Blue Labour: rewriting Labour's history

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Advocates of Blue Labour claim to offer an alternative to both the market and the state. Mike Gonzalez argues that this is a hollow promise and that Blue Labour rewrites the labour movement's past to exclude working class resistance

The Labour Party has a problem. It has a new leader who, like his predecessors, sees Labour as an electoral machine whose sole purpose is to put the party back into power. To do that, of course, requires presenting an alternative - a different programme or vision or set of policies - which can distinguish them from the government in power. Let's get out of the way immediately the fact that the party leaders are almost indistinguishable, cloned products of the new managerialism. Much more serious, however, is that Labour cannot start from difference; there is not a single area of politics in which Labour is not fundamentally in agreement with the Con-Dems, so that differences are essentially squabbles over details: public sector cuts, privatisation in education, the "reform" (that is, privatisation) of the health service, the need to support banks and financial institutions with resources taken from the public sector, law and order, terrorism, and international strategies in Afghanistan and Libya. As to Iraq, Ed has called on us to "draw a line under it", while brother David was content to justify torture - and remains unapologetic about that.

The legacy of Blair and Brown (the distinctions between them are largely questions of style) has been passed on through the Miliband brothers virtually intact. David's recently released speech and Ed's various pronouncements leave no room for doubt. They are for saving the economy, holding to the neoliberal strategy, privatising, and once again proving to the global capitalists that they will be reliable managers of GB Inc. As Ed puts it in the introduction to a new e-book called The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, "Labour's approach should rely on good strong government and efficient well regulated markets." Now where have we heard that before? Was it not Blair who promised modernisation and change along exactly these lines?

Clearly Ed Miliband is going to have a major problem elaborating a new theory based, as he puts it without a blush, on Labour's record on the one hand and a new idea on the other. This new idea is Blue Labour, which Labour's new leader places "in the middle of the discussion". And where is that?

Apparently this new direction is not New Labour. The essays in the book in fact offer a brutal critique of the Blair-Brown years. New Labour, the authors say, has left "no viable political economy, no redistribution to localities that was not managerial, no organised party, no plausible ideology, and no narrative of the 13 years of Labour government", only a legacy of "liberal and consumerist politics". On that at least we can agree.

Miliband and the other writers resurrect the usual mantras about "fairness" and "prosperity" and "the common good" - and claim that Labour in government brought these things closer to fulfilment. The introduction congratulates itself on 13 years of "sustained redistribution" only to acknowledge just a few lines later the "high levels of inequality" that persist in Britain today. In fact the gulf between rich and poor widened under Labour - and in the recession the gap has grown and this is set to continue.

So the authors are at pains to distance themselves from Blairism and its neoliberal strategy. It represents for them a continuation, or perhaps a reduction to the absurd, of the social democratic project first set in motion by Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism in the 1950s. Crosland expressed the final abandonment of the idea of capitalism as the terrain of class struggle in which workers had to fight constantly against a system that was predatory and exploitative by its very nature. On the contrary, he argued that the growth of capitalism would bring closer the possibility of long-term prosperity for all. There would not be a levelling of course: the rich would still grow richer by the year. But the social democratic state he envisaged would take through taxes a larger proportion of profit than had been the case before and provide for the majority of the population through welfare. This was the origin of the rhetoric of "fairness" and "prosperity" which Blair and Brown twisted and distorted into a neoliberal caricature.

It was a strategy based on an assumption of steady and continued growth, which a Labour Party in power would stimulate from the state. The result would be an end to poverty - but not to capitalism. It was as if those who followed this view had not read or followed the history of capitalism. Had they done so they might then have recognised the evolution of capitalism as a process of destructive acquisition, deepening exploitation, repression and war, colonisation and conquest, and a creeping ecological disaster whose origins Mike Davis describes so brilliantly in his Late Victorian Holocausts. In an economic system whose driving force is exploitation and competition, crisis and conflict is endemic, recession and the protection of the powerful is not an aberration - though it might temporarily have looked that way - but an inescapable and recurring feature of capitalist expansion.

Crosland's revision rewrote capitalism's narrative and disarmed the working class, on whose support it still relied, for the struggles to come. Managing capitalism, rather than confronting it, was the watchword. The result is a Labour Party which speaks for capitalism without reservations.

But if the emphasis on the state and welfare was the crucible out of which Blairism emerged, where is the alternative? For Maurice Glasman and the other authors, the welfare state is a consequence of this control from the state, of a capitalism excessively managed. Glasman's essay "Labour as a radical tradition", which is the keynote to which most of the other pieces respond, defines a different Labour tradition (or "rediscovers" it, as he puts it). But it is not the long history of working class organisation and resistance that he identifies with Labourism, but a very different narrative.

