Ed Miliband has scored a meagre triumph in keeping his party united but failed to develop a coherent vision. He should marry the best of Blue Labour and New Labourby Philip Collins / March 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
Blue Labour: Forging A New Politics, edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst (IB Tauris, £14.99)
Five Year Mission: The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband, by Tim Bale (OUP, £10.99)
Ed Miliband was raised to the Labour leadership by all that was Old and Red in his party and it was always unlikely that he would be the messenger for anything that was either New or Blue. Miliband defined himself rather clumsily against his New Labour predecessors, deftly apologising for lots of things those governments had got right. Meanwhile, the advocates of Blue Labour gathered round him, hoping he would turn their way. He never really did. In Five Year Mission, Tim Bale tells the story of how it never happened. Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst’s Blue Labour describes, intellectually, why it never could.
The Blue account of the Labour Party, to borrow a metaphor from one of its founders, Maurice Glasman, is that it is a marriage that failed. The party was born from both the trade union and cooperative movements and the Fabian tradition of gradual, inevitable scientific improvement. The central Blue Labour claim is that the technocrats won a fatal victory that led directly to the dead end of nationalisation followed by the softer illusion of state planning.
Blue Labour is rooted in a suspicion that social democrats are too ready to believe that justice is best aimed at by using a central state. It seeks to return Labour to an earlier, pre-Fabian tradition of voluntary association and ethical socialism. The Blue Labour proponents think the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 were naively enthusiastic about the managerial proficiency of the state and too ready to spend taxpayers’ money.
The Blue Labour crowd also accuses the Labour governments, not without reason, of being credulous about market power and blind to the obvious fact that economic globalisation, on balance a net victory for Britain, also brings defeat in its wake. The Blue Labour critique starts with the crisis of 2008 which exposed the excessive power of finance capital. It proceeds to lament the impact of mobile capital on working-class communities and on a venerable and highly conservative set of Labour traditions. Where the rather manic governments of Tony Blair tended to elevate change to a principle in its own right, Blue Labour is a reminder that change, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, is usually experienced as loss.
As a partial rebuke to New Labour, Blue Labour has something to be said for it. It begins to fall to pieces, though, when a prospectus for the future is needed. Adrian Pabst writes that “Blue Labour is a narrative about fall and redemption.” That is half right, but only half right.
It is telling that one of the epigraphs to Geary and Pabst’s book is from the prophet Jeremiah. In his foreword, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, acts as Jeremiah-in-chief. Telling us loftily that there are other forms of relationship apart from the commercial, as if anyone in the history of mankind ever doubted it, Williams declares that politics has been working against the grain of humanity, a remark that manages to be both pompous and meaningless at the same time. This is nothing other than declinism, the left-of-centre version of the UK Independence Party’s saloon bar thesis that the country is going to the dogs. Something in Blue Labour is clearly not comfortable in the present and happier in the past. That means it does not have such a lot to say about the future. There is one notable exception to the accusation, otherwise a disabling one, that Blue Labour has no plan for what to do next, and it shows why Miliband was never going to be its authentic voice. It is a clear implication of Blue Labour conservatism that power should be spread widely. It should be devolved to local government and rooted in community institutions. Blue Labour is decidedly not a vintage social democratic movement but Miliband is a decidedly vintage social democrat.
The story of how Miliband’s instincts are married to the arts of the politically possible is told in Tim Bale’s comprehensive book, Five Year Mission. The title, of course, will prove to be either right or wrong. It could be wrong, in which case Miliband has many years left as Labour leader, some of them as Prime Minister. In that event, this seems a highly provisional book. Contemporary history always carries the risk that it is too early a draft. It is more likely, though, that the title is right and that this book might be the first account of a period of Labour history that is entire unto itself.
Bale gives the impression, not least in a downbeat concluding assessment, that he does not expect the May election to go well. He documents every twist and turn of the Miliband years and, if not every event will linger long either in the memory or in the history books, a clear portrait of the Labour leader does emerge. Miliband comes out as a man caught halfway between his intellectual and his political instincts. His plan to redraw capitalism to make its distribution of earnings more equal falls foul of his political antennae which tell him, in his guilty moments, that it may not be possible and it may not be popular either. The upshot is a kind of paralysis. The mission that Bale sets out is, in a word, unity. Miliband’s mission was to pacify the Labour Party. That is why the Blue Labour intellectuals were folded into his entourage. For a while they felt at home. When Jon Cruddas, a central Blue Labour figure, was asked to lead the Labour Party policy review they might even have been tempted to suppose that Miliband was a convert.
He never was. Insofar as he has retained the intellectual position he adopted as a young man, and to a remarkable degree he has, Miliband is a social democrat who believes that inequality is Britain’s biggest problem and that state action is the main part of the answer. Bale adds a rather depressing coda to that already unimaginative intellectual position. The demand for unity trumped the pursuit of an idea. There is a case, which Bale makes for Miliband, that the Labour Party has got through five years of opposition without trauma, a rare historical triumph and that, in this unity, lies the main achievement of Miliband’s leadership.
It is a meagre triumph, if it is a triumph at all. The unity has been owed more to the weakness of the coalition than the genuine prospect of a Labour victory in 2015. That unity would still have held if Miliband had set out a clearer sense of the government he aspired to lead. It is not obviously true that intellectual murkiness is the price of keeping everyone happy. This raises the question, which is perennial for the Labour Party, of whether it is possible to be truly itself while harvesting enough votes to win.
Quite apart from whether Blue Labour supplies the intellectual armoury to win, it clearly does not have the political reach. Miliband is testing, in my view to destruction, the thesis that a winning coalition can be arranged between the core Labour vote and dissident leftist former Liberal Democrats. The fact that, at the time of writing, Labour is on average 32 per cent in the opinion polls strongly suggests there are not enough such people. Labour cannot, in short, win without the middle class. When Harold Wilson won a majority of 96 in 1966, only two million of Labour’s 13m votes came from the middle class. In 2010 Labour got more votes from the middle class than the working class.
It is hard to see what Blue Labour, with its strongly Labour aesthetic, offers to these people, especially in prosperous parts of the south of England. Labour currently has no representation in Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset, Kent, Sussex, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. The second epigraph in Geary and Pabst is GK Chesterston’s hoary old line about the people of England, who have not spoken yet. Except that they have and the only time they spoke to the Labour Party was when Blair was its leader.
It is easy to see how Blue Labour works as a restraining order on New Labour but harder to see through the nostalgia to its future. This is something that the contributors to the Geary and Pabst volume inadvertently prove. They are keen to bring the poetic back to transactional politics and just when you suspect that might not really mean much, an essay on “the gentle society” will prove you right. In his George Lansbury lecture, Jon Cruddas hit on a potential alliance when he said that a successful political project needs both imagination and practicality. To put the same point more simply, you need both to inspire people and make them confident you can do what you say.
There is such an alliance available in the Labour Party. There are two groups of Labour people who believe in the work ethic and the claim of contribution rather than abstract claims of need or equality. There are two groups who would seek to promote work and relegate welfare and who, because they are humble about the efficacy of the central state, would happily disperse power in public services to local government, community agencies and individuals. There are two groups in the Labour Party who look to the buried tradition of voluntary association and who cherish people devising their own solutions rather than being grateful for what they are given.
Those two groups are the Blue Labour crowd and the New Labour crowd. This is a more interesting way to split up the party than left versus right and it is an alliance which might yet yield a fruitful conversation. It is an alliance that might have been central to the reinvention of the Labour Party, but in fact it hasn’t really happened. Unity has been preserved instead. It is a conversation that is yet to come although it is hard to imagine that Miliband will be a participant.