The strange death and rebirth of blue Labour

Near-fatally wounded last year, blue Labour is back at the heart of the party’s debate. Richard Darlington talks to its key players

It has been quite a journey for blue Labour. Bursting onto the scene after the party’s election defeat and proclaimed by many as its route back to power, only to crash and burn so badly last year, it was proclaimed dead and buried by the Westminster commentariat. But with the appointment this summer of Jon Cruddas to coordinate Ed Miliband’s policy review, it now looks like blue Labour might be back from the dead.

Over the past few years, blue Labour advocates have published pamphlets, held conferences, and started a website. There has even been a book written about it. But blue Labour’s breakthrough moment came during the leadership contest when David Miliband gave a speech, the Keir Hardie memorial lecture, which was spun by his campaign team as ‘something very special’. The candidate previously perceived as the New Labour standard-bearer was about to demonstrate that he ‘gets it’.
The recurring theme of the speech was Miliband’s embrace of the values of ‘solidarity, reciprocity and mutuality’. You could not put these three words on a leaflet or use them on the doorstep, but this language might guide Labour to a new way of talking to people about what the party stands for.

This was the moment in which New Labour was re-evaluating old Labour. Or as Miliband put it: ‘to redeem the promise of Labour politics we need the renewal that has been too long postponed.’ Significantly, the arch-moderniser declared: ‘Our inspiration can come from the past.’ Hardie, he said, ‘was a socialist not a statist’. And echoing a line used frequently by James Purnell after he had resigned from cabinet, Miliband claimed the party had been ‘too hands-on with the state and too hands-off with the market’.

With the frontrunner in the leadership race declaring that the route to the future was through the past, blue Labour, it seemed, had really come of age. But Miliband was not the only contender vying for the blue Labour mantle. Ed Miliband had launched his leadership bid with a strong embrace of the living wage campaign and an association with the community politics of London Citizens. In fact, Labour’s future leader had become close to Maurice Glasman when they collaborated on Gordon Brown’s general election speech to Citizens UK in Westminster’ Central Hall.

In their embrace of blue Labour the Miliband brothers were united. But in support of what exactly? ‘I don’t like the phrase,’ Cruddas says. ‘I’m not sure what the “blue” represents. But it was certainly born out of Labour’s political defeat and, before that, born out of frustration during the financial crisis. What it has become is a rolling conversation.’ And at the heart of that conversation has been Glasman, the former London Metropolitan University political theory lecturer who Miliband elevated to the Lords shortly after he was elected leader. For the media, blue Labour guru Glasman represented a colourful political mirror image of Red Tory guru Phillip Blond.

‘I was never a guru for Ed,’ Glasman argues. ‘He’s a friend of mine but he comes from Brown’s entourage.’ Brown, Glasman says, was ‘continuity Blair. Too managerial, viewed trade unions as a problem, allowed the domination of the City, didn’t redistribute power and forgot about the common good.’

It is not hard to see how Glasman has developed a reputation for being outspoken, a reputation that, at times, has threatened to eclipse the rest of blue Labour thinking. Indeed, when blue Labour suffered its near-death experience last summer, it was Glasman who dug the grave, in an interview with Mary Riddell for the Fabian Review. Riddell used it as the basis of her Daily Telegraph column and by the time the headline writers had got it to the front page the story had become: ‘Immigration should be frozen, says Miliband adviser’.

‘It is now looking like a pretty mainstream view,’ Glasman suggests, looking back. ‘I got 2,000 letters of support last summer from people saying they agreed with me. I was arguing that to build a common good between divided people, you need some stability and labour market flexibility threatened that.’ But the reaction was clearly not a comfortable one for Glasman. ‘It was the second time I’d got a reaction I didn’t intend to provoke,’ he says, referring to an interview with Progress last May in which he appealed to Labour to reach out to supporters of the English Defence League.