Its starting point is, in my view, a romantic and deeply conservative view that begins with a picture of the past that few who know the story of the emergence of British capitalism would recognise. "The founders of the labour movement", Glasman tells us, "did not embrace class war and clung stubbornly to an idea of the common life with their rulers and exploiters."

The "common good"

They were devoted to "common action for the common good" rooted in "pre-Norman natural law". It is only a small step from that vision to the evocation of "the freeborn Englishman" as the model to which a truly Labour tradition should aspire. Not much room for women, or Scots, or the Welsh then! Indeed it's hard not to avoid the feeling that this new New Labour has given up on Scotland - about which the book has nothing to say.

This melding of Wat Tyler and St George is at the heart of this collection - the yeoman farmer, secure on his small plot, and the religious activist, the non-conformist whose concept of community is the one Glasman and the other authors ask us to return to. Wat Tyler of course fought and died in the war between the peasantry and the landowners in the late 14th century. But Glasman insists on this idea of a "common good" and those who represent it. Thus Labour must become a "defender of society", an advocate for this shared purpose which unites us all in the (English) nation. Jonathan Rutherford, writing later, goes the whole hog in talking about "community, work, country and honour".

The conclusion - which is ideological rather than a practical programme - is that we should return to mutualism and reciprocity. The Labour Party, whose birth Glasman describes in an irritating metaphor, is said to have been born of a trade unionist "Dad"' and a middle class "Mum" (Fabianism), and must return to those "traditional assumptions and practices" which brought together a "ruling class public services tradition", the activity of faith groups and the co-operative movement.

Rutherford then calls the right wing philosopher Roger Scruton as a witness. Scruton argues that "the Labour Party has presided over the leaching away of the common meanings and social ties that bind people together in society". And Rutherford triumphantly concludes that "Labour's future is conservative". This then is Blue Labour.

The problem with the Blue Labour narrative is that it says nothing about the circumstances under which these things emerged, and less still about the fact that each and every one of these forms of organisation represented resistance in struggle - to resist the landlords, to provide for the exploited and dispossessed in the face of the ruthless assault of the powerful. The 1889 Dock Strike was a high point of early trade union organisation, the expression of the new exploited and underpaid unskilled labourers fighting to improve their lives. The fact that they marched behind a Salvation Army band, as Glasman recalls, does not mean that this was not working class resistance!

The history of the labour movement is shaped by two traditions. On the one hand, a conservative one that looked for accommodation with the system, expressed most clearly in the role of the trade union bureaucracy. The other is a story of revolt and resistance against the subordination of workers. The context is the struggle between the capitalist class and the workers which is a necessary condition of capitalism itself.

The real story of the Labour Party is shaped by a struggle between those two traditions as they were reflected in its relationship with the labour movement. The party itself was born out of a compromise with capital and the persistent assumption that the interests of capital and the working class could be reconciled. Yet time and again the working class movement produced struggles - from the Clyde Workers struggles to the miners' strikes of the 1970s and 1980s - which challenged the priorities of capitalism itself and in their practice crossed the frontier between defensive struggles and the forging of a new kind of power. That they were defeated is true; but their absence from Blue Labour's version of the history of the Labour Party simply denies the class struggle which points both to the necessity for and possibility of a new and different kind of society, in which the battle between exploiters and exploited will be overcome. That is the promise of the revolutionary socialist tradition.

Looking backward

Blue Labour, on the other hand, only looks backward to an invented time of social consensus and class collaboration. For the millions of workers facing daily attacks on their rights, conditions, wages, indeed their very future, this must feel like betrayal. And betrayal it is.

Labour has won (albeit declining) numbers of working class votes by claiming to be the inheritors of the great tradition of working class resistance. Blue Labour must be the final piece of evidence that this is a fiction. And if more evidence were needed, then the conclusion drawn on the Blue Labour blog that the flag-waving thugs of the English Defence League are "trueborn Englishmen" who should be won back to the fold is the worst of its betrayals. It feeds directly into the most reactionary conception of nation - racist and exclusive - and legitimates the persecution of other communities in the name of a mythical "Englishness" that binds the rulers to the ruled.

The real consensus to which Miliband and his ilk are dedicated is already being forged, as Con-Dems and Labour converge on the same ground, squabble for ownership of the same policies and push and shove for control of the "middle" which stretches so far to the right that it can embrace the most extreme of right wing arguments on immigration, imperialist adventures from Iraq to Libya, and an attack on the welfare state in the name of mutualism. The loyalty of working class people has sustained the Labour Party until now - but it is a loyalty that is slowly ebbing away. It will disappear far sooner if the truth that the "liberation of the working class can only be the act of the working class" is made real by the strengthening of working class resistance and the rediscovery of that authentic labour tradition. Then the possibility of a democracy of control from below, of a world based on genuine equality, and the distribution of society's resources for the benefit of all - in a word socialism - will be set against the helpless caricature that Blue Labour is trying to offer them.