Blue Labour, social democracy and modernity

This article was first published on Labour Vision.

Chuka Umunna writes about ‘the political salience of culture and belonging’. Lisa Nandy urges ‘patriotism’ rather than ‘placards’. David Goodhart defends ‘somewheres’ against ‘anywheres’.

As the left’s working class support in post-Brexit Britain continues to erode Labour’s intelligentsia is increasingly speaking the communitarian language of Blue Labour.

The eloquent advocacy of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas helped the Blue Labour movement win influence after the party’s defeat in 2010, inspiring the One Nation phase of Ed Miliband’s leadership and guiding the policy review that informed significant elements of the 2015 manifesto.

The collection of essays Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, published on the eve of that election, which includes contributions by Glasman and Cruddas and Anglican intellectuals Rowan Williams, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, is one of the most substantial contributions to British social democratic thought of the past decade.

Blue Labour draws upon the history of the labour movement, Aristotelian political philosophy and Catholic Social Teaching to reassert the fundamental social democratic principle that the freedom of each depends upon the freedom of all: liberty is only possible by virtue of our participation in a wider community in which we are always and necessarily embedded.

Blue Labour’s insistence on Labour’s obligation to defend and nurture the life of the communities that give people identity and a sense of belonging is a vital corrective to the liberal individualist philosophy that guided the New Labour project.

During the early phase of his leadership Tony Blair drew upon the communitarian thought of John Macmurry to articulate a vision of a society characterised by ‘rights and responsibilities’. But in office Labour’s agenda was guided by a meritocratic liberalism that emphasised equality of opportunity, cosmopolitanism, flexible working and the bracing efficacy of market forces.

Today, when there something approaching a consensus, even amongst those who recognise its achievements, that New Labour’s embrace of a freewheeling social and economic liberalism has contributed to the party’s current predicament, Blue Labour appears to have laid a solid philosophical foundation for developing a political narrative and programme capable of starting the long process of winning back working class support.

And yet the movement’s ascendancy is far from assured: from the start it has met stern resistance not just from the party’s liberal progressives, but also from the left, Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong concern for vulnerable communities notwithstanding.

That hostility, I suggest, has as much to do with the language and imagery with which Blue Labour presents its case as its substance.

Blue Labour’s argument that New Labour undervalued the social democratic imperative to protect communities from the ‘creative destruction’ of the market cuts deep. But New Labour understood another aspect of the social democratic tradition that Glasman et al underplay: the left’s long established claim to be the party of the future, not the defender of a past that cannot be renewed.

New Labour’s astute intuition, wholeheartedly embraced and articulated brilliantly by Blair, is that Labour only wins when it presents itself as the party of modernity, aligned with the grain of technological, organisational and economic progress.

Labour won in 1945 because it convinced people it was ready and able to construct the future Britain they wanted. Attlee’s team was seen as a competent government in waiting with the technocratic know-how necessary to realise Beveridge’s vision and to rebuild the economy.

In 1964 Harold Wilson successfully positioned Labour as the party of the space age, promising to apply the ‘white heat’ of technological innovation to modernise Britain’s industry and public services.

And in 1997 Blair presented New Labour as the tough-minded, forward looking agent of modernity in stark contrast with John Major’s dewy-eyed dreams of ‘long shadows on county grounds, warm beer and invincible green suburbs’.

Shaping the future

Of course the great challenge for all of those Labour administrations – as for any government of the left – was to direct technological and economic change towards progressive ends, not simply to follow wherever it might have been heading.

Great as its achievements were, Attlee’s government structured the industries it nationalised and the public services it rolled out according to fashionable models of top-down corporate governance: ‘public’ ownership meant hulking state bureaucracies with little scope for democratic participation by workers and citizens.

And New Labour simply equated modernity with neoliberal accelerationism: faster globalisation, financialisation, flexible working, welfare sanctions and public sector marketisation. For Blair to oppose ‘capitalist realism’ was to reject progress itself.

But Blue Labour’s efforts to put Labour back on the social democratic path threatens to come at the cost of committing the party to a politics that abandons the language of modernity altogether.

Blue Labour’s discourse is saturated with images of defence, imperatives to protect communities, neighbourhoods, faiths and cultural identities from the corrosive effects of capital and insensitive cosmopolitanism.

Glasman and Cruddas write powerfully and movingly of people’s need to ‘belong’, and ‘deep desire for the familiar and the parochial’. But their idea of community so often conveys stasis, with its habitual focus on safeguarding established collectivites such as neighbourhood groups, religious organisations and community centres. Such forms of community do need to be championed, but there isn’t much recognition here that collectivities can emerge as well as disintegrate, can form and reform in response to economic and technological change.

Today’s digital communications technologies, for example, make possible new kinds of community, both within and beyond the boundaries of physical neighbourhoods. The web opens opportunities for the democratisation of public services, offering mechanisms for opening up decision-making in local authorities, schools, health services and community owned transport and energy networks. Labour needs to be sensitive to the fragility of existing communities and open to the role technology can play in fostering new solidarities.

