A conversation with Maurice Glasman, part 2

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 second part of a two-part interview. Read the first part here.

Radical and conservative – the Blue Labour paradox

One of the questions Alan Finlayson asks is: Will Blue Labour stumble into conservatism under all the usual pressures, the desire to win elections and deal with the here and now, rather than to the wider vision? It’s either a creative or destructive tension, but is that a genuine tension?

It all boils down to where you think we are. If you think it’s going to be one more heave, more tax, more spend, let’s all rally round and protect the unreconstructed Brownite welfare state, then we will lose the election. So that’s the paradox, the more realist you are, the more you’ll lose.

What’s needed is a populism. You can’t be a fake populist. You can only be populist if you start expressing people’s concerns.

Here’s a very interesting story about the forests.

Very early on after Ed won, we were sitting with Jon Cruddas and looking at this thing saying the New Forest, Sherwood Forest and so on were good investments for the timber industry. And Jon just said to me, ‘That can’t be right; that can’t be right.’

Maurice Glasman picSo we moved, and we won that within two or three weeks because it touched so many people. It turned out people had much stronger feelings about their forests; they have much more mixed feelings about their local school or whatever, because they know there was money wasted there, they know there was horrible stuff going on in a lot of those places. Our language wasn’t capturing that.

So to develop a genuinely populist agenda is the task in hand. What we’ve got to remember is, we’ve got three and a half years till the next election, so the next year is decisive. The further we can get away from doing things for people, and the more we can get to a place where people actually have more power to do things for themselves, I think the better.

The Labour Party would be a deeply conservative force, in all the wrong ways, if we hadn’t lost so heavily. But as we did, that allows a genuine space to open up. It can’t be the case, it can’t be the case, that if I raise issues about immigration the only response is that I’m a racist. With all the experiences I’ve been through, it doesn’t hold.

I think we’ve been through quite a lot this year, and heard quite a lot of people saying ‘No, I don’t want to play, I don’t want to talk in this way.’ But then people ignore you.

If you look at the ILP, this was a huge concern: How do we talk to people? How do we engage people in a politics where they are participants in their own lives?

One of the things the ILP has long recognised is the tension between winning elections, which lowers political horizons, and the need to build a broader movement which can take us beyond those immediate concerns. I wonder how you see that?

There are three components.

The first is a genuine change in what I call the relational culture of the party. The reality is the average number of people who turn up for branch meetings is 12, the average number who speak is five. So that means there are seven people who don’t say a word. We’ve got to look at that and say, ‘What kind of culture is this?’

So, from an organising point of view, we’re thinking about bringing in suggestions that everyone says their name and where they are from at the beginning of the meeting – just to hear their voice.

Secondly, that every meeting will include a one-to-one conversation. Once again, it’s about getting away from the idea that the only way to get things done is to get pieces of paper out and pass motions. We’ve got to broaden the base of the party.

And then we come to the key thing – being prepared to actually listen and act on things that people care about rather than the things we think they should care about.

I don’t mind going on record saying that March 26th, the big rally against the government, was an organisational catastrophe. There was no constructive alternative. And everyone went home and thought, ‘Well, what was that?’

Just to say, I’m much more in favour of resisting the sell-offs than the cuts, just to let you know where I’m at.

It’s about rebuilding constituency Labour Parties as places where people can act to protect the people and the places they love.

It’s got to be much more about forests, about violence on the streets and civic culture, than about equality issues. It will be about affordable housing, family housing, the living wage – these issues – and running successful local campaigns that are off the radar of the national media.

There has been a massive rupture of trust and we’ve got to be quite humble and relational about rebuilding that trust. Small steps, small issues around people’s concerns, can lead you to surprising places.

For example, in places like Burnley and Oldham we’ve got to think of ourselves as the ‘common good party’ that brings together the estranged – Muslim and local, working class and middle class.

That’s one side, the re-organisation.

Then we need ideological renewal, and this is what Blue Labour is about, being able to talk about capitalism while continually being in favour of private sector growth –real businesses, making a distinction between financial and productive capital which Ed spoke about in terms of predatory and productive capital. This is where we’ve got to be a lot more conservative in our disposition, talk to people about what they care about.

The third aspect is leadership development at every level from top to bottom, so we bring on genuine leaders who have followers within their own communities, who are prepared to promote their agenda and negotiate with others in developing a new one.

So roughly speaking: re-organisation, ideological renewal and leadership development are the three big ones.

I can see the need not always to go full blast against the whole of capitalism in a practical sense, but Blue Labour’s focus is on the damage done by capitalist commodification. Currently, the worst excesses may have been done by finance capitalism but isn’t capitalism itself always problematic?

This is where we are, I think: all forms of state-directed socialism have been authoritarian and ugly, and anti-democratic, and elitist, and immoral. We’ve got to eat that, we’ve got to absorb it.

