Blue Labour: The future of other Socialist Parties in Europe?

A few months ago, the Labour Party embarked on a fundamental and philosophical discussion about its own place in British politics. This debate has a suggestive and provocative name: Blue Labour. As pioneered by Maurice Glasman (Baron Glasman since last March), it “can roughly be summed up as a communitarian mix of social conservatism and economic intervention” (see comment by Steve Akehurst). Glasman urges Labour to embrace the fundamental conservatism of the working class (c-conservatism, lower case). He defends the ethics of traditional community-based institutions, social relationships and identities; he claims, in sum, a “deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics”. Glasman believes Labour must recognise that New Labour’s reliance on neoliberalism and its dependent relationship vis-à-vis Thatcherism ignored the importance of human relations and community provision services. Blue Labour urges Labour Party to get back to its roots and respond to workers’ interests, as conservative as they may be. Labour lost support in the British working class. In 2010 elections, many workers manifested that Tories were better placed to to carry out the best policies to fulfil their needs. Labour, Glasman says, will not be a credible alternative to the governing coalition if it only tries to compete with Liberal Democrats. Labour must seek supporters along those who have recently voted Tories, and even among those that might feel tempted by candidates in the far right (such as the English Defence League). Paraphrasing David Mitchell, the point is how to get the readers of the late News of the World to buy The Observer.

Labour leader Ed Miliband endorses Blue Labour thinking, or this is at least what one can deduce from his preface in a recent book: The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. It is still early to assess the impact of Blue Labour on British politics or even on the policies of the Labour Party itself. Nonetheless, the proposal seems quite catchy (check, for example, the discussion table at Open Democracy, the posts at Compass site or the article by David Runciman in London Review of Books). Blue Labour is clearly not exempt from criticism among ‘progressives’ and ‘lefties’ of all kinds in the UK. It presents some risks that should not go unnoticed (not to mention the missing topics in the Blue Labour agenda, such as foreign policy). One must respond with caution to the persistence on the inevitable clash of interests between working class communitarians and middle-class liberals. Glasman insists upon the blurry idea of “conservative socialism”, while socialism is supposed to “combine resistance on the one hand with radical, creative change on the other” (Ed Rooksby). In a context of widespread obsession with austerity measures, some are wary of anything that may cover a assault of the meagre welfare state that remains alive (Glasman assures that Blue Labour keeps a role for the state, while “Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is a critique of the state, but doesn´t have any critique of the market”). Anyhow, the most disturbing point is the common points shared by Blue Labourites and those of the far right, being immigration the cornerstone of this mutual understanding. For example, Glasman has recently called for a temporary suspension of the right to freedom of movement of workers within the EU.

Regardless of whether current Labour leaders will finally endorse all, some or none of Blue Labour’s ideas… the question is: Will this debate be confined to the particular case of Britain? As in the UK, socialist or socialdemocratic parties all over Europe remain in opposition to conservative governments. Most are unable or unwilling to offer a credible and exciting alternative to the dominating socially conservative and economically neoliberal creed.The Spanish Socialists (PSOE) are still in office; next general elections will be held on 20 November, and they are not the favourites in the round. The Fundación Ideas, a think-tank aligned with PSOE, is warning Spaniards that Cameron’s policies will be applied in the country if the Spanish Conservative Party wins the election. Will Blue Labour influence PSOE’s program? Will it have an impact upon the reconfiguration of the alternative if PSOE is pushed back to the opposition?

Koldo Casla


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