True colours

The provocative 'Blue Labour' and 'Red Tory' visions for renewal put forth by two academics have the ears of their respective party leaders - and a good deal in common, says A.W. Purdue

September 15, 2011

Working-class men can't really speak at Labour Party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist."

This comment by Lord Glasman, a political theorist and senior adviser to Ed Miliband, is not likely to appeal to the party faithful at the forthcoming Labour Party conference, but it represents a long-overdue recognition of the gap between the Labour Party and the views and interests of many of its traditional supporters.

It is also unlikely that arguments on the limitations of free-market economics made by Phillip Blond - the founder of the thinktank ResPublica who is said to influence David Cameron - will be met with plaudits from delegates at the Conservative Party conference.

Political leaders have, for long, relied upon teams of advisers, thinktanks and speech-writers to a degree that would have horrified William Gladstone or Lord Salisbury, but their role has usually been seen as to facilitate rather than to innovate policy. An exception was the revolution in Conservative thinking that marked the Thatcher era which, although it was implemented by a determined leader, had its origins in the ability of conservative intellectuals and academics to think what was unthinkable to party politicians. The present discontents of a Britain suffering from economic recession, a lack of national identity and a breakdown in social cohesion have, again, created a climate in which political parties are being forced to make radical reappraisals of their traditions, histories and principles.

Glasman's central concern, the gap between the ethos of the Labour Party and that of those who have traditionally been its strongest supporters, is no recent development. Since the earliest days of the Labour Party, many working-class voters have voted for it with reservations and a substantial number have declined to vote for it at all. Overtly a class party, born, in Arthur Henderson's infelicitous phrase, in the "bowels of the trades union movement", Labour owed its working-class support to the perception that it was dedicated to the interests of producers, but most workers have never shared the liberal and internationalist views that the party came to represent.

If we go back to the early years of British socialism and the demand for the independent political representation of labour, we can see that the process by which a party formed by British workers would inherit the views of the radical wing of the Liberal Party was by no means inevitable. Henry Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, later the British Socialist Party, was a convinced Marxist, but at the same time a patriot and even an imperialist. So, too, was Robert Blatchford, the socialist activist, author of Merrie England (1893) and founder of The Clarion newspaper, which spawned Clarion organisations including scouts, cycling clubs, field clubs and even drama groups.

In the end, of course, the Labour Party emerged as largely a party of the trades union movement with a brand of moderate socialism that it inherited from the Independent Labour Party, along with nonconformist and radical liberal principles. Those refugees from the Liberal Party, such as Sir Charles Trevelyan, William Wedgwood Benn and Josiah Wedgwood, not only added an upper- and middle-class element to the Labour Party, but reinforced the liberal-internationalism inherited from the Liberals, while the dislike of nonconformists for the popular culture of sport, entertainment, gambling and the pub, which was such an important part of working-class life, gave the party's leadership a distaste for the culture of working men.

The pursuit of the interests of labour and the shibboleths of liberalism have never been easy bedfellows - trades unions are not, for instance, nature's free traders, while workers are, on the whole, rather more innately patriotic than the middle classes and are generally supportive of traditional institutions such as the monarchy and the family; nor can it be said that there has been strong working-class support for feminism or for the equal treatment of homosexuals.

To gain a majority of working-class votes, Labour had to both appeal to the economic interests of workers and satisfy their conservative attitudes towards foreign affairs and moral and social issues, and it is significant that the years that saw Labour's greatest electoral success came when Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were its leaders. The post-war Labour government expanded state welfare and nationalised the supposed "commanding heights" of the economy, measures seen as supportive of working- class interests, but its essentially socially conservative leaders made no moves to reform Britain's political institutions or to challenge the mores of society, while, under the aegis of Bevin, foreign policy was designed to further the UK's traditional interests. This combination of policies maximised working-class support.

Essentially, Glasman's proposals for Labour depend upon his diagnosis of the anomie of its traditional core support. The UK's skilled or once-skilled working classes have seen their jobs disappear, their communities disintegrate and their values ridiculed. No one asked them whether they favoured the mass immigration into Britain that began in the 1950s and increased under both Conservative and Labour governments. The apprenticeships that enabled son to succeed father with the same ease as lawyers' sons became lawyers have long gone and a state education system has doomed them to technological and literal illiteracy. Thatcherism seemed to offer them a new deal by which "Essex man" could flourish in a consumer society with a purchased council house and holidays in Spain, but the price was high - the demolition of the culture and society they had been brought up in. Labour came to offer much the same, but with a stern nanny state in which bureaucrats and social workers told them what to think, what to eat, what not to say and how to bring up children.

Glasman's critique of New Labour is that it lacked any sense of history and thought everything could be begun again by an enlightened state. It was not only workers who suffered, and his own professional experience in higher education is one of devaluation and the loss of authority with which most academics can empathise.

