and jobs it will be increasingly hard for people to make something good of their lives. This is no longer just a working class, C2 issue. ‘Blue’ speaks to the middle classes’ growing sense of precariousness and changing priorities in a time of austerity and the fear of shrinking horizons, in a way that ‘New’ does not.

3. We are in a transformational political conjuncture. What is missing from Phil’s article and other ‘New’ Labour criticisms of ‘Blue’ is any sense of the historical rupture created by the 2008 financial crash. Not only the damage it has done to the economy but what it has revealed about its dysfunctional nature. What is missing is Blue’s central argument that capitalism unleashed from a balance of interests between capital and labour becomes an irresponsible and destructive force. It requires the firm hand of democracy to embed it in institutions and entangle it in associations, both local, national and global. The financialised model of capitalism in Britain is not creating productive wealth, but redistributing it in an upward spiral. Despite the rhetoric of the Thatcher revolution there has not been the wealth creating entrepreneurialism promised. The private sector in the UK has not been a success in creating good jobs, and it has not invested in former industrial regions. It has been parasitical off taxpayer-generated state revenues. We have a system of state-supported capitalism and a failed open economy. Free market liberal economics is not going to rebuild it.

4. Blue is about nation and culture because these are the places where people make meaning, and create a sense of belonging and identity; not just identities of difference but also identities of connection. ‘Blue’ is about society and family because these represent continuities of association and relationships. People fear their communities are at risk, but they do not necessarily want ‘more community’. There is a balance to be struck between individual freedom and collective security. The paradox is best worked out in the practices of democracy and association. First association requires institutions that ensure a balance of interests within society and the economy: intermediary institutions that create a synergy between individual ambition and the common good and which mediate between the market, civil society and the state. ‘New’ created a market state. Blue seeks a social and democratic state in which power is shared in society through the intermediary institutions. Second, relationships are central to association and these are about ethics; about friendship on a personal level and solidarity on a political level. Blue’s interest in a new kind of patriotism, in the value of family and community addresses the problems of deracination and economic insecurity caused by globalisation and free market capitalism. These issues are not separate from the economy but central to it.

5. ‘New’ was a product of the globalising, financialised, boom economy of the 1990s. It now needs a new political economy and it must have a reckoning with its relationship to capitalism. Grafting on relationships, mutuals and some community organising to its unreformed politics won’t work. Times have changed and liberalism and liberal economics are just not enough; they have become part of the problem. ‘Blue’ argues that the nation is a key cultural formation, and the nation state the political unit best equipped for managing globalisation and rebuilding the national economy. First develop national forms of economic governance then proceed to global forms of governance. Economic ownership matters, as does a country’s sense of national integrity. Britain has problems with both.

6. To construct an economy of common prosperity ‘the national’ must be won politically, culturally and socially. Only then can we have the kind of economic modernisation that will benefit the whole country. Economic modernisation requires a Labour covenant around a common prosperity and social protection. A common prosperity will require more than ‘pro-competition’ and ‘pro-market’ policies. It needs to identify and develop the strong intermediate institutions that ensure the balance of interests between capital and labour. It favours individual enterprise but also a wealth tax on land values. It is for inventiveness. It wants new markets but also a state investment bank, community banking and the capitalisation of former industrial regions to boost investment. It supports social investment for the vocational skilling and education of the whole workforce. It opposes using immigration in place of educating and skilling people in this country – the cheap option that ‘asset strips’ poorer countries of their skilled and professional workers and shortchanges British workers. However much we value the talent and determination of an immigrant workforce we ignore at our peril the large numbers of the population who are living without hope and opportunity in poorly paid, mundane and often insecure jobs.

Capitalism requires strong democratic control to ensure the spread of capital and assets across the whole population and in all regions such that it serves the interests of the people through decent jobs and a spread of asset ownership. Modernising the British economy requires significant reform of the banking sector and of the state. No bank should be too big to fail, and the state needs to devolve and localise its power through intermediate institutions and in a variety of partnerships.

7. Labour is politically, culturally and socially disconnected from the private sector – both employers and workers – which creates productive wealth. The Labour movement is organised around what is in danger of becoming a clientist public sector . ‘New’ responded to this dilemma by handing over to the private sector public assets via privatisation and marketisation and asked for nothing in return. It subjected public sector workers to a system of targets and performance management that undermined workforce relationships and the ethic of public care and service. ‘Blue’ argues for a closer but more robust relationship with the private sector – not something for nothing. Labour needs to find common cause with productive capital and its workers to take on finance capital and build a better economy for the nation which includes significant capital investment in domestic production and a living wage.

8. A covenant around welfare begins with a contributory insurance principle that protects everyone against the risks of unemployment, illness, disability. The issue of conditionality is a political, not an empirical, issue. There is no evidence that intensifying levels of conditionality works on the sick; nor is there evidence that one million people on incapacity benefit are fit to work. Public attitudes toward welfare are paradoxical. The public doesn’t like benefits being handed out to the ‘undeserving’, but the public prioritises care for the most vulnerable in society. Who deserves and who doesn’t? ‘New’ didn’t find an answer. It confused the sick and disabled with the unemployed and boosted persecutory attitudes toward benefit claimants. There is growing evidence that the coalition’s implementation of Labour’s 2008 welfare reform act is undermining the financial security and well being of the most vulnerable people in society. The work capability assessment is not fit for purpose. Blue argues for a reciprocal welfare policy but a more generous, compassionate and ‘relational ‘ approach to, not least, people who are sick and disabled.

My counter proposal to Phil is that as we set out on this journey, no one leads. We all occupy the front seat; as we travel we argue about which direction along the way and let’s see if we can draw the map together.


Photo: guiltrento 

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Jonathan Rutherford

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