Maurice Glasman rose to prominence after the last election as the social thinker most closely associated with the ideas around ‘Blue Labour’, a term he invented. A senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University and former community organiser with London Citizens, he was made a peer by Ed Miliband in February this year and is widely seen as one of the Labour leader’s most influential advisers.
The ILP met him at the House of Lords last month to talk about his ideas. This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Part 1: Labour, tradition and the key to renewal
Last time Labour lost office in 1979, the party tore into itself and the result was very damaging. This time it’s been very different. Why do you think that is?
The overwhelming difference is that then there was a notion of the socialist path not taken, that the Wilson and Callaghan governments were a betrayal of socialism, and that there was a viable socialist strategy which could have been adopted if only we hadn’t sold out.
There’s a far greater sense, now, that two gods failed. First, the free market god, and the other is state socialism. The idea that we lost the last election because we didn’t spend enough money – it just doesn’t sit quite right.
So there’s an ideological difference there.
Secondly, I think there’s a widespread understanding that relationships within the party leadership were dreadful over the period of the government, genuinely dreadful, and that we’re better than that, not worse than that.
I’ve said some very harsh things about Blair and Brown, but not in the sense of them being wicked and evil people, more that they were naïve and pompous.
Third, there are various aspects of the Labour tradition that aren’t straightforwardly statist, that are committed to democracy, that are committed to a resistance to capitalism on the basis of a democratic association. So I also have some quite awkward things to say about the idea of a bunch of Oxbridge PPE graduates running the country. So we need a far greater distribution of power as well as wealth.
What’s amazed me is there is a real thirst for understanding what went wrong. What went wrong is not a betrayal story but one of a relational weakness and an ideological weakness. The traditions are capable of renewal – that is the key.
Then, I’ve also got to give Ed [Miliband] credit. Ed’s kept the space open and hasn’t demonised. He’s genuinely allowed the space to grow.
And the fifth thing is that people now realise we are much more complicated than we used to think – they understand that we can be radical and conservative; that it’s not wrong to care about your parents and your children; and that issues like quality are important as well as equality. I think there’s just a whole generational change where people are aware of complexities.
But – and this is the big but – huge change has got to come. And we mustn’t let the generally good way we’ve dealt with the first year stop those changes now.
I think the hard stuff is coming. There are going to be winners and losers but there has to be significant change within the party, in what we do, what we stand for, and who we represent.
Where do you see those lines of conflict?
Basically, if we think we are going to win on a public sector, unionist, Keynesian agenda – forget it, just really forget it. In my experience, if you ask the public who they think the three big powerful interests are they’d say Murdoch, they’d say the City of London, and they’d say the public sector unions. In Labour we talk about unions as if they are saving the babies – but, you know, we don’t get it.
I think the idea you can just have a permanent public sector stimulus won’t work. We’ve got to move much more towards an economic democracy, to a balance of power in corporate governance, to an embracing of regional particularities. All of these involve facing up to equality, universalism, and Keynesian state theory.
As a family we’ve done well up till now, but we lost, in the second-worst defeat since universal suffrage, we lost defending both the bankers and the bureaucrats … you know, 4.5 million working class votes.
So it’s big therapy [we need]. We’ve got to talk straightforwardly and honestly.
I go to speak to Labour Party groups outside London and there’s a real interest in guild socialism, in the ILP, in these neglected parts of the tradition that spoke of different ways of doing politics.
And there’s the stuff going on all over the world, there’s occupations of financial centres. Where are we, it might as well not be happening.
So I think we’ve done well, so far, but we’ve got to learn some really big things without being uncivil.
So far we’ve been soft in our disagreements, but in two years we’ve got to be putting a credible case to the country about why voting Labour would make the country a better place, and if we are not talking about the things that people think will make the country better, then the Conservatives will win.
As I understand Blue Labour, it is a serious and creative attempt to reconnect the party with its traditions, which New Labour effectively severed (although you argue that there was also some separation in the post-war period). So Blue Labour is a challenge to those ‘progressive’ solutions that promoted subordination to the market. Is that a useful summary?
That’s a great summary. The only thing I would add is that the Labour tradition is deeply rooted in the country, and it is a patriotic politics. It is about the common good of the country.
There’s a real commitment to family life, to Parliament, to … well, I don’t want to get into an argument about the monarchy.
It’s a paradoxical thing. All of us, I think, are both radical and conservative, democratic and love liberty … and we don’t have to make a call on that. What this offers is a balance. You can be those things – you can be both Labour and independent, for example.
How do you view the conservative, less progressive aspects of those working class traditions? Blue Labour has been accused of being nostalgic. How do you answer that criticism?
The answer I suppose is that it’s not just about working class conservatism, it’s also about middle class conservatism – the concern with status, with a sense of order, the idea that that’s been really disrupted by a very financially-driven globalisation process.
The big thing that happened in the early to mid-90s was the last big discussion about political economy. Roughly speaking we went for endogenous growth, for flexible labour markets and the financial sector, and that was considered modern.
The book that I wrote at that time was arguing that the German system – which had worker representation on boards, very strong vocational training, regional banks, very strong federal forms of democratic government – was actually better suited to globalisation because it preserved knowledge, trust, institutions, skills …
Now, I think the results of our experiment are in and we really got it wrong.
So there’s a notion of modernisation that involves no belonging, no institutions, an individual and a collective, but no intermediaries. But that’s not modern, I argue, that’s just completely utopian in a kind of mad way.
