Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A family affair

New Labour and blue Labour have much to learn from each other, argues James Purnell

I remember sitting with the late Philip Gould last year talking about blue Labour. He was intrigued by Maurice Glasman, the academic who had come up with the moniker, which was then giving our friends an allergic reaction. ‘Populist, anti-immigrant, Europhobic,’ Peter Mandelson had said. ‘A Labour equivalent of warm beer and old maids bicycling’, thought Tony Blair. But Philip said: ‘You should explore it. It’s not my thing – purpose is my thing. But politics is Hegelian – you need to reconcile the opposites.’

I sensed that New and blue flowed from the same source and, that by going upstream, we could clarify Labour’s approach and get back in touch with the voters who had inspired it. Yet, when it appeared, blue Labour, a revisionist step within the ethical socialist tradition, was treated more as an enemy than a cousin.

This was a family feud with old roots going back to Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie, whose uneasy alliance created Labour, but whose easy rivalry still haunts it. Indeed, their relationship teaches us both the necessity of power but also the difficulty the party has remembering that lesson.

In its early years Labour faced the classic insurgent party’s dilemma – cooperate with the established party, or try to replace it? By 1903, the Labour Representation Committee was three years old but struggling at the margins of political life. That January, MacDonald started negotiations with the Liberals, talks which were kept secret from everyone except Hardie. The agreement reached in September of that year, that the Liberals would give Labour a free run in 30 seats, got Labour’s 29 MPs elected in 1906.

In many ways Hardie was as pragmatic as MacDonald. Within the LRC, Hardie was prepared to take a stand, but when it came to national politics he was often content to let MacDonald do the deals, and take the opprobrium. Here was carved the faultline in Labour’s soul. Idealism or pragmatism? Principles or results? Dreams or reality? All leftwing parties face this tension. People of good judgement can disagree about how to balance the two. But balanced they need to be – without pragmatism, Labour might not have been steered, first by Hardie and then by MacDonald, to become the most important social democratic party of the first half of the 20th century.

But what should have been a tension, which could create energy, became a choice, which begat traitors: the later parts of MacDonald’s biography infected this part of Labour’s tradition, giving pragmatism his bad name.
New Labour was at its best when attempting to reconcile pragmatism and idealism, to reopen the settled judgement that there was an inevitable choice between the two, that the task of Labour politics was to work out the minimum sacrifice to electability that needed making.

Where was New Labour at its best? In policy. That is where pragmatism met idealism: an NHS, better funded, free at the point of use, but where patients had the power, or sure start, a new common institution supporting aspiration and reducing inequality.

But we never won the ideological argument. When activists did not like a particular policy, we often took a shortcut by saying that the electorate would not accept them or that globalisation made them impossible. But this led us away from the real destination – of convincing activists and voters that New Labour was an ethical expression of Labour’s values, rather than a compromise with them.

We were doing good Labour things. But we still were not winning a common sense argument for Labour. Then, when the economy turned down, we did not have an argument on which to fall back, other than ‘you can’t trust the Tories’. In contrast, they could bring their own common sense argument out of the drawer: the country was spending beyond its means; the only answer was to cut. Without Labour roots, the saplings of the third way did not stand a chance when the wind got up.

In the middle of that financial storm, I came across blue Labour. Soon after first meeting Maurice I found myself taking part in community organising training, discussing what made people suffer and how they could stop it. This was not a political meeting, but it took me straight back to the founding spirit of the Labour party, finding a way to organise around a common interest: the representation of the people.

Once, this work had been done in unions, in Hardie’s editorials in the Labour Leader, during speechmaking tours. By the 1990s, the work was being done in focus groups. Almost everyone misunderstood Philip’s groups. People thought he was going to Watford to find out what floating voters thought and then report back. Instead, he went to people’s front rooms to argue with them. He described the scene in The Unfinished Revolution: ‘I loved the direct contact with the electorate, the way that I could put arguments, hear arguments, confront arguments … I see them as an important part of the democratic process: part of a necessary dialogue between politicians and people, part of a new approach to politics.’

If the focus group was the organisational unit of New Labour, then for blue Labour it is the one-to-one. Two people who do not know each other sit down together and talk about what inspires, shapes and hurts them. They are about everyone, not just floating voters; and they can start a relationship. Blue Labour is fundamentally relational. They remind us that we can win a common sense argument for Labour.

