Blue Labour

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

= attempt to revitalize the British Labour Party through a community-orientation, as proposed by Maurice Glasman.


David Bollier:

'A key figure in this transformation is Maurice Glasman, an academic, activist and Labour life peer in the House of Lords. Glasman has earned wide respect for his community work in London, such as working on a living wage campaign for cooks, security guards and cleaners. He also worked with faith communities on immigration issues, including a campaign called “Strangers into Citizens” that sought to integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods by fostering social understanding and cooperation among people.

“The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here,” Glasman recently wrote in the Guardian. “The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.”

The "Blue" in Blue Labour refers to its commitment to a “small-c conservatism." By “conservative,” Glasman and his colleagues mean a commitment to cultural tradition, community and social solidarity – those old-fashioned, “soft” things that are usually treated by politicians as sappy rhetorical inspiration. What makes Blue Labour stand out from this tradition, however, is the way it brilliantly blends a deeper humanistic vision with a hard-nosed economic analysis, including a staunch opposition to neoliberalism and globalization.

For example, Blue Labour is inspired by Karl Polanyi, author of The Great Transformation, a landmark book that chronicles the historical shift from a world of commons in the 17th and 18th centuries to one in which all aspects of society are governed by markets. Blue Labour is also inspired by Ivan Illich in its disdain for the objectification of people and managers who speak of “human resources.” In other words, Blue Labour has enough independence and self-awareness to stand outside of market culture, and so is able to critique its serious limitations.

Consider this excerpt from a piece by Blue Labour Party activist Jon Wilson:

   The free market and the centralized, statistically obsessed State try to subordinate the local peculiarities of life to universal values, whether those values are established by the price mechanism or [even] a language of universal rights.  In reality our lives only make sense within concrete contexts and relationships.  If the market or centralized State annihilate those local contexts, life literally loses its meaning. . . . The problem with the liberal idea of the identical, relation-less self-determining individual is not that it is bad (although it is that) but that it is a false description of the way human beings act.

Blue Labour seeks to reinstill a deeper vision of humanity in politics and policy, transcending some of the familiar (but narrow) premises of liberalism. Writes Glasman: “The Labour tradition is far richer than its recent form of economic utilitarianism and political liberalism would suggest. Labour is a unique and paradoxical tradition that strengthens liberty and democracy, that combines faith and citizenship, patriotism and internationalism and is, at its best, radical and conservative.”

In these days, trying to defend the integrity of stable communities and social mutualism is itself a radical proposition – and yet it also is scorned as reactionary. Some critics claim that Blue Labour represents a “politics drenched in nostalgia” – a backward-looking resistance to progress and modernity. Glasman retorts that he has no interest in defending “insularity, fear of change and a rearguard action in defence of the white working class.” But he makes the important point that “only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.”

Glasman also shrewdly notes that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – “New Labour” – were “recklessly naïve about finance capital and the City of London and relentlessly managerial in their methods. Blair developed a political alchemy that Brown failed to recreate, and it was between tradition and modernity. The problem was that his conception of tradition was superficial and his concept of modernisation verging on the demented: a conception of globalization understood entirely on the terms set by finance capital.”

By contrast, Glasman points out, “The German economy with its worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation, in other words with high levels of democratic interference in the economy, emerged with a more efficient workforce, greater growth and with a genuinely modern industrial sector.”

He continues: “The paradox here is that vocational institutions decried as ‘pre-modern’ and ‘Jurassic’ preserved a knowledge culture that facilitated a more efficient response to globalisation than managerialism. The democratic representation of different economic interests turned out to be more efficient than leaving decision-making to the money managers. So Labour needs to engage with diverse interests in corporate governance and place greater stress on vocational rather than transferrable skills.”

Blue Labour offers a refreshing vision of politics, one that astutely connects the fight against unfettered global capital to the fight to protect elemental human traditions, relationships and community amenties. Although Blue Labour has not yet embraced the language of the commons, it has clearly embraced its sensibility, as expressed by Polanyi and Illich, and it has a keen awareness of the pathologies of market culture.

It also understands the great harm that the financial sector is inflicting on commoners; the perils of globally integrated markets to local and regional well-being; and the ways that Market/State duopoly can eviscerate the basic provisioning, non-market resources and social trust that any community needs. (Blue Labour is currently fighting government efforts to privatize public forests, for example, and to sell off the Dover port to investors.)

As the vice of budget austerity grows tighter in the U.K., it will be interesting to see if Blue Labour can channel public anger and disgust into some new, transformative grooves. Myself? I’d like to see Blue Labour help Brits rediscover the commons that still exist in their midst, even now, and start to develop some new ties of international mutualism, reciprocity and solidarity. The spirit of Blue Labour is too important to stay confined to that fair island." (


Alan Finlayson, From Individual Morality to Ethical Institutions:

"Glasman is what political philosophers call a ‘virtue-theorist’. For him, generalised moral rules make little sense. What matters is the quality of all of our actions in the context of the ongoing collective life of which they are a part; the extent to which such actions both contribute to and are rooted in a form of life in which individuals may flourish. There is a fundamental difference between this and Blairism. For Blairism (as for neo-liberalism in general) the only moral agent is the individual, whom government should help to become self-reliant, responsible, law-abiding. For Glasman the community is also a moral entity; only if it is rightly organised can people flourish.

This is not a “right-wing” position. In Glasman’s case it is also not a Liberal one. Glasman thinks that Liberalism treats values and principles in a way that extracts them from the communal and cultural contexts in which they have meaning and force. In so doing, it drains the ethical life from autonomous communities and depoliticises virtue by declaring that ‘the good’ will derive from formal rules and procedures professionally operated and enforced by Liberal lawyers, philosophers and politicians. These are fundamentally concerned with specifying when the state can legitimately intervene into the lives of insufficiently liberal individuals. A consequence of this is that relations other than that between individual and state come to appear as having little or nothing to do with ethical and moral life; the most important of these is the economy.

To the liberal concern for constitutional justice Glasman wants to add economic justice. But he does not mean by this only that there should be a better redistribution of wealth. He means that the working part of our life should be about virtue and ‘flourishing’, just as much as every other part. For that to be so, people should have some measure of control over their lives at work, and that work should have intrinsic value and meaning. That is why Glasman admires the culture of the mediaeval guilds and G.D.H. Cole’s attempt to invent a modern guild socialism. It is also why Glasman opposes to the Blairite project of inculcating ‘transferable’ skills – of the sort that float freely around the knowledge economy - the cultivation of vocational skills rooted in craft cultures and traditions.

For Glasman what matters most is the maintenance of autonomous communal life within which virtue may flourish. He is thus particularly concerned with the forces that threaten such community. For the right, traditionally, these threats are usually immoral individuals (single mothers, atheists, divorcees and so on). But for Glasman, not only individuals but also (and more importantly) institutions can be wholly incompatible with ethical life. And for him the most important of these, is the institution of the market.

Glasman’s inspiration here is the economist Karl Polanyi who sought to describe and explain the development of the capitalist market in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Liberal economics often imagines the market as a wholly natural outcome of the interaction of human wants and interests under conditions of scarcity. In contrast, Polanyi argued that it was the outcome of a political project. Surveying England’s history of enclosure and the forced mobility of labour he concluded that “There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course…laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state”.

For Glasman political debate about the market should not be confined to the degree of legitimate intervention within it (as if it were a delicate natural ecosystem). His key concern is not how to ‘manage’ the economy or impose moral restraints upon unruly individual capitalists. The problem is much greater than that. There is a fundamental opposition between ethical community and the market because the market entails the commodification of life, labour and nature; it pulls things out of the communal context within which they have meaning by subordinating them to its one ‘universal’ measure of abstract value: ‘price’.

One part of the Labour tradition has seen its task as the use of the state to increase access to commodities - through organising to improve wages, state benefits and national economic planning. New Labour was in this tradition; accepting that we now live in a free-flowing, global knowledge economy, it saw its task as helping people to acquire transferable skills which would help them to fetch a better price on the market. This, incidentally, is what new Labour meant by social mobility. But Glasman claims that there is an alternative tradition for which commodification itself is the problem and the role of the party is the creation of collective organisations which can resist it, entangling the market in democratic “regional, civic and vocational relationships”. His examples include mutual banking, “real traditions” of craft, co-operatives and so on.

This is a specific form of anti-capitalist politics. It identifies the core problem of capitalism not as inequality or class war but as commodification. The latter is thought wrong primarily because it undermines embedded communities. Glasman’s politics, although shaped by realities of class, are not necessarily class politics: for him every community is threatened by the market and thus any community - national, regional or religious - has the potential to be part of the struggle against it. Indeed, it may be that Glasman is not in favour of community organising because of its role in challenging capitalism, so much as opposed to capitalism because it challenges community organising.

