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Blue Labour: deluded or selling us a pup

New Labour was right-wing economics, married with left-wing social policy; Blue Labour is the polar opposite, writes STEVEN TOPPLE

Why, Labour are going “Back to the Future” — and it’s one that’s neither old nor new.“Bread and circuses.” A well-worn and overused phrase, I grant you, but one that has never been so apt, as to be used in the context of the Labour leadership “battle.”

Because while we masticate the pros and cons of the Coopers, Burnhams et al of the party, behind closed doors the ideological wheels are already spinning at 200tpm (triangulations per minute) and deciding the direction the party will now take — regardless, as always, of who the leader is.

Jon Cruddas is stepping down from his shadow cabinet role as policy co-ordinator to conduct a review the party’s defeat at the election and the future direction it will now take. The Independent reported he would be joined in this review by, among others, the Local Government Association and Compass think tank. Internal mutterings (not reported) cited that Lord Glasman would also be involved in this autopsy.

Cruddas may appear a bizarre choice, on the face of it — the man behind Labour’s 2015 election policy review? The election they lost? Lost because, in part, their message was such a flotsam of ideas?

Well, it wasn’t entirely his fault. You had two schools of thought — “one-nation Labour” (from the influences of himself, Marc Stears and Lord Wood) and “inclusive prosperity” (from Ed Balls, Lawrence Summers and Lord Sainsbury). These then met in the Hadron-esque Collider of Brewers Green. In the end, as is often the case, the corporate capitalists won through and much of what Cruddas had recommended was sidelined.

Now, however, Cruddas’s time may have come. We have a Labour Party that has suffered electoral annihilation similar to that of ’92 — wholly unexpected, shaking it to its ideological core, and requiring a complete reboot of its mainframe. But this time around, the challenges facing the party are of an entirely different nature. Labour had been perceived — in the eyes of the media and much of the public — to have leaned towards the left. However this has appeared not to have rung true with the voter. The message was confused. Many voters stayed at home, Ukip made inroads into working-class communities, the Greens stole the socialist wind from their sails, the SNP … yes, well, the SNP.

Cruddas will need to find a way to face these challenges head-on, with a new ideological mantra that is not Bennite, Blairite or Milibite.

Enter “Blue Labour,” from stage … left, or right. The Blue Labour ideology was conceived by Lord Glasman — yes, the same one who’s reviewing the party’s defeat — as a counter to the “Red Tory” thesis that briefly bumbled around in 2008-9.  

Its ideals hinge around conservative socialism — the dispersal of state control and power to institutions which are commonly owned; a refocusing on the importance of loyalty, communities, locality and family; creating political engagement through conversations (ahem — four million of them?); developing a new, distinctive, economic policy — and all of this underpinned by a strong belief in Christian values.

The broad thinking behind it is that Labour needs to look back to a time before Clement Attlee, before the left became obsessed with top-down control, and (as Glasman put it) to a forgotten “conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.” 

This may seem bizarrely archaic, but Dominic Sandbrook argues the case well in a piece for the New Statesman, citing the fact that many of Labours “heroes,” who are looked upon with doe eyes by the party’s left wing, were in fact staunchly conservative socialists.

“The hard-drinking Ernest Bevin, a patriotic West Countryman who said that his foreign policy was to ‘take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please’ and who insisted that Britain have its own nuclear deterrent with a ‘bloody Union Jack on top of it,’ would no doubt have agreed with Glasman’s prescription that, to win in England, Labour must wrap itself in family, faith and the flag.”

To put it simply: New Labour was right-wing economics, married with left-wing social policy; Blue Labour is the polar opposite, and looking at the latter in the context of the current political climate, it is easy to see why it would fit.

Its distinctly patriotic nuances would chime with not only with the church bells of middle England, but with the pub bells in working-class communities — the two areas where Ukip has begun to syphon off Labour votes. This “Englishness” would also avert a resurrection of the Conservative “Beware the SNP” smear campaign in 2020 (assuming, of course, the union still exists then and we are faced with another hung parliament). The embracing of mutuality, grassroots activism and street-style politics would help give Labour resonance with the red-green camp.

But moreover than the above, it’s the sense of community renewal and political congregationalism which may well give Labour the leverage it needs. 

The party is now completely disenfranchised from its voting base — Pasokification, in the most succinct use of the term, is being meted out. You only have to note that the highest percentage of non-voters were mostly in Labour “heartlands” to realise this.

After 13 years of New Labour, and five of “Red-ish Ed-ism”, the public seem completely unsure of what the party stands for — “aspiration,” “hard-headed multilateralism” and “predistribution” — essentially all vacuous hokum to the majority of us. However, there are worrying flaws in Blue Labour thinking.

While its rose-tinted view that we should return to a pre-war time of “family, faith and flag” appears comfortingly nostalgic, its goal to somehow reboot society, and re-engage us with our communities, politics and ultimately each other reeks of opportunism and hypocrisy. 

For an ideology that wants to lessen state intervention, it intends, top down, to force “good society” — or “big society,” if you prefer — upon us, when it self-evidently should be the other way around.

Its aversion to statism should be approached with extreme caution. In an age where the global economic model forces the state to support its citizens, welfare, the NHS and other public services may not come off well. “Red-ish Ed-ism” itself was intending to keep the Tory benefits cap, after all.

I think the furore around Glasman’s stance on the need for Labour 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,” and his call for a pause on immigration, may have been overstated — make what you will of them.

But the elephant in the room, as with all Labour’s attempts at triangulation of policy, is the economic one. Blue Labour thinking on the economy looks, as “inclusive capitalism” did, at a remodelling. Broadly, it presents a vision of the “regeneration of local economies (requiring) a reciprocal partnership between capital, state and society.” It speaks of the return of guildhalls, focuses on mutual banking, extols the virtues of skilled labour, lauds workers sitting in boardrooms and cries for co-operative ownership. It describes “financial capital” as the problem — not “capitalism” itself.

This is inherently flawed and appears to make no attempt, after all its sentimental cooing over history, to learn from it.

Tinkering around the edges of globalised capitalism never works. You cannot heal a broken leg with a sticking plaster, nor can you expect the leg to heal itself properly without a splint. The financial sector has learnt nothing since the 2008 crash — markets hit all-time highs in February; the notional values on derivatives markets are estimated to be at least $100 trillion more than in 2008; worldwide debt is at its highest in history. 

Crudely, to think that by opening a couple of “co-op” banks, placing some token employees in boardrooms and hoping that capitalism will suddenly become democratic, is either deluded, or intentionally selling us a pup. None of these measures will do anything to temper capitalism’s most nefarious tradition — that of raging inequality.

So, regardless of which leader/puppet/fall guy the party elects on September 12, and assuming that (under a Blue Labour government) economic and fiscal policy would be fairly “business as usual” (due to the global forces it, as a party, will never be able to counter), what would we, the public be left with?

New Labour this is not. The talk of Blairites currently lurking in the shadows of the party, waiting to pounce and regain power, is nonsense. The characters steering the rudder are now Blue.

Therefore if the triangulation of left-wing economics and right-wing social policy is stripped of the former and replaced with a centrist stance we are merely left with the latter, which should worry us all.

The “CyberNats” on Twitter, in the run-up to the independence referendum, may well have been onto something.

The theory may be Blue Labour, but the reality may well be Red Tory.

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