The liberalism that has dominated British politics for a generation is looking battered. The financial crash has eroded confidence in economic liberalism, while the shocking inner-city riots have done the same for social liberalism. Watch out, this party conference season, for signs of post-liberalism.
You will not hear authoritarian rants from the conference podium, or calls to abandon market economics or individual rights. But a more pessimistic and nostalgic intellectual mood is emerging. It combines social conservatism with greater economic interventionism—tough love for inner city kids, less immigration and a more sceptical view of globalisation and high finance.
Does this sound familiar? It is, of course, the broad prospectus of the two most striking political thinkers to emerge in recent years: Phillip Blond with his Red Toryism and Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour. Both talk with old-fashioned passion about virtue and the common good, the importance of family, religion, tradition, community and relationships, and scorn the top-down state and many aspects of the market economy.
These maverick figures attract and repel in equal measure. But how much influence do they really have? And will their ideas have a lasting impact on British politics?
Enemies of the two men have declared the end of their political influence. As yet, that is wishful thinking. The two main party leaders have used Blond and Glasman to distance themselves from the recent past—from Thatcherism in the case of David Cameron, Blairism for Ed Miliband. Cameron’s team has not embraced Blond personally (and George Osborne is not a fan). But Blond’s think tank ResPublica has produced several pamphlets on issues such as housing, spreading capital and the mutualisation of public services which have had a direct influence on policy. He remains a big player, especially in the Big Society debate about rethinking the state.
Glasman recently ran into trouble with unguarded comments on ending mass immigration, but he is still a confidante of Ed Miliband and helped to draft his recent speech on the riots. Expect to see Glasman’s ideas on community organisation—drawn from his work with London Citizens—influencing the reorganisation of the Labour party. “We have the potential to be as significant for Labour as the Institute of Economic Affairs [the think tank that incubated the ideas associated with Thatcherism] was for the Tories in the early 1970s,” says Glasman. That may seem boastful but it is not completely far fetched, especially when you focus on the economic arguments.
The economic interventionism of Blue Labour and Red Toryism chimes with a wider belief, since the financial crash, that the problem of wealth generation in Britain has not been solved. Economics, it turns out, is more than getting market regulation right and then distributing the proceeds of growth in a Labour or a Tory way. All three main parties have been talking about “rebalancing” the economy and industrial policy (although this government is unlikely to take much action on either). This makes Blond’s attack on ownership concentration, Glasman’s interest in the lessons of the German social market, and their mutual interest in regional banking appear quite mainstream.
But there is also something deeper that their critiques reflect: the belief that we have embraced globalisation too uncritically and the less well off are getting a raw deal from it. The idea of a contract (associated with US Democrat Robert Reich), in which the state helps you get a decent education, allowing you to take one of the growing number of “good” jobs, is said to have broken down. Instead, the labour market seems to be split between a rising number of professional jobs for the 40 plus per cent who get to college, a shrinking number of middle income, middle status jobs (associated with manufacturing), and a large lump of low-skill service jobs at the bottom. Both Blue Labour and Red Toryism focus on how to give meaning and status (and more income) to the routine jobs. They are more concerned with apprenticeships than tuition fees; the stragglers at the bottom not the strivers at the top.
There are differences, too. “For good friends they have fierce debates. Glasman thinks Blond is naïve about spreading ownership because he ignores market power, while Blond thinks Glasman is stuck in the old capital vs labour conflict and doesn’t get aspiration,” says Rowenna Davis, author of the forthcoming Tangled up in Blue (Ruskin). Nevertheless, their mix of social conservatism—“flag, faith and family”—and economic interventionism may still represent a “hidden” electoral majority in most European societies. It was abandoned by the left with its turn to race, gender and green issues in the 1970s. At about the same time, in Britain at least, the right gave up one-nation economics for the free market.
By bringing these strands together, Glasman and Blond offend many people in their respective parties. They also have many precursors and allies. Although the Tory party has been making its peace with social liberalism in recent years, there are plenty of contrarian voices: Danny Kruger’s work on fraternity; Jesse Norman’s arguments about mutualism; Tim Montgomerie, the influential blogger and Christian; Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, among others. The government’s localism, immigration and welfare policies (the last with a lot of private Labour support) are all post-liberal.
Within Labour, Glasman could become a divisive figure, a sort of communitarian Tony Benn. But his social conservatism echoes some early New Labour worries about the unintended consequences of liberalism, and the stress on duty and community. His influence on Labour is greater than Blond’s on the Tories partly because he is in at the start of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the policy slate is blank.
As Blue Labour and Red Toryism move into phase two, we will discover which ideas can convert into policy and which are merely a cry of anguish against liberal modernity. People may be nostalgic for community, but they are also used to making individual choices that often undermine it, and globalisation will not be easily tamed in a country like Britain, with its lack of the institutions of German-style “organised” capitalism. Recent events have, however, propelled post-liberalism closer to the centre of political debate, and Blue Labour and Red Toryism will remain key conduits for years to come.