The Prospect debate: red Tory vs blue Labour

Both Labour and the Conservatives have pledged to “strengthen communities.” But does the state help or hinder that? Maurice Glasman, father of “blue Labour,” takes on “red Tory” Phillip Blond
April 30, 2010
Dear Phillip12th April 2010

Congratulations on your recent book, Red Tory. Your attempt to defeat Thatcherism within the Conservative party is one of the most courageous stories in modern politics. There is much that unites us: the importance of strengthening civil society and local communities, and the centrality of virtue in politics. The need to remoralise the economy, after a market storm climaxing with the City of London becoming the greatest welfare dependent in our country’s history, is also common ground between us.

I call my politics blue Labour, because I want Labour to place work, locality, and solidarity back in a central role in the pursuit of a good society. So if I now stress what divides us, I do appreciate the strength of your argument. Your book is at its strongest when examining modernity: the emergence of the sovereign state and the price-setting market, with the institutions of society squeezed out. This began, as you say, with the Tudor enclosure movement. Here, the practices embedded in our common lands were trumped by freehold ownership and the market. The church did not oppose this, as it did elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, after Archbishop Laud was beheaded in 1645 it ceased to oppose the commodification of land at all. From that point the labour movement alone defended reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.

Ultimately, the labour movement built the co-operatives, building societies, and trade unions that resisted the rise of the market. The Tories opposed them, as did the Liberals. A corrupt squierarchy rather than a just hierarchy defined the Tory tradition you now defend. In its craven attitude to capital, its paternalistic conception of welfare and its exclusive conception of the state, it is a far from virtuous lineage.

I mention this because I consider you an important Labour thinker, and one who has no serious intellectual or political support within the Conservative party. Further, your attempt to revive a progressive conservatism undermines the best of your argument. Many of your best ideas, such as your call for the “empowerment of frontline workers” in our public services, form no part of historical Conservative practice. For the past decade I’ve been involved with London Citizens, a group of community organisers. We emphasise action between local institutions, particularly faith communities, to pursue a common good. We’ve launched a “living wage” campaign: £7.60 an hour, including holidays, sick pay and pensions. This does much more to support family life than Cameron’s £150 marriage bribe: it allows parents to spend time with their children, guards against debt and fosters greater status at work.

In response to the financial crash, we are also pursuing an interest rate cap to protect the poorest from usurious lending, and a recapitalisation of local areas through local mutual banking. Labour’s manifesto is backing all three. This is an important shift: Labour is responding much more sympathetically to your agenda than the Conservatives. Put simply, to stand up to the power of capital, the state must be stronger. There is no doubt that new Labour, in James Purnell’s words, was too hands on with the state and too hands off with the market. This is now changing. Labour, far more than the Tories, are listening to your arguments. Labour supports the mutualisation of Northern Rock, the waterways and English Heritage. The proposed “Cadbury law” would limit takeovers of successful British firms. There is more to be done, but there is life in the Labour body politic yet.

You write about a domestic political struggle to constrain capital. Yet the financial interest is well organised, and its principal representative on Earth is the Conservative party. Red is the colour of blood, of conflict and struggle. In not setting out the necessity of conflict and organisation, your book is not red. And on the subject of political economy, and in arguing for reciprocity and a democratically organised workforce, it is not Tory. Labour has learnt from the recent bailouts. This is not true of the Tories. Given the differences between the parties at this election, I think, on balance, you should vote Labour. Yours, Maurice

Dear Maurice14th April 2010 You are one of the first on the left to see the new middle ground of British politics: groups independent of the state forming around the common good. Like me, you admire civil society, and see that the market and the state can both conspire against it. We share a critique of the neoliberal market and the authoritarian state.

I warmly welcome the development of a non-statist left. Our country has for too long oscillated between anarchic individualism and Fabian centralisation. Our task is not to see “blue Labour” and “red Toryism” as opposites, but as the start of a new debate.

