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Labour’s blues

Leftish economics allied to moderate social conservatism offers a compelling route to power for Sir Keir Starmer

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Blue Labour is a smart, incisive political idea. It proposes that the British Left aligns itself with where the British people are: economically on the Left; moderately socially conservative and quietly patriotic. 

In the context of state underinvestment in capital projects, family breakdown, a total loss of faith in policing and border control, Blue Labour offers a revival of state competence and civic-mindedness. It’s as urgently needed a diagnosis as any offered in living political memory. Unfortunately, standing in its way is almost the entirety of the Labour party. 

Granted, Keir Starmer has made many Blue Labour noises. He has recognised the devastating impact of crime and antisocial behaviour, promising to make Labour “the party of law and order”. He has praised King and country and wrapped himself in the flag. He has suspended Jeremy Corbyn. 

Predictably therefore, Starmer has been the target of furious denunciation in the left-wing press, typical of which is Grace Blakeley’s 2021 indictment in Tribune, in which she despaired at his embrace of the “reactionary necropolitics” of “the most right-wing government in living memory”. 

By any objective measure, the past 13 years of Tory rule have been the most socially liberal era in British political history, and despite much publicised culture war rhetoric, Tories have overseen the introduction of gay marriage, unprecedented levels of mass migration, and policies on trans issues that veer close to the logic of gender self-ID. They have elected Britain’s second and third female prime ministers and our first non-white PM. 

The teaching of so-called British values in schools, mandated by the Conservative government and the sort of thing denounced as “reactionary” in the progressive press, is the teaching of socially liberal ideals. The values in question, are listed as the following:

Democracy A culture built upon freedom and equality, where everyone is aware of their rights and responsibilities

The rule of law The need for rules to make a happy, safe and secure environment to live and work

Individual liberty Protection of your rights and the rights of others around you

Mutual respect & tolerance of different faiths and beliefs Understanding that we all don’t share the same beliefs and values. Respecting those values, ideas and beliefs of others whilst not imposing our own onto them. 

The pretence that this Conservative government has been violently reactionary is something that it is psychologically necessary for progressive Labour supporters to believe, otherwise they would be forced to confront the fact that there is little to separate their own worldview from that of a liberally-minded Tory MP. 

Accusations that Starmer is “outflanking the Conservative party on the right” are, unfortunately, delusional

Accusations that Starmer is “outflanking the Conservative party on the right” are, unfortunately, delusional. The vital task of rebuilding state capacity and competence, of winning support and trust for collective effort and mutual aid, cannot be carried out purely by greater state spending and social libertarianism. Issues such as how people behave in public spaces, the monopolisation of state resources by the dysfunctional and the indigent, and the low-level chaos imposed on public services and communities by uncontrolled migration are fundamental barriers to the kind of society that is capable of collective models of economic organisation, whether it’s Scandinavian-type social democracy, a German social market or Victorian-style British mutualism. 

Starmer’s rhetorical embrace of conservative ideas is straightforwardly ascribable to his wanting to take office. Despite the Left’s casting of the British electorate as social progressives, recent politics has reflected the power of some of its most socially conservative voters — in 2019 the Labour-to-Conservative swing voters who handed Boris Johnson his decisive majority polled as being more socially conservative than the average Brexiteer, while being on the left on economics. It was Johnson’s levelling-up pledges combined with populist rhetoric that won him those votes, Corbyn’s lack of attachment to traditional British institutions helped lose them. 

But whereas Tony Blair’s great ideological pivots were supported by a large and influential bloc of elite opinion, Starmer’s rhetorical gambits — slabs of red meat offered to voters whose views are otherwise unrepresented in the party — have no such base of support amongst MPs, membership or the left-wing press. 

In terms of concrete policy there is every sign that Starmer will follow Blair down the road of constitutional tinkering, with ill-thought-through plans to reinvent the House of Lords as an elected chamber. 