We are by definition, social beings connected to others. But also there are traditions that keep us bounded and routed in important ways.
So, the short answer is I hate nostalgia because it sentimentalises things, but equivalently, I hate what I call hyper-modernism because it has no understanding of the meaning of life.
We all have to reckon with questions like, ‘Did we do enough for our parents?’ ‘Were we good colleagues?’ This is actually what drives us. ‘Were we faithful?’ ‘Did we honour our children?’ ‘Were we good neighbours?’
These are much more living concerns than ‘Did it lead to a more egalitarian distribution?’
I should say, I wasn’t expecting Blue Labour to grow to the extent that it has. I’m an organiser by background, so I thought the party needed a massive dose of agitation. I wasn’t thinking that these things would suddenly find themselves on the front pages of newspapers, I really didn’t.
So I take responsibility for provoking some of the misunderstandings. But some of them just come from right back in the 1840s when the labour movement started and people began resisting the domination of reality by the rich – then, the immediate accusation against all forms of protection of skilled work, all forms of attempts at democracy, was nostalgia.
So there’s something about free market economics, something about liberalism, that defines its opponents in that way. And that’s the fight. The fight is to have an absolutely constructive alternative that speaks to the real needs of the country in which democracy is a crucial component.
The ‘Blue’ bit also needs a bit of justifying – that came from my own personal experience.
The Labour movement comes from faith – in the north, Catholic; in the midlands and the south, very strong non-conformist traditions – and from the love of labour. The clue, as I never tire of saying, is in the title: Labour. Work. The work ethic. And the ethics of work.
But when I speak of these things a lot of people who are considered to be on the progressive left think they are conservative issues. They wanted to talk about abstract things – equality, diversity, justice.
So the ‘Blue’ came in just to re-balance the books; just to say, ‘Look, it’s possible to be traditional and radical, and most people are that way.’ People are both angry about the world, and they love it. They don’t want to live somewhere else; they want this place to be better.
In your article, ‘Labour as a radical tradition’, you offer a metaphor of its traditions in terms of the family – sisters, parents and grandparents, and ancestors. I wonder where you think the ILP fits in that picture?
The ILP is a bit muted in that depiction in that it was pretty elitist. But it also had a massive streak of the Labour aristocracy in it. Simultaneously, it had a really robust democratisation agenda, and an internationalist agenda.
So the reason I trod very carefully with the ILP there is that I think the ILP is the real thing, it’s a genuine mix of the radical and the traditional, it’s a genuine mix of the local and international – it had these things. And because the Labour Party was so dead at the time of its birth, stuck with a kind of fiscal conservatism, the ILP was a repository of a lot of energy.
So I would say the ILP had close relatives on both sides of the family.
My feeling was that the ILP was astride these traditions and as they moved apart that split it apart.
Indeed, and that’s why it couldn’t actually grow to be the mainstream. The tensions within it were genuine contradictions, not a paradox.
And they were within the people themselves. I’m reading about Philip Snowden. Here was a man who was known as the ‘prophet of socialism’, ‘St Philip’ in his own community, who had 3,000 people at his funeral, after all he’d done – and yet of course he was caught up in the issues around the analysis of the economy, and those decisions he made…
Yes, we have to love Philip Snowden. He said, ‘There’s more to this than money.’ I have my heresies and Snowden is a Blue Labour hero. He was a genuine ethical organiser and socialist. Roughly speaking he said there’s much more to what we are trying to do than just borrowing money and giving it to people.
Tawney said a great thing around about the same period. He said, ‘We always promise too much and ask too little.’ And that’s very Snowdenian. So I’m very happy to honour Philip Snowden. This is the first time I have but it’s been a long time coming.
Reading what other Blue Labour thinkers like Marc Stears and Jon Cruddas, are saying, it seems there is a pattern emerging here about reconciling the idealists and realists, in Stears’ words, or the prophets and rationalists, in Cruddas’ terms. Do you see it in a similar way?
Just so people understand the context, there’s a number of people – Jon Cruddas, Marc Stears, Duncan Weldon (an economist at the TUC), James Purnell, and others – who are part of this conversation. If we got together and started looking at the things we disagreed about we’d be there all day.
So there are tensions. It’s well known, for example, that I’ve got a much harder view of welfare, because I don’t like the idea of people sitting in houses on their own, with barely enough to eat, and that’s somehow an achievement of socialism. That grates against me. Jon Cruddas has a genuine moral commitment to a much more universal, non-contributory system.
So these are all conversations that are being held in a really decent way. But what unites us all is the idea that the Labour tradition is the key to renewal, that there has been a dearth of working class leadership, which is shocking, and that there has been an atrophy of local democracy.
Where we all kind of agree is that it is going to be paradoxical – local and international, conservative and radical – and we have got to push both sides.
Jon is exemplary in this way – he is genuinely radical, deeply conservative in his disposition, and so on.
So idealists and realists, prophets and rationalists – I would say that we all in ourselves carry two fundamental commitments: one is a genuine desire to be good with the people we are with; and the second is to try and make a better world. And it’s about how that works out.
What’s vital is that the conservational space grows. So this is also an invitation to the ILP to enter the space.
Maurice Glasman was talking to Barry Winter and Matthew Brown.
Part 2 of this interview is available here.
Read Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition by Jon Cruddas here.
The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, edited by Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White is an e-book available from Soundings.