That said, I’m afraid the blue Labour you describe isn’t actually all that radical. Indeed, your ideas risk replicating the old, ineffective politics of the left. Ultimately, you are pessimistic about markets and money. You want to “challenge” the interests of capital with the interests of labour. But how is this different from the traditional politics of the 20th-century left, which accepted the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, and used the unions (and then the state) to win higher welfare and wage payments in exchange? Hidden in your thinking, it seems to me, there remains an unacknowledged welfarism and statism—and an admission that the extension of capital to working people is not something that can ever be achieved or hoped for.

A more radical political project, like mine, seeks to overcome the false separation of capital and labour. Such a politics does not refuse markets, but seeks to change them: distributing capital more widely, challenging monopolies and widening access, and pricing into all markets some measure of their true environmental or social costs. This combines insights from both left and right: the market could stop being too speculative, and concentrate on producing and trading that which is both economically and socially useful.

Historically the left has oscillated between representing a class of the working waged that can never truly own capital, and responding to the demands of a middle class to which it can only offer a consuming individualism. This was the weakness of Blairism. Sadly, it risks being the fate of blue Labour too.

I would also challenge your account of history. Yes, enclosure is a vital part of understanding how we have created a dispossessed class and, yes, it did begin in Tudor times. But before the reformation both the monarch and the church were actively opposed to landlord enclosure. The star chamber was convened by Cardinal Wolsey principally to challenge land grabs at the expense of the poor. After the civil war it is also true that a corrupt squirearchy abolished common tenure of land for working people. But the elite at that time were Whig liberals, not Tories. In fact, in the 18th century, the Tories tended to defend the poor, tradition and locality against a new class of Whig oligarchs. It was the Tories who attacked the rotten boroughs and fought against electoral disenfranchisement.

Throughout the 19th century both the Tories and the church were often very virtuous, beginning with evangelical Christians like Wilberforce fighting slavery. Tory figures like Richard Oastler (a squire) and Michael Sadler further radicalised this movement by extending an analysis of slavery to the condition of British women and children, forced by Liberal mill owners to work up to 16 hours a day. It was this campaign, in turn, which resulted in the greatest Tory reform of working conditions: the ten hour bill, sponsored by the evangelical Tory 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. In all of this, I haven’t even mentioned Disraeli.

Such history matters because it provides a backdrop to our current debates. I understand why you consider me a “Labour thinker” as, like you, I have always advocated the living wage, localised banking, and a cap on usurious interest rates. I welcome the (rather hedged) commitment to some of these in Labour’s manifesto. However, it is only the policies offered by the Conservative party that can be transformative for the working waged. These offer workers, for the first time, a genuine stake in the economy. You cite Labour’s support for co-ops—but the co-op proposals offered by David Cameron are more far-reaching. His plans to give all public sector workers the right to take over their own organisations would provide a real asset for some of the least well paid and most “managed” workers in Britain.

On politics, you claim that my ideas have no serious intellectual or political support on the right. I disagree. My ideas and recommendations find full and serious expression in both Cameron’s concept of a “big society,” and the policy ideas within the Conservatives’ manifesto. Cameron’s big society vision is the most transformative the public have been offered in a generation. It promises an entirely new model of business, with new rules promoting social enterprises where at least 50 per cent of gains must go to charitable ends. It is a document fit for a new Conservative party. Yours, Phillip

Dear Phillip16th April 2010 Your overall argument seems to be that modern individuals are powerless and isolated. You believe that increasing debt and the erosion of civic associations—from the congregation to the family, and even the union—has made people depend too much on both the market and the state.

On this, we agree. But the labour movement was a radical reaction to exactly this problem. It built institutions and organised people, so that they might lessen their reliance on the market. In this sense you are right that blue Labour is less “transformational” than your red Toryism. If I am blue it is because the history of the left is a constant reminder of the power and dynamism of capital. My movement was born in defence of ordinary people at work and on the land, people constantly displaced by a revolutionary system that evicted people from their homes and denied them status at work. Is it any surprise that my conservatism is more deeply rooted than yours?

Financial capital is a real beast. It demands obedience. As such it requires firm rules, interfering institutions and strong relationships to tame it. Simply having more mutuals in the public sector cannot achieve this, as you seem to suggest. To move forward we must recognise that different groups in society have different interests, and that there is often conflict between them. Such conflicts—for instance between owners and workers—can be mediated, but not simply transcended.

