UK Blue Labour - Looking to the future


by Jim Murphy MP, UK Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The theme of 'people first' underpins Blue Labour and is one that the whole Labour movement must again embrace to again have the opportunity to serve.

Rooting ourselves in people's lived experiences must be the core component to our renewal since it is here that we did not go far enough in government. We did not devolve power sufficiently and too often change became a principle in itself, sometimes overlooking those unable to reap the benefits of our globalised societies and economy. In 1997 new Labour understood the real positives and negatives of the then configuration of market and state, embracing the former and designing policy to counter the latter. Doing the same, by listening and learning, is the route to power.

Lord Maurice Glasman, the British Uncle of Blue Labour, is right to argue that the 2008 crash was a crisis of corporate governance and exposed the inherent volatility of capitalism, and that new Labour was complacent about its regulation. Many would question, however, the wisdom in interrogating Crosland's revisionism to proceed now with the notion that ‘capitalism is based on the exploitation of human beings and nature'. This would unlearn some key lessons of the 1980s, namely that through a careful embrace of a market economy prosperity and social justice can be both generated.

I believe in a market economy, but things can never be the same again. Our future success can be based upon markets with a soul. Britons are entrepreneurs ambitious for ourselves, our loved ones, our country and community, but many too often feel under-equipped to influence their own futures or help protect themselves against forces beyond their control. In future we must better prepare people to participate in the undoubted opportunities of globalisation as well as be protected from its inherent threats. We need markets which better offer both opportunity and security.

There is a crying need for modern Labour responses to problems like a third of working people facing poorer job opportunities, stagnant living standards and growing insecurity. Part of the solution is a market economy with a much deeper sense of responsibility that touches everyone from the CEO of a global corporation, the branch bank manager and the union shop steward. That must mean greater private sector growth across our country, industrial activism which provides people with vocational skills and nurtures the industries of the future, fair wages at source and a modern trade union movement which helps develop careers. A reformed, sustainable financial services sector must remain a key part of the UK economy - even now it employs over one million people and contributes to over 10 per cent of UK GDP.

As for the Blue Labour charge that global markets corrode identity, I say yes but only in part. Globalisation can be contradictory - the spread of information brings knowledge but also culture clashes; trade brings wealth but can disrupt communities and traditions. A market economy cannot become the catch-all whipping boy for a complicated world of contradiction and change. Indeed, a dichotic position of markets undermining communities overlooks the very fact that if we get the balance right the financial opportunities brought by markets can help strengthen and inspire community.

Blue Labour is right that many of the bonds which once brought people together and were the source of solidarity - local high streets, faith, the workplace, class, family - have been dispersed or diluted and the institutions that once bolstered identity and civic patriotism are weaker rallying points. But that is not to say that associations are not being formed or that communities are inherently weaker. Communities do exist and are changing shape. Much which once provided a sense of place competes with new lifestyles dominated by technology, busyness and individual interests, and new associations, whether football clubs, reading groups, afterschool clubs or facebook dominate people's lives.

It is vital that Labour, be it red or blue, is ever-present in communities, and that demands a fusion of traditional forms of coming together, whether through credit unions, housing associations or faith networks, with real engagement in the new forms of community people themselves have created. To ignore our communitarian traditions would be to jettison a part of Labour's engrained identity which can help restore and sense of belonging for those who left us. We won't regain power, however, by appearing trapped in a sentimental civics. Aneurin Bevan's comments on ‘ancestor worship' being ‘the most conservative of all religions' are a warning against a retreat into the past. We cannot and shouldn't try to turn the clocks back (except for an hour in the autumn - but that's a different debate).

While Blue Labour is right to highlight markets and community as themes where the new Labour approach requires rethinking, it is most insightful in its claim that we were ‘too hands on with the state'. Many of the principal sources of wellbeing and meaning in people's lives are beyond the remit of where the state most effectively operates. Family, friendship, love, happiness and the daily routines and small shared experiences that constitute a common life are all essential to people's sense of identity, and all come from within the human spirit itself.

If Labour is to put people first we should challenge ourselves and others about the limits of state influence. Alongside policy answers we need to ask what solutions people themselves can be a part of. Strong local networks, where people know each others' names and families interact, can help reduce antisocial behaviour. Greater knowledge and choice should enable people to reject unhealthy lifestyles. Integration of new arrivals should be a shared experience and joint responsibility.

The path back to power will involve new ideas, organisation and policy, but it will begin and end with people. We mustn't make the mistake Tawney identified eight decades ago of offering too much and demanding too little. Glassman writes that the goals to be pursued are ‘preservation of meaning' and ‘democratic egalitarian change'. I would add to this empowerment to fulfil the ambition of oneself and others. That is key to both protecting and strengthening Britain's Promise, which Ed Miliband has powerfully argued. Only by recasting the balance between state action and personal responsibility can we again find a Labour language and culture which belongs to the society out of which it grows.