Every day I think about the millions of innocent people killed by Stalin. I just sit and go, ‘My god.’ They were wiped out, they were taken away, they were shot, they were tortured.

Blue Labour logoIn China now, independent democratic trade unionists are killed every day, but I ask Labour Parties, ‘Do you support independent democratic trade unions in China?’ And sometimes only half the people say ‘Yes.’ Because it’s a developing country, because the West shouldn’t be imposing, and so on …

So this is the key thing: we want a non-commodity market in human beings and nature, and we want competitive markets in tables and chairs, and so on.

We don’t want to be static, self-referential; reality has always got to come in. We want high-end innovation, we want skilled work – this is transformative. We want vocational colleges, we want workers on board, we want all these things, but they take time.

So, it’s about a real market in real commodities with democracy to protect the status of labour and land. The complication with capitalism is when you think one of three things:

  • first, that it can be abolished – that can’t be.
  • secondly, that it works perfectly well in all markets – that leads to mayhem
  • thirdly, and this is where we’ve been, that it can only be legally regulated by the state, whereas we need a massive renewal of things like democratic unions.

And in that tension between the maximisation of profit and the preservation of human beings and their environment, that’s where we want to be.

One massive issue is that [in government] we did not promote regional flourishing. To put it bluntly there was not enough private sector growth in the north east, the north west, the midlands and south west, and the south east was financially driven which had it’s own problems.

I share your disposition about capitalism, but I look at Tesco and think, it’s cheap, healthy food, and it has transformed the lives of the poor. Yet we hate them.

When London Citizens did a living wage campaign against Tesco what we found was enormous middle class loathing while the working class had a love for Tesco. They love the fact that the food was fresh and cheap and the environment was safe. And when they bought a small package of mince they didn’t have a butcher going, ‘Ah, tough week, eh?’ They didn’t feel humiliated.

That’s just a tough example I put out there to say we’ve got to build alliances and relationships with the powers. We’ve got to look at how we can get Tesco to foster regional diversity.

This is just an example: I went to visit an old friend of mine and his parents who I hadn’t seen for ages (we were at Cambridge together) and the place they wanted to take me to was the café in the local Tesco. They were so proud of it. It was a real lesson for me. Tesco is a massive power and the question is how do we negotiate with it for the good.

So if we go along with the idea of real resistance to the commodification of human beings and nature then we have to go with the question of how to create a society that can generate value.

I think vocational training is hugely important. I made a big stink at conference by suggesting we should close down half the universities, turn them into vocational training colleges and put the law schools and medical schools in there. Then you’ll have meaningful pathways of equal status for working people.

I’m at London Met, which is one of the poorest universities. It used to be a really good Poly, City of London. Now we’re a crap university, which is no good to anyone.

The experience of students at Oxford is that they have pastoral care and personal tuition. I’ve got 150 students in a room and I’m not allowed to see them personally any more because I’m told that it violates fairness.

We’ve always got to be radical and conservative in a simultaneous motion. It’s hard, but it gets to good places and, conversationally, it’s great because people can join in.

Here’s a classic example: if you look at union data about what people care about at work, yes, it says they care about how they are treated, but in the top three, always, is that they care about colleagues who don’t do their work. And the unions never, ever, ever, ever mention it. I think it’s about time that we did.

It happens in my university, and it’s found in local government too where people who don’t do their jobs get shunted around. It is a very big issue. Of all the documentation you have to fill in it never touches that issue. Staff know who don’t do their work …

Yes, so I’m in favour of 50 per cent of promotions being on the basis of election by colleagues.

I’m glad I’m out of it, I must admit …

And that’s also significant because you loved it. That’s the tragedy of a lot of people: “I’m glad I’m out of it because it was shit, and yet I care passionately about it all.” And the important thing is not to forget that ambivalence. There is no easy position, which was another thing the ILP was good with.

You’ve talked about the need for real markets for real commodities, and forms of democracy to protect human beings and nature, such as democratic unions, and so on. Elsewhere you’ve talked about the importance of local democracy and community organisation. I wonder how you see the role of the state in all this?

To be clear, there’s a central role for the state but not an exclusive role for the state.

I think we got into a position where we thought the only meaningful thing we could do was elect a Labour government and have the state do it. What we know is that the state can be a class-based organisation. We learned that under Thatcherism.

Secondly, we got into an administrative role with the state where it did things for people. But we must remember democracy is also by the people, of the people – it’s worth bearing in mind.

So, there’s a very, very important role for the state. But we also need a rediscovery of statecraft.

I get criticised for talking about this whole Tudor statecraft thing. The logic is that England then was well behind the rest of Europe in three areas – the first was naval technology, the second was armaments, and the third was in science and maths, in particular.

