Blue Labour: The Politics of the Common Good by Maurice Glasman
Why does the present generation of Labour politicians sound so pallid, pious, tentative and unmemorable? Can anyone quote anything any member of the Shadow Cabinet has said? Does anyone know what any of them believe in?
The criticism applies to many Conservatives too. Our political class is terrified of giving offence, and takes refuge in meaningless banalities.
Maurice Glasman, a Labour life peer, laments that his party has become estranged from its own roots. It no longer has the faintest idea how to represent the working class.
A rich tradition has been spurned, suppressed, extirpated, replaced by a technocratic managerialism whose adherents strive to conceal, especially from themselves, the vacuity of their opinions, by endorsing every modish progressive statement while condemning the Tories as “scum”, this last uncharacteristically memorable epithet uttered by Angela Rayner at the Labour Conference in 2021.
Glasman is excellent on the Labour tradition which has been lost:
“It is robustly national and international, conservative and reforming, Christian and secular, republican and monarchical, democratic and elitist, radical and traditional, and it is most transformative and effective when it defies the status quo in the name of ancient as well as modern values.”
Labour drew on contradictory impulses, some of which were deeply small-c conservative. Glasman goes on:
“It is far too rarely acknowledged that, alone in Europe, Labour succeeded in generating a workers’ movement that was not divided between Catholic and Protestant, or between secularists and believers; instead the movement itself provided the common life within which these potentially antagonistic forces could combine in pursuit of a common good.”
Under Tony Blair, this inheritance was rejected and the party signed up instead to the global, liberal economic order. Here was the future according to Blair, who told the Labour Conference in 2005:
“The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice.”
A merciless outlook, enthusiastically endorsed, Glasman points out, by the Chinese Communist Party. Globalisation became the dominant Labour ideology, clearly superior to any merely national view of politics.
Angrily the author detects an “alliance between western capitalism and eastern communism in order to diminish the status of western labour”. The creation of global supply chains enabled manufacturing jobs to be outsourced to the lowest-cost producer, and who cared what conditions were like in Chinese factories, how many Uighurs were held in prison camps, what ruthless suppression of freedom took place in Hong Kong as well as mainland China, what threats were uttered against Taiwan.
Meanwhile in the West, Glasman contends,
“The modern corporation divested itself of its body by subcontracting cleaning, security, catering and distribution through a high-churn disposable workforce. Freedom of movement was central to this. The precariat was formed and these moves were welcomed by investors.”
The Labour Party, and the Left generally, lost confidence, Glasman observes, in the working class and in democracy, “and retreated increasingly to a legally enforced form of globalisation”.
All of which meant Brexit came as a terrible shock. Labour was totally unprepared, unable to assert its leadership of the nation, or even to articulate what that leadership should say.
In the United States, the Democrats had the same problem. They had lost all sympathy with the workers, “the basket of deplorables” as Hillary Clinton called them, in what Glasman calls “the only line of poetry” from her 2016 campaign.
His book has the merit of being short, only 143 pages of text. At times the prose gets clotted, but there are also lines of poetry, as when he says in his sign-off line:
“Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your supply chains!”
Glasman was friends with Roger Scruton, and wrote an appreciative essay about him after his death.
On the cover of the book under review, Michael Gove describes Glasman as “both one of the finest thinkers in Labour and one of the outstanding conservative thinkers of our time”.
For the conservative, or Conservative, reader who opposes pitiless capitalism and the maltreatment of workers, Glasman serves as a guide and ally who demonstrates how progressive thinkers have misunderstood the whole subject.
He does not discuss Margaret Thatcher’s trade union reforms. Many Conservatives saw at the time that while reform was essential, there were losses as well as gains.
The trade unions gave the working classes a stake in the country, not just by being able to bring things to a juddering halt, but by giving political training, and parliamentary opportunities, to gifted individuals who had started out in life with few advantages.
Membership of the Commons became, during the 20th century, more diverse in class terms than it is now.
Labour also became, Glasman points out, “the natural party of affection for immigrants throughout the last century who could build relationships with those already here”.
Social cohesion matters, and Labour, by taking the parliamentary rather than the revolutionary route, played an indispensable role.
Our system requires an Opposition which is ready, when the moment comes, to form a Government and speak for the nation. Glasman understands this far better than some of those silent members of the Shadow Cabinet.