"New Labour's public sector reforms were almost Maoist in their conception of year zero managerial restructuring. As an academic at London Metropolitan University I lost count of the number of line managers that were assigned to supervise and assess me, but I do know that departmental meetings were abolished and academics had no decision making power," he wrote in The Observer in April 2011.

Glasman has, inevitably, been accused of racism, anti-feminism and nostalgia. Although he has called for tighter restrictions on immigration than the Conservative Party would dare propose, his anti-racist credentials as someone with a Jewish immigrant background and who has worked with immigrant groups are sound. But one of his targets is, undoubtedly, what he sees as the feminisation of the Labour Party due not so much to women per se as to the influence of middle-class women on Labour's agenda. The nostalgia allegation is closer to the bone, but here he is surely at one with the zeitgeist that is approached by Phillip Blond's "Red Toryism" from the opposite direction.

The similarities between Glasman and Blond are compelling. Both the Labour and Conservative parties face the problem of a decline in the hitherto natural allegiance of their supporters. The working class (or classes) that for decades provided Labour with its core support may well no longer exist and Glasman refers to those "who work by their hands or brain to feed their families and pay their mortgages" - the vast majority of UK society. This wide section of the electorate is that which the Conservatives have to appeal to as well. What Ed Miliband has referred to as the "squeezed middle" of society has experienced a decline in salary and status. Many find their professional positions declining, as the provincial lawyer, the middle manager and the university lecturer lose out in terms of their independence and salary to chief executives, senior bureaucrats and vice-chancellors. Blond's critique of his party echoes Glasman's in seeing Conservative as well as Labour voters as feeling helpless and disinherited. Both argue for social conservatism, and the impact of the recent riots and looting in our major cities may well reinforce their arguments.

Like Glasman, Blond, David Cameron's adviser, comes from an academic background, having been senior lecturer in Christian theology at the University of Cumbria and later lecturer in theology at the University of Exeter. Like Glasman, he questions the present philosophy of his party, is equally hostile to its adoption of liberal economic and social views, argues that the common good "cannot be derived from liberal principles", and seeks to return Conservatism to different strands in its history. If Labour was infected by liberalism and internationalism, then it can be argued that the Conservative Party, which in its earliest Tory form stood for opposition to the Whig and Hanoverian money men, became from the time of Sir Robert Peel's conversion to political economy associated with liberal economics as well.

Although most Conservative leaders dutifully pay lip service to Benjamin Disraeli, his opposition to the social consequences of the unhindered free market is often conveniently forgotten, as are the protectionist policies and the social imperialism of many early-20th-century Conservatives. The appeal of Conservatism to voters from Disraeli's time to Stanley Baldwin's was based as much on an identification with patriotism and tradition and support for social cohesion and stability, as on its economic policies. Undoubtedly the belief in private property and enterprise contributed to Conservative support, but it was sympathy with Thatcher's reputation as a "common-sense household manager" rather than with the economic theories of Milton Friedman that gained the party votes in the 1980s. Equally, it was the failure to balance the advantages of the market with the consequences for the social fabric that weakened that support.

Glasman and Blond share the view of contemporary society as, in Cameron's word, "broken". Where Glasman claims that the Labour Party sacrificed its traditions in "the name of abstract justice", Blond seems to argue that Conservatism sacrificed its traditions in the name of abstract economics. Their solutions to this social crisis have much in common. Where Glasman uses the rather inelegant term "micro-entanglement", Blond, much influenced by Catholic social thought, argues for mutualism and voluntary associations, and both are committed to decentralisation and microdemocracy. They share a common desire for the restoration of the family and British culture. Where Glasman derides Labour's naive belief in the beneficent power of the state, so Blond attacks contemporary Conservatism's sacred cow of liberal economics, arguing that "the free market has erected private sector monopolies as corrosive as state monopolies".

Their common concern about the decline in social cohesion may well be dismissed as nostalgic, but it challenges deep-rooted assumptions about politics and in particular the view that electorates are always eager for change. If pollsters ask voters whether they favour reform, modernisation or that loaded term "progress", they will no doubt still answer in the affirmative, while political leaders from Tony Blair to Barack Obama have believed that the prospect of change ("Yes, we can!") has been the key to their success.

It may well be, however, that many voters are not just tired of change, but deeply troubled by its effects on their lives and their sense of security. The common sense of the age is no longer "that things can only get better", but that they used to be better. Glasman is not, of course, opposed to change but argues that Labour should be both radical and conservative, an approach redolent of that of Edmund Burke, who favoured necessary reforms based on tradition.

Are both thinkers merely engaged in the politics of nostalgia or does their near consensus point to a sea change in the nature of political debate? When a prominent Labour politician such as Frank Field advocates a radical reform of the welfare system and Charles Moore of The Daily Telegraph joins Blond in questioning the workings of liberal economics, politics is indeed in flux. The approaching party conferences could be more interesting than usual.

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