More disturbing still for those hoping Starmer will experience a Damascene conversion to Blue Labour are the signs that not only will he fail to deliver any communitarian policies, but he is likely to be continuity-Sunak on economic matters. Faced with real fiscal limits on borrowing and spending, Labour must choose between risky economic radicalism or giving up on deviating from the current sclerosis of services and investment. 

With the probability of dangerously idle hands and a thumping majority, a Starmer government would be drawn by irresistable gravity into a programme of social rather than economic radicalism. Progressive activists and lobbyists, currently kept at arm’s length, will rush back into the tent. Trans ideology, barely kept at bay, largely thanks to the intense campaigning of gender-critical feminists, will become the law of the land. 

Drug decriminalisation, already the policy of Labour’s most powerful elected politician, the Mayor of London, will be back on the agenda. Divisive American racial politics, now dominant in the British academy and the arts, will be embedded in public policy. The illegal crossings in the English Channel, which the Tory government has proved incapable of quelling, will increase and be used to justify still higher levels of mass migration (“safe, legal routes” for “refugees”). 

Unable to improve public services and unwilling to challenge globalised capitalism, a Labour government will also no doubt turn to disastrous environmental policies of the ULEZ and heat-pump variety, loading costs onto individuals whilst keeping them off Treasury balance sheets.

These things will come to pass because they are the goals of the progressive managerial class whose views really shape policy. The massed influence of voters will wring words and promises out of politicians on the campaign trail, but that force dies away as soon as the election is over. The door closes to working-class people, and opens to the managerial class. The electorate has the vote, but the managerialists have access, not to mention — through legislation such as the Equality Act — the legislative crowbars to turn their opinions into legally-mandated reality. 

With Corbynism discredited, Blairism 2.0 appears to be the order of the day

With Corbynism discredited, Blairism 2.0 appears to be the order of the day. There is a lethal convergence at the top of politics around a neoliberal economic and social agenda, one dictated by the tastes, preferences and vested interests of Britain’s new managerial establishment. There is no space in this consensus for workingclass politics or any economic policy that would reverse deindustrialisation and growing inequality. 

Left-wing credentials will instead be burnished by punitive ecological taxes on ordinary consumers, constitutional butchery and intensifying institutional wokery. But inequality will remain unchanged, growth will stall, and Britain’s rentier capitalism, in which inflated house prices, pensions and passive incomes are ruthlessly ringfenced by the state, will go unchallenged. As with the Tories, Labour will gamble that it can win older voters, make the right noises, and count on the other lot being even worse. 

However well Labour performs at the next general election, it is on course to let down what Ed Miliband labelled the “precariat” — Britain’s large but increasingly badly-off middle class comprising young graduates unable to get on the housing ladder, families with massive mortgages and few savings, households living from paycheque to paycheque, junior professionals with postgraduate degrees stuck on the equivalent of zero-hours contracts. 

So shaped are our ideas by twentieth-century mass politics, we can’t imagine a population putting up with such conditions indefinitely. But Britain’s eighteenth-century Whig supremacy lasted 50 years, Soviet Communism lasted 70. Ruthlessly unfair economic systems can last lifetimes. 

Many Latin American countries ostensibly just like us — in many respects Western-shaped, industrialised, well-educated and with modern democratic institutions — have known a full century or more of protracted chaos. Argentina, a country economically competitive with the USA in 1900, proceeded to politically wreck itself for over a hundred years, with cyclical economic crises destroying hard-won prosperity. In Argentina, the situation of the “precariat” is all that most of today’s middle-class families have ever known.

Britain is on a cliff-edge, with the only party in a position to turn things around forging blindly ahead. In this context Blue Labour is a voice in the political wilderness. As Maurice Glasman (himself a dab hand at the saxophone) has pointed out, the “Blue” in Blue Labour, was as much about the Blues as it was about conservative socialism. 

The really important political movements, like great religious movements, often prosper in exile and banishment, with answers that may have to wait a long time for their season. 

Blue Labour is the only political tendency on the British Left with a serious and compassionate response to questions of globalisation, atomisation and ecological destruction. It’s a message that’s never been more needed — and less heeded. 

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