Glasman’s critique of the commodity does not originate with Polanyi, and it predates socialism. The critique of the commodity first appeared in the West as a critique of the idolatry of money; a critique of the belief that money can produce things of itself, and thus in particular a critique of usury (and it is worth noting that one of Glasman’s campaigns with London Citizens was for a cap on interest). That critique can be found in Aristotle (one of Glasman’s common reference points). Aristotle wrote of wealth creation that "The most hated sort and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself and not from the natural object of it”. This criticism overlaps with a religiously inspired critique of the belief that money can create something out of nothing (a power reserved only for divinity). Or, as Glasman puts it, “the pressure of commodification violates a fundamental notion of the sacred common to all the Abrahamic faiths concerning the integrity of the human being, the divine status of nature and the limits of money…”.[

This is why Glasman makes very particular reference to the challenge money poses to community life and why he argues that “Democracy, the power of organised people to act together in the Common Good, is the way to resist the power of money”.[v] Often he inveighs specifically against finance capitalism and has been particularly and powerfully critical of the City of London.[vi] It is not that Glasman doesn’t care about capitalism in general. Rather, the problems he finds in it are not sufficiently captured by pointing to its exploitation or greed. For Glasman the problem of capitalism is that it enables the sovereignty of money over common life; that trade in commodities substitutes for real production carried out by real people making things that they care about. In this respect, at its core, Glasman’s critique of capitalism is not in fact moral at all. It is ontological. To believe in money is to hold an erroneous view about the nature of the universe. Money is a false prophet." (


Pro: Jon Wilson,

"The problem is that left-liberal politics imagines abstract values rather than strong relationships bind us to act together for the common good. The purpose of Blue Labour is to remind us how weird that is. Practically and theoretically, it points out what it might be like to live a Labour politics based on reciprocity and solidarity rather than abstract norms that have no real meaning in people's lives.

For me, Blue Labour combines a challenge to capitalism with a belief that the state doesn't have all the answers. That's an attractive political philosophy for an activist and academic who's never sure whether he's on the left or right of the Labour party. But it isn't just about political thought. It's also about renewing real relationships that stretch across the Labour party and beyond. As a participant in discussion which led to the Soundings e-book 'The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox' and since, its been an honour to be part of some of the new connections and conversations that have the greatest chance now of renewing the Labour party. As a historian, my role in the Blue Labour enterprise has been to remind the politicians and political theorists of something which Saul Alinsky and Michel Foucault would have agreed: power has always only ever been relational. It's relationships, not just values, which change real people's lives.

Alan Finlayson argues in his wonderful post 'Making Sense of Maurice Glasman' that Blue Labour's emphasis on relationships and reciprocity rather than abstract values makes it disconcerting for many Labour people. For both Finlayson and Stuart White, it is Blue Labour's hostile relationship to liberal universalism that is at issue. Finlayson suggests that this hostility will ensure Blue Labour's take up is limited. As he notes, "Blue Labour has inadvertently proven just how hard it is in England to think beyond the assumptions of the Liberal tradition". White, by contrast, asks for Blue Labour's celebration of the history of local political struggle to be blended with a left-liberal tradition of universal rights, that has Thomas Paine at its centre. Neither are right, I think, because they over-estimate the power of liberal concepts to explain how people actually live their lives.

Against: Peter Mandelsson

Patrick Wintour, in The Guardian writes:

"Lord Mandelson has dealt the troubled Blue Labour movement another blow when the architect of New Labour said it beggared belief that the movement proposed a dialogue with the English Defence League (EDL) as a way of connecting with the concerns of young people in Britain.

In a remarkably strong intervention, Mandelson, the former business secretary, said Blue Labour was attempting to fill a vacuum created by the killing off of his creation.

Speaking to the Guardian, he said Labour needed a vision for the future but that it "is not going to come from the sort of populist, anti–immigrant, Europhobic, anti–globalisation language used by Blue Labour".

"Blue Labour's platform of 'faith, family and the flag' lacks economic content – by far the biggest challenge facing the country – and its romantic ideas about working class people turning back the clock is misplaced," he said."


To judge when and how it should act, what I'd call the Liberal/Fabian state relies on abstract values that impose universal rules. These days, its sole criteria for success are statistics. As I was told by the Chief Executive of the authority where I was once a councillor a few years ago, if you can't measure it, it doesn't count.

Maurice Glasman and the group who've come together under the banner 'Blue Labour' argue that this political philosophy is, literally, worthless. The free market and the centralised, statistically-obsessed state try to subordinate the local peculiarities of life to universal values, whether those values are established by the price mechanism or a language of universal rights. In reality our lives only make sense within concrete contexts and relationships. If the market or centralised state annihilate those local contexts, life literally loses its meaning. Happily - and this is our source of hope - such devastation happens rarely.

Following Karl Polanyi, Glasman goes on to argue that local organisation doesn't only sustain the skills and virtues which makes life meaningful, but the cash values that allow the market economy to work. Markets are only sustainable when they're driven by what Finlayson describes as "real production carried out by real people making things that they care about".

Alan Finlayson's sharpest point is to note that this is an 'ontological' critique of capitalism: to believe money is the source of value or power is to believe something wrong rather than bad. But the point can be extended to encompass the critique that Glasman and others offer of liberal politics more generally. The problem with the liberal idea of the identical, relation-less self-determining individual is not that it is bad (although it is that) but that it is a false description of the way human beings act.

