Taking another look at Blue Labour

At Labour’s annual conference this year, we will need to outline how the One Nation theme will apply across the policy spectrum.  The focus this month from the Labour Treasury team on living standards is a welcome move to develop the theme more broadly.  There is further work to do to promote and develop policy in that direction.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel in panic.  We need to build on and develop further the thinking we have done already.  That includes much of the thinking behind the Blue Labour project.  Its brand may be unpopular but we would be wrong to dismiss its insights.

The One Nation theme is attractive.  It resonates.  In that way it is similar to the ‘stakeholder society’ concept of the 1990s.  Indeed, Ed Miliband defined One Nation partly in his 2012 Conference speech as “a country where everyone has a stake”.  It suggests the healing of divisions and enlightened, representative government.  Labour is still fleshing out what that will mean on a policy level.  Without that work there is a risk that One Nation simply comes to describe how Labour will govern.  A Labour Secretary of State for Health could argue that a One Nation health policy would end any postcode lotteries and impose uniform waiting times for operations.  An Education Secretary might more vigorously uphold common standards of teaching, in the name of One Nation.  All fine as far it goes, but a One Nation government could end up simply meaning a good, paternalistic, government.

It is a fair bet this is not what Ed Miliband has in mind. It is true that One Nation talk almost invariably begins with how Labour will govern, with policy-making taking note of everyone: Jon Cruddas defines One Nation as “the inclusion of all and the recognition of the worth and contribution of each”.  Both Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign and the Blue Labour phase of policy thinking also focused on how we can achieve a more equal and equitable society without being able to rely on a blunderbuss of central government spending increases.

In one sense, Ed Miliband has taken Labour back to where it was in 1996.  It is both comforting and a little depressing to look back at the debates we had then about a stakeholder society.  They ran alongside rhetoric about One Nation Socialism.  We called for better corporate governance and, though we didn’t use the term, debated responsible capitalism. That confirms that today we are on familiar ground.  However, it also reminds us of opportunities missed as increasing globalisation made Labour believe little headway could be made.  The world has changed since of course.

The Blue Labour debates were a way of rethinking all this for today and we see this in the community aspect to One Nation rhetoric that was not stressed in the same way in past stakeholder debates. Even if we don’t like the Blue Labour brand any more we should not lose the insights nor the fact that Blue Labour thinking is continuing to be developed, most recently for example in a conference of academics and activists in Nottingham University last month (this article is based on my presentation).

Perhaps the main contribution from Blue Labour thinking we should cherish is the argument that power should be dispersed and accountable. We can change things for the better not simply by more spending or better regulation, or by exhorting business to be better, but by reforming institutions and bringing them closer to people. For example, the Blue Labour critique of the banking crisis (and the Christian Socialist response from which it draws) is that the banking sector acquired a concentration of power which even a Labour government felt unable to hold to account.  Our response to the crisis, while bold, was still hindered by a neo-liberal mindset.  We should have separated retail from casino-style banking (a CSM campaign since the crisis) – it has taken Labour far too long to accept this idea is even viable.

In practice New Labour focused on solving problems by governing better and spending where necessary.  Both were important but they did not embed change.  New Labour did embark upon bold reforms, but tended to treat citizens as consumers.  The Blue Labour lesson is that we should encourage change through new or reformed institutions that are properly accountable, owned by the people so that a future government cannot remove them without effort.

Both One Nation and Blue Labour thinking have in common a need to better define a distinctive economic policy.  We are only beginning to think about economic policy in One Nation terms.  Blue Labour offers us the living wage and accountability on high pay; both important.  However, that does not answer the challenge of a five year economic depression with high public sector debt and a stubborn unemployment level.  Nor does Blue Labour have much to say to those for whom living standards are beginning to improve.  Yet the One Nation argument that everyone should have a stake in our economic future is relevant.  The Tory/LibDem government has little vision other than to repeat the economic policies of the past.  The future they offer seems to be more wealth for the few, and more debt and declining public services for everyone else.  Instead, Labour should focus on investment, particularly in people. In 2015 there will be serious concerns about the future of education and jobs even if more people are feeling a bit better off.  Giving people more power over their lives is a Blue Labour insight we must not lose.  Ensuring everyone can benefit from rising prosperity is a One Nation principle. It may take us in surprising directions.

This article was first published by LabourList on 16 August 2013.

LabourList, 16 August 2013, 16/08/2013


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