Take the financial crisis. Decisions about salaries and bonuses were hidden from public officials, unions and workers. As a result wage inequality increased, and risks rose. Assets controlled by money managers were run in the interests of managers alone. The only way to reverse this is to reassert a balance of power in corporate governance—we might start with employee representatives on remuneration committees.

Missing from the Tory vision of a “big” society is a credible political economy that could provide a less turbulent environment. Take the living wage. Labour’s manifesto set a pay floor for workers in government departments: a policy where state action complements social renewal, rather than detracts from it, as you suggest.

As I know from my own work, creating new civic associations is hard. It takes time.You have to work with people, attend meetings and decide on action collectively. Bringing together those with common interests is the best way to do it. It is no coincidence that all of London Citizen’s campaigns hold the market or local institutions to account. If your job or community is threatened, people will act together.

The Tories seem not to understand this. They have concentrated only on breaking up local public services. And Cameron’s vision of volunteerism neither captures what is at stake, nor charts a path forward. Yours, Maurice

Dear Maurice19th April 2010 Your politics of permanent conflict hides an unacknowledged reality: like the liberals you rightly combat, you actually think that no true common interests really exist. But every vested interest can be challenged, and changed. If not, no white person would have opposed slavery, and no man would have believed in the education of women.

You fixate and fetishise economic conflict of a particularly 19th-century kind, and can see no way past it. This does not mean that I deny the existence of powerful vested interests—particularly around who owns and who labours—but I can at least conceive of alternatives. As a result, it is my politics that truly threatens, rather than confirms, illegitimate advantage and the monopolisation of wealth.

Modern capital cannot be constrained, but it can be changed. For me, poverty comes from the restriction and limitation of capital. It is the unions, and their proxy politics of wage representation (which appears to wholly capture your imagination) that locks people into serfdom and dependency. I argue instead for the extension and distribution of capital. If more own, then more can prosper. By the same token, the very thing you argue for as a means to limit capital—more regulation—tends to increase the power of monopolies, and therefore the centralisation of capital. Some regulation is needed but much acts as a barrier to market entry. It often prevents genuinely competitive challenges to vested interest. Your politics would compound this double exclusion: you would deny the poor the assets they need to prosper, and also regulate the market to ensure that dominant players had no competitors. Here, the state compounds the vested interest of capital. One cause of the financial collapse, for instance, was the state itself and the way the state, as the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane argues, has increased tenfold its insurance cover of big investment bank liability.

By viewing market forces as basically sinister you fail to realise that the market can indeed serve social ends. After all, it has done for centuries. The “big society” simply endorses an economy that can price in the social and economic outcomes we all want. It is not about DIY welfare, or breaking up public services—it is about distributing assets and facilitating market entry for everyone. The point is that normal economies can be relatively reciprocal and civic. And the only party arguing for this at the moment is the Conservative party. In your heart, you know this is all true. Yours, Phillip

Dear Phillip20th April 2010 My heart is a mysterious thing, and not immune to the attractions of beauty, ethics and truth. None of these apply to the Conservative party. But there is beauty in the English labour movement, from which I have learned the importance of both political co-operation and conflict. By denying the conflict between capital and labour you deny the possibility of a common good, crafted from the entanglement of different interests and institutions in a common life. You have made a great contribution to thinking about how workers can be more powerful and free. And that is why Labour will always be more receptive to your ideas. Yours, Maurice

Dear Maurice21st April 2010 There is indeed beauty in the labour movement, and great truth in its project of protecting workers from the rapacious behaviour of the powerful. It is because I recognise this conflict as persisting that I aim to overcome it by a politics of capital and asset distribution, and opposition to monopoly. In this I appeal not to party politics but to the common good that we both believe in. Red Tory is not party political, it attempts instead to chart a radical new middle for British politics. It combines social conservation with economic radicalism, and it can be taken up by any transformative party-—it just happens that its greatest resonance has been with a renewed Conservative one. Yours, Phillip