My point here is that Blue Labour is not offering an alternative vision of how the world should be, nor is it harking back to a by-gone past. What it argues is that politicians should use the resources of a forgotten Labour tradition to describe the way the world is now. Its realistic capacity of describing how people actually are is why I'm far more optimistic than Finlayson about its chance to politically succeed." (

Special Topics

The anti Liberal-Labour Ontology of Blue Labour

Jon Wilson:

"So what does this anti-liberal Labour ontology look like? I'd like to emphasise two aspects. First of all, Blue Labour starts with the fact that human existence happens in relationships. Everyday life, from birth to death, is structured by the way we relate to other people, whether our parents, lovers, children, colleagues or friends. The passions and reasons that drive our politics are rooted in the concrete relational connections we have with others. It is only after having a politically relevant relationship that we can talk of abstract moral values to start with, even if that simply means (as is rarely the case) a friend gives us a work of political philosophy which inspires us, or a hostile relationship to a figure in authority. The stories people tell about why they are Labour always begin with an account of the concrete relations with others.

This emphasis on the centrality of relationships does not make Blue Labour a branch of 'communitarian' political thought, as both Alan Finlayson and Stuart White think. Finlayson is wrong to suggest Glasman "fall[s] back on the notion of a natural community" for example. Blue Labour's political philosophers - Jonathan Rutherford and Marc Stears as well as Glasman - use the word 'relationship' far more often than 'community' in the recent Soundings e-book. 'Community' has a nebulous abstraction that contradicts Blue Labour's concrete sensibility.

Unlike communities, relationships occur all around us, and they provide the basis for challenging the dominance of unrestrained capitalism. Most people most of the time are doing things which are not ruled by the instrumental logic of the market, or its statist surrogate. And both the market and state rely on relationships that contradict the official logic of each. The question is how, in increasingly difficult times, those relationships allow us to do more than barely survive, and create lives in which we flourish and find true meaning and fulfilment.

Blue Labour's argument is that for that to happen, the kind of relationships which allow the good life to thrive need to be organised in institutions which provide a basis for common action. What matters is not an institution's formal structure or the abstract principles supposed to rule it, but how far it brings disparate people together in solidarity and friendship to act together for the common good.

Our everyday lives are full of countless moments, in many institutions where there is the potential to do this - where, in other words, relationships of friendship and solidarity exist that might become the basis for common action. Faith groups, which often actively nurture solidarity, are one starting point. It is faith's distance from the liberal official discourse of politics that makes it such a powerful starting point for political action. But they are many others: the informal networks that young parents create at the school gates; the pub or the coffee shop; the extended family; the alternative family structures of gay and lesbian life; the conviviality which still exists at the margins of the workplace; as Daniel Hodges notes even that most unlikely place, the shopping mall. Faced with the capitalist, bureaucrat and manager's ever greater demand that we produce abstract, meaningless value, human beings nonetheless possess the remarkable capacity to create meaningful forms of common life.

We aren't so atomised common action is impossible. There are places where that may be the case - former Labour heartlands where the demise of dominant industries and reliance on nothing but an utterly un-relational state has devastated collective. But in most places, solidarity exists - it's just the liberal (and neo-liberal) official language of politics make it hard to recognise. The assumption that our polity is made up of nothing but individuals on the one hand and the state on the other allows us to ignore the places where collective action already wields power, for good or ill. It allows us to forget the extraordinary lobbying force of the City of London for example. More importantly, it fails to recognise where people who feel they can't make a difference are able to develop their existing relationships into power that can challenge the commodification of everything around them." (

The State

Jon Wilson:

"The challenge, I think, is how the state might be organised to nurture common life rather than annihilate it. That needs a democratic central power which strongly leads, but which recognises that its role is to coordinate and balance between institutions that are closer to people's lives than it is. But ways need to be found to root public institutions within the balance of interests that exist in local society. Maurice Glasman proposes the creation of public bodies owned and controlled by a partnership between the state, workers and local citizens, and the growing number of Cooperative schools have put a similar model into practice. Such a model rejects a simplistic opposition between local and centralised control, and formalises the actual partnership between funders, workers and users which public service delivery in practice relies on. Again, Blue Labour proposes reforms which reflect how we actually are.

What matters is practical relationship-building within public institutions and the real not merely formal incorporation of citizens into decision-making at every scale. What White describes as "a democracy of confident popular self assertion" can only be built by developing strong relationships and common life in the institutions of a particular place - something our short-term political and governmental culture makes almost entirely impossible. As well as constitutional change, local democracy requires stability and the art of good local leadership over the very long term. Instead of political science or management studies, the knowledge which the art of politics relies on is necessarily historical." (