June 9, 2011


Blue Labour: a Republican critique (Stuart White, 8 June 2011, OpenDemocracy)

The Labour party is starting to have a real discussion of its philosophy. One idea more than any other has helped to kick the discussion off: ‘Blue Labour’. Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Jon Cruddas and Marc Stears have all written articles setting out the perspective (though the specific term is Maurice Glasman’s). It has attracted a great deal of both supportive and highly critical commentary. Lawrence and Wishart has published an e-book on the subject with core papers by Glasman, Stears and Rutherford and a range of responses, including one on which I draw here. [...]

I think the following five ideas are central to Blue Labour:

(1) A politics of conservation. Radical politics ought to be centrally about the protection of identities and sources of personal meaning based on place and/or work. In particular, radical politics is about protecting them against erosion by mobile capital.

(2) A politics of participatory democracy. Second, radical politics should look to popular self-organization to defend the integrity of these identities and sources of meaning. This (according to Blue Labour) has always been what the labour movement, at its best, is about. Today, this tradition of self-organization to restrain capital finds expression in community organizing of the kind practiced by Citizens UK.

(3) A politics of ownership. Third, radical politics must take the ownership of property seriously. The power of capital within the firm should not be that of an unaccountable sovereign, but a power that is balanced by workers’ rights. Capital should not be entirely footloose, but entangled and grounded within specific places, e.g., by vesting local civil society with the ownership of productive assets.

(4) Less moral abstraction. Fourth, radical politics should not base its claims in ‘abstract’ notions like fairness, equality, social justice or rights which are remote from people’s life experiences and immediate concerns. It should base itself on concrete grievances and historical traditions that are part of people’s identity.

(5) Less emphasis on state welfare. Fifth, radical politics should give less emphasis than social democracy conventionally does to redistribution, welfare transfers and the state as a financer and provider of services. [...]

[W]hile critical of the welfare state, Blue Labour has relatively little to say about the form and structure of the political state. It tends to see the disconnects and lack of trust between politicians and other citizens as a dispositional or cultural problem on the part of an overly liberal-minded elite, rather than as a structural problem related to the way political representation is organised. It honours a tradition which proclaims our ‘ancient liberties’. But it does not show a great deal of curiosity about the way basic liberties have been curtailed and threatened by the state, until very recently under Labour’s direction.

Even on its own terms, can Blue Labour afford to be so apparently uninterested in the reform of political structures? If Blue Labour is about empowerment in work and place, can it rest content with an institutional conservatism in this sphere? Doesn’t such a conservatism jeopardise the very local empowerment it seeks? Can we be empowered citizens in, say, Birmingham, if we remain subjects of an executive that can reorder local authority structures at its centralised whim?

If we want a democratic politics of the kind Tawney had in mind, a democracy of confident popular self-assertion rather than passive ‘voting fodder’, then we need much more scrutiny of the state in these areas.

We will need less invoking of Edmund Burke, and a lot more of the spirit of Tom Paine.

The particular genius of the "conservative" Left/"liberal" Right is to use the redistribution of property--via universal savings accounts--to empower citizens economically and make them more invested in the community, therefore more conservative politically.

Posted by at June 9, 2011 5:54 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus