Blue Labour versus the progressives

2013-04-24 04.50.02 amNICK CATER

First published in The Weekend Australian, August 4, 2013

PASSING legislation designed to make cigarette packets look hideous is not what the Labor Party was put on earth to do, says Maurice Glasman, one of British Labour’s leading thinkers.

Over coffee, on a recent visit to Sydney, he looks at a packet with disdain before asking permission to light up.

“These are the sort of things that happen in politics when you withdraw completely from the economy and you fuss around with the state and legislation,” he says. “I don’t think people having a cigarette after work is really the end of the world and it can be a sociable activity.”

Glasman is one of the founding thinkers of Blue Labour, a grouping within the Labour Party that wants to reunite the party with its working-class base. Tony Blair’s achievement in returning Labour to government 16 years ago is a distant memory. In opposition, the party is counting the cost.

“We’ve lost about seven million votes since 1997,” says Glasman. “We developed an almost casual contempt for everyday values. There’s been a blindness to people, a blindness to what they cared about and an absolute embrace of the state and the market.”

Glasman’s pot pourri of social conservatism and socialism (a word he insists upon) sits oddly in the context of the local political debate, but his mission of finding a consensus between the party’s intellectual wing and its traditional voters resonates strongly with Australian Labor’s troubles.

Armed with the results of 3000 face-to-face interviews, Glasman believes he has a handle on what middle Britain really cares about: old-fashioned, human values he feels modern progressives have treated with disdain.

“It turns out that what they care about is their obligations to their parents, their children and how to keep their marriages together,” he says. “They cared about place, where they lived. Work mattered a lot. They were concerned about wages and had a real hatred of debt.”

Philosophically, Glasman, a Labour life peer, is equally distrustful of unfettered capitalism and the state; both have come to treat people as commodities and have degraded the nobility of work by seeking maximum returns on investment.

The modern idea of a liberated world with a flexible, transient workforce in which people are encouraged “to live as far away from their mother as possible” is fundamentally damaging to the social fabric.

“The progressive capitalists and progressive statists have this same utopia … They have forgotten that life is about the people that you love and not about ends and ideals, and freedom.”

Naturally, he has little patience with the EU. Two years ago he called for immigration to be stopped temporarily and for Britain to withdraw from the EU’s provisions on the free movement of labour.

Glasman’s quarrel with the British Labor Party begins with the foundation of the welfare state in 1945, an idea built upon an “elitist belief in centralisation”.

Labor must also take on the problems of entrenched welfarism with its false emphasis on rights.

“People thought they could take without giving,” he says. “All forms of meaningful human society are based on reciprocity. We’re trying to bring a sense of virtue back to it.”

Labour PM Harold Wilson’s technocratic government in the 1960s compounded the error by conflating modernisation with the abandonment of the past.

“We had a view of modernity, devoid of institutions and tradition, that was a form of liberal Marxist insanity. It turns out that we are not living in a postmodern world. Modernity is based on caring and strengthening ethical traditions of honour, obligation, trust, skills, knowledge. These are the things we desperately need.”

Trade unions, once the bridge between Labour and the working class, had been captured by the progressive elite they once kept in check.

Unfashionably, he sees religious communities as potential allies in the Labour cause. Glasman comes from a Jewish family but works closely with another leading Labour reformer, the Catholic Jon Cruddas.

“We want to break the idea that we don’t have things in common and try to establish areas where we do – wages, work, family and place,” he says. “The common good is negotiated. It’s not a progressive idea where you begin with the conclusion.”

He is not afraid of nationalism – or patriotism, as he prefers to call it. “There is a lot to be proud of about being English, great traditions. We kept liberty alive. Patriotism is just a concern for the country you live in, and the people you live with have a priority. And I’m with that, putting your own people first.”

Above all, he sees Labour’s task as restoring trust in institutions, including government.

“There’s a massive disconnect; there has been a decline in trust.”

Glasman’s visit to Australia was organised by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, where his take on the challenges for a modern mainstream party of the Left sparked a lively discussion. Unlike other oversees speakers, Glasman has no qualms about buying in to the local political debate.

I mention the Australian Labor government’s proud boast of managing to pass hundreds of pieces of legislation in defiance of a hung parliament. Glasman is unimpressed and comments that Blair and his successor Gordon Brown fell into the same trap.

“It’s done us no favours. So we need to be less obsessed with legislation and more concerned with the quality and strength of democracy. Legislation in not the be-all and end-all of socialism. It’s about relationships, it’s about solidarity. It’s about honest work.”