Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 August 2011
It would be difficult to create a more half-arsed political initiative than Blue Labour if you set out to fail.
The small group of academics and politicians that was touted earlier this year as the coming big thing in Labour’s intellectual firmament is now officially finished, according to Jonathan Rutherford on the New Statesman‘s blog,having produced no more than a (very patchy) e-book of first thoughts.
Oh, no, it’s not, counters the group’s prime mover and guru, Maurice Glasman, in the print edition of the Statesman, apologising for a series of ill-considered – not to say intemperate – public statements calling for an end to immigration, discussions with supporters of the English Defence League and (implicitly) British withdrawal from the European Union that had drawn the fire both of the Trots and of Peter Mandelson.
Such a pronounced schism at such an early stage does not, shall we say, bode well. But if Blue Labour is indeed all over before it properly started, I’m not crowing. And before Tribune readers reach for the computer keyboard or the green ink to denounce me, I’ve not been converted either to an intolerance of immigration that makes Migration Watch look liberal, or to consorting with the EDL, or to UKIP-style Euroscepticism.
Blue Labour was and is a dreadful name for Glasman’s ideas and his group, and the e-book they published a couple of months ago, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, is neither coherent nor comprehensive. Indeed, it reads as what it is, a string of papers by a group of people who are interested in pursuing certain themes but haven’t quite worked out what they think, with the only really thought-through contribution a schematic and in many respects eccentric essay by Glasman himself that raises more questions than it answers.
Nevertheless, I think that Glasman, for all his extraordinary ability to put his foot in his mouth while dropping a bollock, has some important things to say that need to be said. Dismissing him as a clown or as some kind of far-right infiltrator into Labour’s ranks is easy but a big mistake.
His most telling point is that Labour over the past two decades has abandoned any critique of capitalism as a destroyer of social solidarity and community in favour of cheer-leading for its creativity and dynamism. New Labour’s unqualified enthusiasm for the “modernising” effects of globalisation, flexible labour markets and free competition has, he argues, left large swathes of the working class utterly alienated from Labour. And the first priority for anyone interested in rescuing Labour must be to reconnect it to working people’s lives as they have been and are actually lived. For many of them, a lot that has happened in the past 40 years – breakdown of communities, collapse of secure employment, ever-increasing shortages of affordable housing – has been for the worse, under Labour as well as Tory governments.
Now, the way Glasman fleshes this out is intensely problematic. There are times when he appears to be romanticising a working class that never existed, others when he seems hopelessly notalgic about a world to which we cannot return. His prescriptions, both in terms of organisation and policy, are often wrong. He sees community mobilisation as a panacea, on very flimsy evidence, and seems to think that it can thrive if only the over-mighty technocratic state is cut back. And moving in one leap from the observation that working-class worries about immigration are real and will not go away to the conclusion that immigration should be stopped at once (and that we should leave the EU if it doesn’t allow us to stop allowing free movement of labour) is breathtakingly simplistic.
But at least Glasman is asking what Labour is for, and his insistence that it cannot survive if it remains disengaged from the everyday lives of the people that were once its core support makes a lot of sense. An arid, abstractly liberal Labour that fetishes the new, professing that “things can only get better” and turning its back on everything rooted or old, can never inspire a movement – and as Harold Wilson famously (though cynically) put it, the Labour Party is a crusade or it is nothing. And right now? Well, it ain’t a crusade.
On a different matter entirely, I was shocked to read in the Guardian this week that City of Westminster police’s “counter-terrorism information desk” had issued a leaflet urging members of the public to inform on anarchists. “Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police,” it read. “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchism.”
The leaflet was hurriedly disowned by Scotland Yard, which issued a statement saying that it was a poor choice of words by a minion at a single police station (Belgravia, I kid you not) and that all the leaflet should have said was that the Met was looking for information on people who had caused criminal damage to business premises this year. “The Metropolitan police does not seek to stigmatise those people with legitimate political views,” ran the official line.
Oh yeah? I’ll wager a fiver that, when the records are opened in 30 years (or whenever), we’ll find that a substantial part of Special Branch’s anti-terrorism budget since the end of the Cold War has been devoted to keeping track of anarchists … who in that time have been responsible for precisely zero terrorist attacks in Britain, and not a single death.