The challenge and opportunity of automation

Another technological shift that needs to be interpreted in terms of opportunity rather than threat is the new wave of software and machinery that seems likely to significantly extend workplace automation.

Blue Labour’s welcome emphasis on the availability of good, meaningful work as an essential condition for community confronts both the punitive neoliberal insistence that workers should be grateful for any job, no matter how degrading or insecure, and the libertarian complacency with which some advocates of a basic income overlook the role work plays in fostering a sense of citizenship and self-worth.

Of course there are big challenges here. Automation presents a particular threat to the skilled manufacturing jobs so important to the communities Blue Labour wants to defend. But a future-orientated Labour Party needs to boldly embrace ‘the rise of the robots’ by recovering the labour movement’s historic faith that new technology can be marshalled for the common good, offering the prospect of reduced drudgery, more fulfilling forms of work, and shorter working hours.

Labour is right to stress the importance of providing the education and training necessary to equip workers with the skills emerging technologies demand. But not everybody will be able to do those jobs, and those who do may well have to move to take them up.

So a community-focused Labour should invest in a New Deal-style jobs programme that will get people to work on the important tasks waiting to be done in the places where they already live, using many of the skills they already have. In particular there is much urgent work to be done to prepare Britain for the challenge of climate change: houses need to be insulated, flood defences built and new sources of renewable energy constructed.

Interpreting nostalgia

Blue Labour’s imagery of communities and neighbourhoods is tinged with sepia. And it is true that the picture of secure, stable communities that Glasman and Cruddas are so skilled at evocating resonates with the nostalgic mood prevalent amongst older voters. But it is crucial that our contemporary nostalgia be understood as a more complex sentiment than an uncomplicated desire to return to a timeless picture postcard Britain.

Look closely, and it becomes apparent that the past so many people want to return to is the postwar Britain of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when there was a widespread expectation that the future would be brighter than the present, a sense of progress. The Britain of postwar reconstruction was no utopia, but was an era of full employment, rising prosperity, the development of public services and mass social housing programmes.

Consider, for example, the contemporary phenomenon of austerity nostalgia with its modernist typography and rail posters; the fashion for postwar public architecture; the affection for the birth of the welfare state manifested by the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and popular TV shows such as Call the Midwife; and, even, the outpouring of grief on the death of David Bowie, a futurist rock star from the suburbs of Bromley.

This ‘nostalgia for modernity’ is captured well in a striking passage in an important 2014 Compass publication by Jeremy Gilbert and Mark Fisher, Reclaiming Modernity: Beyond Markets, Beyond Machines:

It’s not the 1930s that many people would seem to like to go back to: it’s the 1950s and 1960s, the most thoroughly modernist decades in our entire cultural history. It is not the ‘community’ of some lost rural village life which British people often mourn today … it is the sense of solidarity and national purpose expressed by the 1951 Festival of Britain. It is their dissatisfaction with the post-modern moment of pessimism and public disenchantment which people express in their rejections of contemporary culture. This dissatisfaction with the present derives from longing for modernity itself, and for its characteristic sense of hope and a common future.

There is much evidence that Brexit Britain is nostalgic for social democracy, not social conservatism, for the hope that economic and technological progress can be directed for the common good. People want to recapture a time when they enjoyed both security and the prospect of progress.

A ‘Left Modernity’

It is vital that Labour does not allow itself to be pigeonholed, as it is now, and as it has so often been, as the defender of a past that cannot be recovered, a portrayal that opens the way for the right to present themselves as the realists, the unsentimental progressives.

Labour, in a phrase that runs through Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s modernist manifesto Inventing the Future, must articulate a ‘Left Modernity’, an alternative to neoliberal versions of modernity that simply mean more austerity, more financialisation, more insecurity, more privatisation, more inequality.

Labour needs to recover the labour movement’s old confidence that the left is the natural party of the future. Through much of the 20th century the left positioned itself as the agent of modernity, exuding an unselfconscious confidence that technological innovation continually opens up fresh opportunities for serving the common good. Think of the technological dreamworlds of the early 20th century avant-garde, or of postwar popular modernism we’ve been discussing, with its hopeful mood captured in a famous passage in Anthony Crosland’s landmark 1956 social democratic manifesto The Future of Socialism:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.

Blue Labour reminds us that the social democratic tradition prioritises community over abstract individualism. But social democracy is a political philosophy that is thoroughly modernist in its orientation. Labour’s communitarianism is progressive, not Burkean, embracing technological and economic change as opportunities for our collective benefit. It is for conservatives to want to keep us in the past, and for social democrats to seek to move us into the future, together.

Images: Stills from Festival of Britain in Colour, 1951, and public information film, The new Tower of London – construction of the BT Tower, 1967.