Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The end of Blue Labour ?

PM David Cameron's idea of the "Big Society" has received much unwelcome criticism. The idea has undergone several relaunches and its "tsar" resigned within days of the last relaunch. But Cameron is not alone in having trouble selling a new(ish) political vision.

The Labour Party has been flirting with the idea of "Blue Labour," the brainchild of several but whose most visible support is perhaps Maurice Glasman. Glasman was recently transford into Lord Glasman and he has had the ear of Ed Miliband. Miliband recently had little other than good things to say about the idea of Blue Labour in a much discussed e-book, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. (I particularly recommend Stuart White's contribution.)

Lord Glasman has come under increasing criticism for his controversial views and, more recently, on immigration where it is alleged that he supports a halt in immigration. Now leading figures in the Blue Labour movement, such as Jon Cruddas MP and Jonathan Rutherford have now allegedly declared they can no longer support Blue Labour.

I believe this is a welcome opportunity for change in the right direction within the Labour Party. There has been a search for something new, a new vision of an alternative politics to that offered by the coalition government, and this has been a distraction for several months. I don't think it would be a leap to say that Blue Labour hasn't fared much better than the Big Society in attracting public support. The problem of leaders believing they need a political vision is a problem we've noted before here and here.

The Labour Party has been conducting a year long review on policy and the initial results will be known shortly. The idea was that the party has begun with a "blank sheet of paper" and engaged in a listening exercise. The party has been discussing with party members and the general public what issues concern them most. This is precisely the opportunity to drop Blue Labour in favour of something bolder and better.

Some characteristics for the new Labour Party vision:

1. Labour has a positive message for Britain's future. One problem with Blue Labour is that it often appeared to look backwards for a model of the future. Times have changed, and so have the electorate (and party members). The review has wisely addressed the democratic deficit in policy formation. We now need to see more about what Labour will stand for and why this is good news for the country's future.

2. Labour is a party ready for government. They say there is no position more difficult than Leader of the Opposition. It is perhaps difficult enough to be a critical voice to shifting government policies and repeated u-turns. Labour enjoys strong support in the polls, but there has been an issue with translating poll success into electoral success. The public is open to an alternative and broadly unfavourable towards the coalition. This is an opportunity that Labour should do a bit more to exploit. The party may be disappointed by not-as-good-as-expected election results if staying on course. However, the party can be bold and offer more in terms of concrete policy platforms. Let the public see more about what the party favours than what it does not. Labour has been clear on several policy areas and VAT is one of them. My suggestion is that we should see a bit more flesh on the bones. This will no doubt arise through the policy review and this is why our learning soon its initial findings comes at a welcome time.

3. Labour as a party of aspiration. Labour should ensure its message is not merely one of its being competent for governance with a positive message. It should also appeal to the public's aspirations and hopes. I believe this third component is the key -- and it is something we heard all too little about from Blue Labour.

So these are my recommendations for the Labour Party. The end of Blue Labour is not the end of Labour, but a welcome opportunity for renewal. Blue Labour has not captured the public imagination and its loss will not pose any major setback. Labour is about to announce findings of its year long policy review anyway. This is an opportunity to launch a positive vision that appeals to public aspirations in looking forward while recognizing our shared past.

UPDATE: Want to discuss this further? Then join me in attending the Labour Party conference in September: the details are here.

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