What would that common interest look like? Blue Labour allows us to evolve, ideologically, by recognising that New Labour was right to value markets, but failed to stimulate enough private sector growth; was right to make welfare conditional, but did not talk enough about protection; right to care about aspiration, but did not think enough about belonging; right to care about community, but did not find a method to strengthen it; right to reform public services, but wrong to give up on market reform.

Thus modified, and strengthened by a confidence that they flow from a Labour tradition, these arguments would give us the confidence to take on the assumptions that have slept, barely disturbed even by the financial crisis, under British politics since 1979. A belief in private sector growth would replace reliance on the City. The responsibility of each would replace reliance on the rich. A protective welfare state could trump a means-tested safety net. We could stop the market when it threatened to damage communities. We would no longer assume that the electorate was fundamentally conservative – or Conservative.

This is a conversation that is only just starting. It has been hard to have while both cousins were insulting each other, decrying each other’s nostalgia and change-mania respectively. I would have loved to hear Maurice and Philip discuss this, but I have a guess at what Philip would have said. Even in 2009, he was predicting the Global Spring. He was excited about how technology and the end of deference were rebalancing power. New Labour seminars often talked about empowerment, but Philip really believed it was becoming possible, and that we had to reform the state to grab that opportunity. We need to find a way of letting the people decide what that change should be and managing how it happens. Today, it seems possible – and, if we can create legitimate institutions and powerful individuals, desirable.

New Labour was only just setting out on that journey. An encounter with blue Labour can give it the fuel to start again. This can give us a double-confidence: first, to seek renewal in our own tradition, and, second, that we can build a common interest with the people, which in turn gives them power. This is the way to reconcile principle and pragmatism. If people have power, both in their lives and through politics, they can decide both how to build a common life, and where to make compromises. They become both Hardie and MacDonald.

Philip had a richer word for pragmatism: duty. ‘My father gave me duty, my mother idealism. They gave me both the land and the sea.’ Duty is a human word – an obligation you owe to people because you know them; a loyalty to ideas that you found together. Philip lived his intellectual inheritance by mixing loyalty to Labour with a dedication to winning power for the people it should always have represented. He and Maurice never met, but they shared an outlook – that politics started with people and relationships, and that it was through them that one found purpose.

A journalist who went to Philip’s wake said to me that it had made him not only understand New Labour but think immeasurably better of it. He realised we were a family, with all the love and compromise, rivalry and shared dreams that go with that.

Blue and New are cousins in that family affair. They spring from an ethical, vibrant Labour argument. They are idealistic and dutiful. We can indeed have both the land and the sea.


James Purnell is former secretary of state for work and pensions. This piece is extracted from Philip Gould: An Unfinished Life edited by Dennis Kavanagh and published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £18.99


Photo: Christine Vaufrey

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James Purnell

is former secretary of state for pensions


  • Thanks James for summarising the Blue Labour critique of New
    Labour so succinctly. It’s worth repeating.

    New Labour was:

    right to value markets, BUT failed to stimulate
    enough private sector growth

    right to make welfare conditional, BUT did not
    talk enough about protection

    right to care about aspiration, BUT did not think
    enough about belonging

    right to care about community, BUT did not find
    a method to strengthen it

    right to reform public services, BUT wrong to
    give up on market reform.

    It’s encouraging to see former ministers accepting this

    First, is there more to come? Let’s have a complete list of “buts”.

    Second, how can we avoid some similar buts in the
    next Labour government?

    Discussions with citizens (one on one, or one on many) are
    useful in avoiding the buts, as you suggest. As are discussions with civil servants and leaders of civil society
    organisations of all kinds.

    However, such discussions don’t tap into the knowledge and
    experience of people at the coalface (in their jobs). That is where the party can best prevent the buts of 1997-2010 recurring and avoid new buts emerging. One limited solution to this problem is provided by

  • Oh for fuck sale get over yourself, New Blue Labour failed! you are Tories in disguise with no real sense of reality caught in you media westminster bubble. It’s your lack of vision that has created the housing bubble! A lack of social housing during your time in power showed your real commitment to Thatcherism. NHS PPI exposed the real driving force in the city. but far worse is the likes of Mandy< Milburn and anyone else from progress who continue to snipe at the present Labour leader and the party in general. One other thing Iraq! a real Labour party would never of supported such a grotesque war.

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