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What’s making Labour blue? Mark Lloyd

May 20, 2011

This week saw the publication of the ‘Blue Labour’ book. The 155-page pamphlet draws together key Labour thinkers who want to define a new ideological direction for the Labour Party – what the contributors call “radical conservatism”. This is no fringe movement. Ed Miliband himself provides the preface and various other big-hitters join the clamour.

The Blue book is an attempt to tackle some of the tensions that have emerged in the post-Blair era confusion between the loosely-defined ‘New’ labour wing of the party, enamoured of markets, media and modernity, and a ‘Blue’ wing which stresses Labour’s connection to family, community, and “English socialism”.

In an instructive piece entitled ‘The future is conservative’, Jonathan Rutherford, an academic and key agitator in the Blue Labour movement, argues that New Labour alienated their core supporters in the former industrial heartlands of England by looking too much like valueless managerialists. Instead, he wants to see Labour connecting with what he regards as a largely and enduringly conservative England, concerned with more traditional values and maintaining a way of life that is threatened by the advances of global capitalism.

But how realistic or desirable is this?

The leitmotif of the last 5 years in Westminster has been the Conservatives straining to expunge their nasty right-wing image. They have attempted to present themselves as the torchbearers of a modern, green liberalism. They have called for the state to be opened up to wider civil involvement whilst maintaining their traditional role as protectors of ‘Britishness’ – fighting perceived threats such as ‘uncontrolled immigration’ or attacks from ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’. It didn’t quite win them the election outright, but it has certainly firmed up their support in England.

Since the election, a once-centrist Labour party has taken an opportunist lurch to the left. This is hardly surprising given the loud opposition to government cuts amongst Labour’s traditional support base: the public sector unions. But although this has turned many old Labourites on, it has turned others off, as Labour struggles to provide a credible alternative to the reducing public spending and maintaining the country’s credit rating. The party will struggle to define a “radical conservatism” whilst it still clings to the support of those who see deficit reduction as a Tory conspiracy against the public sector.

The Blue Labour pamphlet does not address how labour can maintain its left wing credentials. Nor does it propose an alternative economic model for an age of austerity. Rather, it focuses on reclaiming the ‘values’ of the original labour movement. This excerpt, from Miliband himself, is illustrative:

All the contributors emphasise the centrality of life beyond the bottom line. It is our families, friends and the places in which we live that give us our sense of belonging. Even in the aftermath of a profound economic crisis, politicians of all parties need to realise that the quality of families’ lives and the strength of the communities in which we live depends as much on placing limits to markets as it does on restoring their efficiency. And for social democrats in particular, the discussion points to the need to ask how we can support a stronger civic culture below the level of Whitehall and Westminster.

So, placing limits on the state? Encouraging communities to control their own destinies? Well, maybe, but then again Miliband continues:

We should be proud of the achievements of Labour governments that have relied upon strong central
intervention – the building of the NHS, the redbrick university revolution, or the tax credits that did so much to tackle poverty from the 1990s onwards.

The message is far from clear. In fact, when you take away all the bluster about the romantic early labour movement, trade unionism and how great old English conservatism could be for refreshing Labour’s image we are left with some very Cameronesque soundbites:

[Labour is] a party that aims to expand individual freedom, but locates true freedom in thriving communities not individualism. It sees democracy and the power of association as crucial bulwarks
in protecting people against the encroachments of both government and markets.

What we see here is simply a re-statement of the current government’s Big Society rhetoric, rehashed as ‘social democracy’. David Cameron has talked ad nauseum about the ‘false choice’ between the state and the market, and providing a third way that empowers communities and civil associations to pitch in a bit more. The public’s response has been lukewarm, but in general people accept that civil society is probably the best way of preserving the values that drive public service without replacing them with government targets, or scrapping them in favour of private profit and shareholder value.

But is this new-found emphasis on values really radical conservatism? Or just social democracy?

After all, liberalism, or rather Liberalism, has always been about values; from its early beginnings in the minds Enlightenment thinkers who wished to create a utopia of free and responsible individuals, to its renaissance in the Victorian era when the Liberal Party created the first trappings of the welfare state and public education. If there’s one thing that characterises British political thought, it is a belief in striking a balance between freedom and responsibility and the power of civic values. This belief shapes the liberal approach to both the state and the market. New Labour may have strayed too far towards valueless liberalism in pursuit of efficiency and economic growth, just as Thatcher did in the 1980s; what both Labour and the Conservatives lost in their years in power was a connection to value-driven liberalism. It is this disconnection that drives Labour’s search for a fresh philosophy. Talk of ‘blue socialism’ is just a misnomer.

What we see in the Big Society reforms and the opening up of public services is a liberal approach to providing public services; a scheme for giving people the chance to form associations for the common good – and one that might have the potential to save some money. The Labour party are not yet convinced, though their patter on co-operatives suggests they may be opening up to the idea.

The Liberal Democrats have rightly distanced themselves from the Big Society concept. They have no need for it because community has always been at the heart of Lib Dem policy. The Tories, and now Labour, are seeking to occupy ground that has traditionally been held by grass roots liberals: they have been forced to perform a liberal revision of their old political philosophies.

The good news, for liberals, is that everyone is more or less agreed on a shade of yellow these days.

Mark Lloyd is a research intern at CentreForum.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 20, 2011 7:19 pm

    It’s all well and good talking about values and trying to categorise them under an ideological heading, but it doesn’t help parties appeal to voters unless those values are made explicit and explained.

    ‘Fairness’ is a case in point – I’m glad Clegg is using it more often as I agree it is at the heart of liberalism, but it can mean different things to different people so he must find better ways to communicate the liberal interpretation to make the case that liberal fairness is actually fairer than other interpretations.

    Without providing good examples to highlight exactly how the balance between competing pressures can be struck, and – more importantly – why in any particular case it should be struck there, public perceptions will remain somewhat fuzzy.

    So the idea of ‘muscular liberalism’ (ie of arguing the liberal case with stronger moral confidence) is to be welcomed, but the idea must also be put into practise with more consistency – LibDem credibility is undermined by weak compromises because it makes the proponents seem shifty, which will always lose votes.

    Lines in the sand must not be sketched out, they must be made concrete – or they will be blown away by political winds.

    This may mean allowing for a broader variation to provide greater room for manoeuveur, but this also provides greater legitimacy for liberal policies by solidifying support for the party.

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