“Blue Labour is a rejection of mentalism”
It was the kind of blunder that Malcolm Tucker, the government’s director of communications in the art-mirroring-life satire The Thick of It, would label a “deepshit legacy-distracting cock-up”. In an interview in mid July, the influential Labour thinker Maurice Glasman called for a freeze on immigration to the UK. It was the latest in a series of increasingly eccentric media proclamations – a few weeks earlier, he had claimed that Labour must acknowledge “responsibility for the generation of far-right populism” and “involve those people who support the English Defence League within our party”.
Unsurprisingly, these comments caused an embarrassing rift within the Labour Party. Leading supporters of Glasman’s Blue Labour ideology informed him they no longer wished to be associated with the project. And newspaper hacks lambasted Ed Miliband for, in their view, making a rash judgement when he plucked Glasman from academia to become a lord and join his inner circle of advisors. After all, Glasman had been just an obscure academic teaching political theory at London Metropolitan University when he received the unexpected call from the Labour leader’s office.
Labour found one of their inner circle had become the darling of the political right. On 18th July, The Telegraph dubbed Glasman “Labour’s anti-immigration guru” and splashed his controversial comments across its front page: the Daily Mail called him the “voice of reason” the following day. The left-leaning New Statesman carried his lengthy mea culpa a few days after that.
After a self-imposed “summer of silence”, the “voice of reason” is ready to talk. He doesn’t mince his words: before our interview the 50-year-old Londoner, who lives above a shop with his wife and four kids, sends an email in which he writes that Delayed Gratification is in “direct opposition to premature ejaculation, perhaps the guiding principle of Labour political action for a while now”. And when we meet, he says, “EDL supporters have a rage that could be used for the good.” More on that later.
The setting for our conversation is the terrace overlooking the River Thames at the Houses of Parliament. But first Glasman shows me the Robing Room. Here, paintings by William Dyce depict the chivalric virtues of mercy, courtesy, hospitality, generosity and religion, which are represented through scenes from the legend of King Arthur. “There’s still a certain wonderment for me about all of this,” says Glasman, a self-confessed “radical traditionalist”. “Blue Labour doesn’t exclusively talk about progressive ends, equality, diversity, justice. It’s about loyalty and love and solidarity and friendship,” he says.
“Blue Labour is fundamentally a strategic intervention showing where Labour has to get to for it to win”
Indeed, what he calls Blue Labour (“blue” because it stresses the conservative strain in Labour ideology) is a vision of society that some people say harks back to “Merrie England”. He admires the earlier period in Labour’s history – real, traditional, pre-1945 Labour, which has been “ignored for too long”, he says – when the movement focused on community organisation and local struggles, before it fell into the hands of Oxford-educated do-gooders who wanted to set the world to rights.
Our pre-lunch tour takes us to the post room. Glasman’s pigeonhole overflows with letters, interview requests, month-old memos. “Ha ha. You got another double-pager in the Guardian, Maurice?” says the postman. We continue through a tangle of narrow corridors until we eventually emerge onto the terrace. As soon as he sits down, he lights a roll-up – one of many that will be smoked that afternoon. He takes off his suit jacket and then his jumper. And I notice an Oyster card in his shirt pocket. There’s no chance you’d find him cycling to work while his car follows with his briefcase.
I start by asking Glasman about Miliband’s conference speech, in which he promised to abandon the sort of irresponsible “fast-buck” capitalism elevated to gospel status by Thatcher, and allowed to blossom under New Labour. “I was shocked by Tony Blair’s silence during our massive crisis of capitalism,” he says, referring to the global financial crash in 2008. “Blair’s idea of modernity verged on the demented. But go back and re-read Ed’s conference speech – you’ll notice that he’s now making the distinction between productive capital and predatory capital. He’s showing tremendous heart that I can’t possibly criticise.”
Although Glasman puts a positive spin on the Labour leader’s speech, he can’t hide the fact that Miliband was criticised in newspapers across the political divide. The Times, for example, said Miliband wanted “a world run by the good fairies and angels”. I put it to Glasman that Miliband’s vision for a future economy is overly idealistic. “Everybody wanted him to articulate everything so clearly, but this is just the beginning of the journey,” says Glasman, only half-addressing the issue. “This is a huge problem. We shouldn’t be impatient.”
Glasman explains that the Labour Party’s critique of finance capitalism under Miliband – which is clearly influenced by his ideology – is one way it will mark out new territory from New Labour and, of course, the Conservatives. The party promises to regulate and tax companies according to whether firms invest for the long term, rather than for the fast buck, recruiting apprentices and not stripping assets. “It’s become absolutely necessary for us to find a completely new economic paradigm, which isn’t going to be Keynesian,” he says. “That’s the crucial inside [perspective] that I’ve got.”
