One faction of the Labour Party that is perhaps better known in the Labour Party than outside is Blue Labour, coined by the book’s author, Maurice Glasman, in April 2009. Blue Labour has since then, for some, become the great “what if” of British politics. Many adherents of the faction believe that the Labour Party’s failure to win a general election since 2005 is due to failing to embrace Blue Labour. Glasman, a Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University, was made a Lord by Ed Miliband in 2011. Initial intrigue about what his appointment could mean for the newly elected leader of the Labour party, with his emphasis on “family, faith, and flag”, quickly turned to controversy.
After calling for a complete halt to immigration, and saying Labour should involve those who support the English Defence League, Glasman apologised and pledged to take a “vow of silence” that summer. Since then Blue Labour has become one of the most controversial, and least influential, factions within the Labour party. Glasman’s grand ideas of returning the party to its pre-1945 roots (which were not without staunch criticism in their time) have taken a back seat to the ideas of the proponents of Blue Labour who are more outspoken. With this Blue Labour has come to occupy a fixed position in the ‘culture war’, with one of its most vocal advocates pronouncing LGBT rights, climate change, and migrants’ rights as “fringe issues”.
It therefore makes sense that Maurice Glasman would want to write a book which distils Blue Labour down into its core principles and ideas, and explain why those ideas are ones that the Labour Party should engage with. Yet, unlike the 2015 collection of essays, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, with contributions from David Lammy, Frank Field, Jon Crudass and others, the much thinner Blue Labour: The Politics of the Common Good (which stands at, including the index, a mere 164 pages) feels less of an solid examination of political philosophy and rather a mixture of observation, history and the odd thought.
Glasman begins the book by recounting how he and his late mother watched Gordon Brown announce that the Labour Party would intervene to save the financial markets and that it was “the destiny of Labour to save the global banking sector.” This was, for Glasman, representative of Labour turning away from the working class and yet there never seems to have been any reflection in Glasman’s work of what would have happened had Brown simply done nothing. Glasman might have intended to merely critique the language as “un-Labour”, but much like the book itself, the detail is lacking.
What is striking about the book is how much of it veers between Glasman making an assertion, which is then followed by a discussion of Labour history with no apparent link between the two.
It is clear that Glasman is intending to use the historical background as a means of advancing what he sees to be the Labour Party’s true purpose – to represent a linear tradition of socialist economics with more socially conservative policies. But the problem goes beyond simply whether the reader may agree or disagree with the author, the book fails to connect its assertions to its arguments. The book ends up resembling a pamphlet you would quickly discard because of its narrative incoherence.
Glasman spends much of the book discussing the history of the party, but when the time comes for any conclusions he fails to make the case for why any of his arguments should be put into practice.
Indeed, Glasman’s desire to come to a conclusion and then work backwards ends up partly harming his own argument. At one point his cites Robert Reich as being an example of the nefarious ways of the Clinton administration not being economically redistributive enough but fails to follow it up by pointing out Reich’s own political development since the 1990s – namely his books Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015) and The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It (2020) which both set out Reich’s critiques of modern capitalism taking jobs away from America and an emphasis on the quality and not quantity of items produced domestically by the US. A quick google search might have given Glasman this insight and added to his argument. This is the core of the problem with the book; Glasman’s ideological arguments seem to be hermetically sealed, frozen in aspic.
None of Glasman’s prescriptions seem entirely reflected or reactive to the world as it is today, which is a problem if you are trying to convince people as to why they should be adherents of your beliefs. Glasman makes interesting points about the value of work and the deficit that has been left in the British economic landscape in the decades since the beginning of the decline of heavy industry. These raise important and valuable questions – what is the value of work? How in a globalised economy do we continue to ensure economic growth whilst not falling into a race to the bottom for workers rights? How do we compete with other countries that have a far higher population and a larger, more encompassing state engine?
But in what was meant to be the definitive book on what Blue Labour really means, from the godfather of it as an ideology and faction, any actual prescriptions were severely lacking. It’s easy to see why many proponents of Blue Labour earn a living bemoaning whatever woke liberalism they have dreamt up that day for a column in Unherd, Spiked, or if they’re lucky The Times when the person Michael Gove regards as “one of the outstanding conservative thinkers of our times” is this short for ideas.