Blue Labour: The Politics of the Common Good
By Maurice Glasman
Polity, 164 pages, £16.99 ($20.88)
Britain’s Labour party, led by “neoliberal butler” Keir Starmer, is 22 percent ahead of the Conservatives and looks set to win the next general election. Twelve years into a reign marred by corruption, scandal, multiple leadership contests, and general incompetence, the Tories preside over a country where the cost of living is increasing at its fastest rate in 40 years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has set up a “winter of discontent” unit within the government, as labor strikes are poised to cripple multiple sectors—including rail, education, emergency services, and the civil service. No period in recent British history has so much resembled the late 1970s as the current one, energy crisis included.
Against this backdrop, it should be easy for Labour, the historic party of the working class, to make a strong case for redistribution, renationalization, and workers’ rights. Instead, the party has lost the very people it was founded to represent: Former Labour strongholds in the industrial North voted for Brexit in 2016 and for the Tories in the last general election in 2019. If Labour does win the next election, it won’t be because the party has suddenly recalled its historical mission, but simply because they aren’t the Tories.
Regardless of Labour’s prospects in the next election, is there a future in which the party might genuinely represent poor and working people once more? Maurice Glasman hopes so. A Labour life peer in the House of Lords, Glasman has for many years attempted to articulate a program he calls “Blue Labour.” He credits his wife, Catherine, with coining the term in response to Philip Blond’s 2009 Red Tory manifesto, which likewise sought to elevate society over state and market. But where Blonde’s vision was animated by one-nation conservatism, Glasman’s is rooted in a compassionate synthesis of localism and international solidarity.
In broad terms, “Blue Labour” stakes out a position at once socially conservative and economically social-democratic. It begins from the premise that the ties that bind us are the source of all meaning—we are our relations. Economic and moral individualism, however, have severed many of these bonds, generating loneliness, misery, and ill-health. Differentiating the contractual from the covenantal, Glasman makes the case for a synthetic tradition that sees no issue intertwining social solidarity with religious belief. Politics can’t be avoided, he says, but isn’t directly where the things that people care most about—each other, their communities, where they live—take place. Politics should work to protect, not destroy, these things.
As a diagnosis, the Blue Labour project is marked by sadness and a sense of loss: the blue of depression, but also of music—there’s a melancholic, jazzy vibe at play here. As Glasman puts it, “things don’t only get better, and the lack of understanding of loss and tragedy required a rearticulation of the fundamental tenets of the Labour tradition and the belief that these are both relevant and true.” He shares with the art historian T.J. Clark the feeling that, as Clark put it in 2012: “The only left politics worth the name is, as always, the one that looks its insignificance in the face but whose whole interest is in what it might be that could turn the vestige, slowly or suddenly, into the beginning of a ‘movement.’”
Glasman’s Blue Labour is a slender and elegant analysis in this space of mourning. He provides the movement with a philosophical basis in Aristotle, virtue ethics, Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Karl Polanyi, Catholic social thought, and the dissenting tradition (Protestant Christians who sought in the 17th and 18th centuries to defend freedom of conscience and opposed state interference into religion). Guided by the eminently reasonable assertion that human beings are “not commodities,” and neither is nature for that matter, Glasman proceeds to describe the best of the Labour tradition, one where the domination of the rich is held in check by the working class via local democracy and the protection of strong extra-political bonds in the family, the parish, and various forms of free association.
Blue Labour wends its way through recent history to reinforce this point, noting along the way how the embrace of globalization under Tony Blair’s New Labour rendered the party largely indistinguishable from the Thatcherite, neoliberal right. But as much as he critiques Blairite triangulation and pragmatism, Glasman also notes that, contrary to the year-zero utopianism lately roiling parts of the left, Labour was in its origins “not a revolutionary movement.” Rather, the party represented a kind of “Burkean socialism” that sought to slowly democratize existing institutions, rather than tear them down.
But wasn’t there a moment of radical hope in the form of Jeremy Corbyn? Between 2015 and the massive Labour defeat in 2019, Corbyn proposed a return to a particular vision of Labour traditions, one that would have opposed the ever-encroaching devastations of globalization in favor of a sovereign Parliament (Lexit, so to speak); renationalization of water and the railways; the right of workers to buy the company in the event of sale; the endowment of regional banks, free higher education; and so on. Glasman notes all this.
But despite everything, the Corbyn project crashed and crashed badly. There is little analysis of this moment in Blue Labour, beyond remarking that under and after Corbyn, Labour lost its heartlands. But there is much more to say here. What were the reasons for Corbyn’s rapid decline in popularity? Apart from anything, indecisiveness over the Brexit vote, despite Corbyn’s personal preference for Leave, left Labour vulnerable to the simple, devastating Tory slogan “Get Brexit Done”—if only because everyone was sick to death of nothing seeming to happen at all. A great opportunity was missed, and once more, we are back to sadness.
Glasman’s sensible and human-centered defense of the dignity of labor in the face of globalization doesn’t, in the end, seem particularly controversial today. Indeed, perhaps Glasman’s only mistake in setting out the Blue Labour agenda was coming up with it too early. In 2011, five years before Brexit, he was roundly attacked by the UK media after he criticized the free movement of labor in the European Union. Labour MP Diane Abbott criticized the Blue Labour project as nostalgic in the manner of a Hovis advert. As Glasman notes, in a belated response perhaps, “nostalgia is the insult most frequently aimed at those who draw upon memory, culture, institutions and tradition in order to resist the domination of capitalism and renew democracy as a practice of self-government.” But we do all long for a home of some kind, and Glasman is right to say that this home is always “a contingent and provisional achievement.” There is no present without the past.
After other controversies such as his suggestion that Labour should have a dialogue with those sympathetic to the English Defence League, a far-right organization, Glasman was compelled to take a step back from political life for a time. A decade on, history has vindicated him. Brexit confirmed his prescient sense that immigration was a crucial issue for millions of ordinary British people, one that Labour played down to its own political detriment. More than that, Glasman was right on principle: We should always talk to those we disagree with, the better to convince them of the superiority of our own ideas. Even Starmer in the past fortnight has shifted his position on immigration, stating that Britain must quit its “immigration dependency” and move away from “cheap labor.”
The left’s denunciation of Glasman’s ideas came back to haunt it in the defeats suffered in 2016 and 2019. The populist insurgencies that ultimately benefited from ordinary people’s discontent with the European Union and globalization raised these issues in a much more blunt and brutal way than the democratic and pluralist tradition celebrated by Glasman might otherwise have done. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your supply chains!” he declares at the book’s end, making it clear that many so-called social-democratic parties in the West have abandoned those who keep life moving for everyone—a betrayal that became especially manifest during the disastrous lockdowns of 2020-21. Where is the contemporary left’s support for the Canadian truckers, the Dutch and Sri Lankan farmers, and for workers around the world who were fired and ostracized for opposing vaccine mandates?
For all the book’s commonsensical appeal, and its invocation of rich traditions that span left and right, religious and non-religious, Glasman remains a figure on the margins of a party whose current incarnation bears little resemblance to the ideas he poetically invokes. Blue Labour is a short text a long time in the making—but perhaps its message will finally reach its destination. Here’s hoping the publisher sends a copy to each and every Labour MP for Christmas.