Glasman had also clashed in a Newsnight debate with the Labour MP Helen Goodman who accused blue Labour of being ‘anti-women’ and ‘blamed the breakdown in social order on the independence of women’. Glasman remains bemused by the charge. ‘I’ve always been a feminist,’ he argues. ‘Blue Labour is relational politics inspired by feminist thought, seeking the redistribution of power to women.’

So what of the criticism that the blue Labour conversation is one dominated by men? ‘It is the least bloke-ish group of blokes you could imagine,’ Glasman responds. So who are blue Labour’s women? ‘Rowenna Davis [Guardian journalist and Southwark councillor] was involved from the get-go,’ he says before citing the MP Natascha Engel, Greenpeace’s Ruth Davis, the academic Jane Wills and Tess Lanning from IPPR. But can you be really be blue Labour and a feminist? ‘Blue Labour addresses problems with men,’ contends Glasman. ‘Lack of maturity, faithfulness, responsibility. The status of men is a key feminist concern.’

It is clear that the criticisms did not just hurt Glasman but humbled him, too: ‘I stayed completely silent for six months. I took a self-imposed summer of reflection.’ Glasman’s first foray back into the limelight was, however, not without controversy. In January he wrote in the New Statesman of Miliband’s leadership: ‘there seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.’ In Glasman’s defence, none of the newspapers that splashed his remarks quoted his preface to this apparently stinging rebuke: ‘On the face of it’. Nor did they quote the next paragraph from his article: ‘That is how it looks: Labour stranded in a Keynesian orthodoxy, with no language to talk straight to people.’

Talking straight to people is something blue Labour is criticised for not doing. But Cruddas disagrees: ‘The level of abstraction is not a legitimate criticism.’ Glasman, though, does accept that blue Labour ‘is seen by many as symptom of malaise rather than a strategy of renewal’.

Despite his media prominence, Glasman is but one of blue Labour’s key players. Other sympathisers include the American community organiser Arnie Graf who has been advising the party at Glasman’s suggestion; Miliband’s chief of staff Tim Livesey; IPPR’s resident political theorist Marc Stears; and the TUC’s responsible capitalism economist Duncan Weldon. They share what Stears describes as ‘a commitment to regional renewal, democratising corporate governance, reform of the firm, a left patriotism, a willingness to work with faith communities and a scepticism of traditional centralising, state solutions’.

Glasman believes that blue Labour is ‘a strategy for winning a Labour majority. But to do that Labour has to break out of the “progressive ghetto”.’ His New Statesman article characterised this as ‘progressive policy rationalism’. although Glasman is quick to point out that he is ‘a strong supporter of Progress and an admirer of the pre-1997 Tony Blair’. But his critique takes on both the Fabian tradition of incremental advance and New Labour’s third-way triangulation. He argues that Miliband ‘is going to have to be both insurgent and establishment, conservative and radical, democratic and competent, patriotic and internationalist’.

Nonetheless, in presenting so many dichotomies, Glasman’s version of blue Labour seems to almost reclaim the politics of triangulation by redefining the ‘left’ and ‘right’, while moving the party beyond the ‘old’ and ‘New’ Labour prism.

But the real test of blue Labour may come with Cruddas’ appointment to head the policy review.  Adopting consciously blue Labour language, he says the process will need to be ‘allegorical’ and tell what he describes as ‘a story of renewal’. He has decided that ‘we’ve got to avoid lists and be more textured, romantic, hopeful. We’ve got to be less rationalist, managerial, technocratic.’

Cruddas has already collapsed the 30 groups he inherited from Liam Byrne into just three focusing on the economy, society and politics. He describes the current phase as one that tells ‘an overarching story and frame, that eventually leads to pledges and, ultimately, a manifesto’.

And this is why the jury is surely still out on blue Labour. It can tell a story but can it drive a policy process? Activists will not be able to use its abstract terms on the doorstep but if it can animate Labour’s offer to the electorate it could prove invaluable. Blue Labour cannot win Miliband the next election but he surely cannot win without it.

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Richard Darlington is head of news at IPPR. He is a former special adviser and head of the Open Left project at Demos

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Photo: Christine Vaufrey

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