Does this signal a shift to the left? Not according to Glasman. “Some of what we said at the party conference [in September] has been completely misunderstood,” he says. “Politics is changing. It no longer makes sense to talk about the ‘left’ and the ‘right’. We’re actually seeing a shift towards what I call the politics of the common good. Which is what Blue Labour is all about”.
“We’re looking at Labour rediscovering its radical roots, because it’s always been a party of the common good, a party that tries to unite estranged and isolated people. Blue Labour is fundamentally a strategic intervention showing where Labour has to get to for it to win.”
Some of his ideas are more conservative than the Conservatives’. Whereas the Tories’ vision relies on a volunteer spirit, Glasman wants to foster a “Labour big society” based on ideas of family, faith and the flag and nurtured through cherished local institutions – everything from Post Offices to hospitals, churches, vocational colleges and football clubs.
This is all linked to his unconventional fondness for Tudor statecraft. According to Glasman, endowment is the “lost art” of statecraft. “We have to move towards a concept of political leadership and statecraft that endows autonomous institutions over the long term,” he explains, before launching into a brief history on the reign of Henry VII, who concluded that England was falling behind the rest of Europe in armaments, naval technology, mathematics, the sciences and classical languages.
Henry’s solution was to move away from state-directed policy. He let scientists and technicians run colleges, for example, and transferred land to autonomous institutions. It is this type of economic model that Glasman advocates. “We need to decentralise democracy in favour of the common good,” he says.
Our conversation turns to immigration. Glasman treads carefully. “There’s the whole thing that we have to go very gently on, which is moving away from the political acceptance of immigration as necessarily always a good thing,” he says. “It’s mad that the Labour Party feels like it can’t talk about cheap labour. There’s a genuine right-wing populism brewing. Unless we engage with their concerns on the grounds of solidarity and common life, we’ll find ourselves in a really bad place.”
He doesn’t repeat his claim that all immigration to the UK should be stopped, but he concedes that, at the very least, there should be a “pause”. “It’s very difficult to join in pub conversations when all you’re doing is correcting people about their life experience,” he says. “With immigration, people feel that they haven’t been consulted and they feel a sense of dispossession. But Labour just says, ‘No, you’re wrong, it’s a benefit.’ This is humiliating for people who just want to be heard.”
I ask him what it felt like to turn from hero to pantomime villain in the space of 24 hours. “I didn’t predict it would lead to such an intense media storm,” he says. “In the interview I should have mentioned how committed I am to the regularisation of status for illegal immigrants, and that I’m committed to pluralism.”
This is undeniable. Glasman’s ground-breaking work with London Citizens – an alliance of faith institutions, trade unions and schools that he brought together to run community projects – helped thousands of low-paid workers earn a living wage.
Still, he concedes that his comments weren’t part of a balanced intervention. “I was just being provocative and having a go at the left for being elitist. On reflection, that was a mistake. I’ve learned my lesson. When you fuck up, you have to eat shit.”
That is an understatement. Glasman had so much shit thrown his way he took a break from politics. There were no more media interviews. No more newspaper columns. And no more talk about Blue Labour. The movement became so far-removed from the mainstream that Wikipedia dismissed it as a “momentarily influential political tendency” that had been “effectively disbanded”.
Was he was asked to keep his mouth shut for a while? He shakes his head and smiles. “No, no, no. There was no pressure on me at all. This was totally self-willed. I realised I needed to learn my own political leadership role. I had to be better.”
And did he ever think about quitting politics for good? “Never. I got this wrong, but I’d made some very good interventions up till that point. I was just being arrogant and casual and careless. My contrition was to say, ‘okay, I’ve made a mistake, let me reflect on this and take a break’. But the summer isn’t exactly the greatest penance. I went to Sicily for two weeks with my family!”
Everyone is waiting for Glasman to cause more deepshit pandemonium. At least half-consciously, he had always courted the media into publishing his provocations, but now that his self-imposed summer of silence is over, the last laugh may be the Labour Party’s. Glasman and his intellectual insurgents are trampling over party shibboleths and traditional dividing lines. Sure, their ideas may attract a few gasps of horror. But they command serious interest too.
“Some people were too happy to dismiss Blue Labour, but now that everyone’s getting over the shock of the new, it’s going to be a big year for party reorganisation,” he says. “Blue Labour is a rejection of mentalism. The more we build
on our tradition, the more radical we can be.”
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