A group of thinkers called Blue Labour believe that "material" equality and social equality should take a back seat. These ideas are not Labour at all
First published here on LabourList.org
There are times when you don’t know where to begin.
A group of ‘thinkers’ calling themselves Blue Labour is now calling for Labour to drop social and economic equality as its goals – on the grounds that this will help Labour to reconnect with working class.
Some of what they are saying makes sense. The Labour Party does need to reconnect with working-class voters, as Ed Miliband himself has often said. We need to end our reliance on the financial sector and the City of London, and restore a manufacturing and industrial sector across the country. And yes, we absolutely need to make the party more democratic and responsive to its members.
But don’t be deceived. There is no place for ‘Blue Labour’ in the Labour Party.
Here’s the first problem. Marc Stears, an academic and ‘Blue Labour’ proponent, says on Radio 4 that we “need to get away from this obsession with absolute fairness, with material equality.” The idea that we can eradicate the postcode lottery, he says, is a “myth.”
And here’s why he’s wrong. The fact is, if you want to give disadvantaged people more choices, and more chances, you have to redistribute wealth their way. If you think everyone should have the opportunity to go to university, for example, then you have to shift money from the people who’ve got it (taxpayers) to the people who need it (universities and students). An ‘opportunity’ without resources behind it isn’t going to be helpful.
Where a community is income-poor, you will find every other kind of disadvantage there too. Health inequality is maybe the best example – even between two wards in the same London borough, there can be a difference in life expectancy of twelve years. I suspect in one of those wards, the postcode lottery probably matters a bit more to people than in the other. Without a government interested in income equality, people who are income-poor will have limited chances, in ways we might never even think of.
They are also then likely to stay poor. That idea is naturally attacked from the right – Frank Field recently reported, on behalf of the ConDems, that redistributive benefits should be wound down in favour of other social mobility measures. Interestingly enough, it’s also attacked from the left; Owen Jones writes that we should ignore social mobility and focus on income equality alone. But all the evidence we have shows that income equality and social mobility will move up and down together.
Another Blue Labour pointy-head, the recently ennobled Maurice Glasman, wants to see a more “relational state” and ‘revive’ the tradition of mutuals and cooperatives in the community. That is an excellent goal – but in fact it doesn’t need reviving at all. The Co-operative Party has been pursuing this for nearly a hundred years, working together with Labour. Ideas such as Co-operative Trust Schools or the Co-operative council are designed to give communities more involvement in how local services are run.
But there is a world of difference between the Co-operative agenda and Blue Labour. Without a commitment to “material equality,” this idea of transferring power to communities is a Tory idea, not a Labour or Co-operative one. The ConDems’ localism bill will let residents run their own local services or create their own development plans. But it will not be based on Co-operative values of inclusion and fairness – you will not be able to take part if you don’t have the social and economic means. Far from promoting community involvement, it will allow the few to take control at the expense of the many.
Despite the “intensely relaxed” doctrine, Labour in government did recognise a role for “material equality” – it was after all Tony Blair who pledged to end child poverty. Labour should have done much, much more to promote equality whilst in power. But ‘Blue Labour’ is asking us to forget income equality altogether. That means the poor staying poor and the rich staying rich, and that is not Labour at all.
And here is the other problem. Glasman and Stears, as well as Ian Silvera writing on this website, are right to say that Labour has neglected many working-class communities, and needs to engage better with them. But they are not right to say we should do that by pandering to conservative attitudes. Labour stands against exclusion and prejudice. Most of us are proud of that.
Extremist parties have been able to exploit the lack of engagement by major parties. In places where the BNP are better organised than we are, they have played on working people’s economic fears. Rumours and misinformation are rife; David Goodhart’s Radio 4 piece spoke to one woman who thought that local immigrants were having half of their wages paid by the government (she added, “I don’t know how true it was, I’ve heard on the grapevine”).
So ‘Blue Labour’ believes the answer is for Labour to change its values to match their fears on immigration. Not only that, but we should think about winding back the clocks on womens’ rights, ethnic minority rights and gay rights, because that is supposedly what working-class people want.
On immigration, though, the evidence on the ground is that in the areas where Labour has been organised and gone out to speak to people, the BNP vote has almost evaporated. In Barking and Dagenham, Hope not Hate and others made massive efforts to make contact with voters and to campaign on local issues. They saw off 12 BNP councillors and Nick Griffin himself.
And are the working class really so conservative? Roy Hattersley believes a working-class person could be “just as liberal as you or I.” He added that campaigns like the gay rights movement encompass the whole of society, even if they were started by ‘liberals.’ Having grown up in a working-class community, I agree with him. I’m not sure I recognise the type of person Blue Labour is aiming at.
If we can organise and engage in working-class communities, we can promote inclusion rather than exclusion, and undo the gains of the BNP. We don’t have to adopt the BNP manifesto ourselves.
There is much, much more to say on this. But I want to finish with an apology. Yesterday on Twitter, I implied that Blue Labour had something to do with Blairism. I am sorry for that. It doesn’t.
I disagree profoundly with some of my friends in Labour about what how party should achieve its goals and how it should work. But I am happy to campaign for them and with them. Despite our internal debates, most of us share a set of common-denominator Labour values.
But Glasman et al are calling for something wholly different. Their Labour Party would have no problem with the poor becoming poorer, in all sorts of ways. It would let power in communities become concentrated in the hands of the few. And it would marginalise minorities to chase perceived votes.
If these ideas are based on any values at all, they are not ours, and we should reject them. A ‘Blue’ Labour Party would not be a Labour Party at all. ■