So they endowed the Greenwich Maritime College with land and authority; they endowed the Woolwich arsenal; they endowed Kings College and Trinity College in Cambridge with very specific professorships in maths, in Greek, Latin and science. And the Royal Exchange in the City was definitive in defeating Amsterdam in loans, insurance and finance.

So, we have to rediscover the role of the state in statecraft, in endowing local institutions and vocational institutions, such as regional banks, environmentally specific vocational colleges. I’m very interested in Newcastle and the sea, and maritime technology, and renewables that can genuinely generate jobs in those places.

So – and this goes quiet deeply into the argument with Keynes – the state is not there for continual crisis management, it’s there to look at long-term developments, to endow institutions and renew the BBC, for example, as a local vocational trainer, as a local form of democratic accountability through journalism. There’s so many imaginative ways we could think about the role of the state.

Secondly, the role of the state is to be clearly what I call ‘the floor and the ceiling’. I’d like to see a living wage, for example, and I would also like to see an interest rate cap. So the state should set limits but not micro-manage the process.

It’s also about redistributing power to people. I would love to see a transformative Labour government that was really serious about constitutional redistribution through such things as unitary city parliaments. I’d like to see the extension of the City of London to all of London; I’d like to see Manchester as a unitary city … renew the civic government of the land.

So there’s a huge role for the state here, but it’s got to be in relationship to markets and society. We have to break the idea that there’s either complicity with the market or straightforward opposition, and to open up the space for regional variety.

In Hackney, for example, I’m in favour of breaking up Hackney council and having Stoke Newington, Hackney, Dalston, Shoreditch – parish councils, so people can know who their representatives are and engage with the strengths they’ve got without everything being seen as a redistribution of one thing to another.

Tottenham was a case in point. The leader of Haringey council was there the evening of the riots and no-one knew who he was. So there was no local government going on and the gap was filled by the mob.

The reason there’s been this misunderstanding about the state is because we became so statist that any retreat from it was seen as anti.

The state has to be the guarantor of justice too, but all this stuff with rights and law should be ultimate but not intimate. You know, if you disagree with someone at work you get accused of bullying …

Our capacity to have these conversations and cope with tensions has gone, so we need a much more robust local tension, that’s key to it.

Can we finish by asking what London Citizens has meant to you?

Well, it was absolutely transformative for me, and part of that is a personal story.

What it taught me first of all was the centrality of relationships. When I started I wanted to persuade people of my position but I learned to question what that meant for the politics of the common good and how you bring people together.

So the living wage stuff came from Catholics, Protestants, Muslims – people who basically hated each other in terms of their religion who found a common ground.

The centrality of leadership was another thing.

And then I realised that over a few years through these London Citizens campaigns we’d developed a more radical political economy than the Labour Party. For me, it was catch up, catch up, catch up. I was always a Labour, secular, left-winger and this was all new.

One of the big lessons for me was which people would turn up. If the mosque said 50 people, the Catholic church says 50 people, the local black church says 50 people, they turn up. When the trade unions said 50 people, no-one turns up. So suddenly the crisis of secular institutions and their reproduction came to me.

And then there’s the importance of creative strategy – we did loads of different kinds of actions for the living wage: mass pray-ins, meals, things the Labour Party would never think of.

And finally, what it taught me above all was to be relaxed with tension, not fear tension, and not to do anything on your own, to always work with others and get to a common place – then you can act in the world.

If you just go off on your own, you’re lost. My big regret is the immigration thing. I was just having a chat, I wasn’t thinking. It was a classic case of what not to do. I allowed a position to develop without talking to other people. I am genuinely sorry for that, you can’t imagine, but it wasn’t about the position, it was about my lack of attention to the idea that relationships precede action.

That’s it, if you want it in three words: relationships precede action, that’s what I learned from organising.

Maurice Glasman was talking to Barry Winter and Matthew Brown.

Part 1 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.


  1. […] Part 2 of this interview is available here. […]

  2. Dr. Graham Giles MBE
    28 November 2011

    I’m still cheering about this interview. It ended as it stared, with a lung-full of honest to goodness good sense. Having had the oppoertunity to chat with Glasman on several occasions he has nothing to apologise for, and I’m confident he won’t bother to temper his intellectual self-depricating honesty to himself to interviewers and our Party. Talk of killing Blue Labour is exactly why it can’t die, can it?

    I’ve spent over a quarter century doing stuff in Eastern Europe, including some scrapes with seriously scary goons. But they never cost me as much lost sleep as the average approaching Labour CLP meeting/interrogation I attend or chair. Our aspiring leaders need courage, Maurice seems to know that, even if it takes working in a **** ex-poly to stay relevant.

  3. Leeds Summat - ILP
    25 November 2011

    […] Building on the success of the first Summat in 2009, it will feature special guest speakers and performers, workshops, food, music, arts, film, conversation, and much much more. Speakers include Peter Tatchell, activists from Egypt and Greece, and Lord Maurice Glasman. […]

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