This article presents a critique of Blue Labour in four key areas – class, economy, family and race. It sets out alternative ways forward to forge rather than disrupt alliances between the working class and new social movements.
Since the Brexit vote, the followers of Blue Labour – an advocacy group associated with the Labour Party that promotes conservative ideas – have accepted much of the far right’s analysis. Advanced by the likes of Paul Embery and Adrian Pabst, they have adopted the far rights’ language and terminology at an alarming rate.
Importantly, followers of Blue Labour have also bought into a binary divide: the choice is either neoliberal hyper‐globalisation or a patriotic nationalism. The possibility of any different types of globalisation has been denied.
The financial crash and the rise of nationalism
The financial crisis of 2007-8 showed that Labour and its third way European followers had got both the economics and sustainability of modern capitalism wrong. Their wholehearted embrace of neoliberal globalisation was cast into doubt.
Since then, the nationalist right has dominated, shaping politics around issues of nation, culture and identity against unfettered globalisation. Think Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen.
What is surprising is that some on the left have shaped their critiques within this nationalist framework.
The birth of Blue Labour
After 2010, the Blue Labour movement pioneered by Maurice Glasman asserted that traditional working class communities had been ignored by New Labour’s trendy cosmopolitanism, which had paid too much attention to feminism, multiculturalism and sexual politics, and had ridden roughshod over the assumed conservative cultural sensitivities of the traditional working class.
The initial flurry of interest within Labour waned. However, the Brexit debate, with its focus on national sovereignty, has given Blue Labour renewed appeal well beyond the Labour party.
For example, David Goodhart, who is highly critical of immigration, published his 2017 book The Road to Somewhere. The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, which provides the bedrock of Blue Labour thinking post‐Brexit. He has written that the lack of jobs for the white working class and the decline of a shared sense of community is caused by immigration.
Meanwhile, Matthew Goodwin is an initial critic of the UKIP right who has now gone native. And Eric Kaufmann gives it more intellectual heft with his demographic and cultural arguments that justify immigration policies based on racial criteria.
However, this critique of Blue Labour focuses on four of its key flaws.
1. Blue Labour and class
A central thrust of all Blue Labour adherents is a visceral venom directed at ‘the metropolitan elite’. For Goodhart, the world is basically divided between the ‘Anywheres’, ‘the upper professional class’ with their global world outlook and the ‘Somewheres’, with their preference for place, stability and nation.
But this is an artificial divide. It suggests that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the professional classes and the traditional working class. In truth, the unbridgeable gulf which Goodhart, like Collier, Goodwin and Embery, ignore is between all these working people and Goodhart’s “global villagers, the 3 per cent who are society’s ‘movers and shakers.”
2. Blue Labour and the economy
Anti‐European Labour MP Kate Hoey has declared that she wants “to get back to our parliament the right to have complete control of our economy, to decide everything that relates to our own country”.
But Blue Labour ignores or diminishes the realities of a globalising world – in ecology and climate change, terrorism and security, the digital revolution and economics.
There is no way that manufacturing and services are going to be forced back into their national boxes. The days of a set of independently‐owned, British car companies trading primarily within a domestic market have gone.
Anyway, the central economic issue here is not about trade – which Conservatives and the media focus on – but rather integrated production flows. Serious European politicians and policy makers know that all the main production processes in Europe rely on integrated supply chains operating across borders.
As my critique of Blue Labour makes clear, attempts to resurrect a stand‐alone economic strategy within one country will be suicidal.
3. Blue Labour, sex and the family
Blue Labour supporters such as Embery and Goodwin assert that there is an unchanging bedrock of common sense and patriotic values at the core of the working class, which ‘Anywheres’ do not understand.
It is a false assertion. The reality is that vast swathes of the population have shifted their attitudes over the last half‐century and that the key determinant has been age. And the Blue Labour story that there is a gulf in social attitudes between the big cities and the socially conservative, working class industrial towns is a myth.
Goodhart writes regretfully, “the arrival of the pill and easier abortion further separated sex from association with family and long‐term commitment”. But the social gains of the last half century cannot, and should not, be rolled back.
4. Blue Labour, race and migration
Blue Labour supporters have been cautious in this arena, but their direction of travel is increasingly clear. Certainly, they are in very dangerous territory.
In the post‐Enoch Powell era, the UK has evolved a broad, cross‐party consensus that maintains that British citizenship and identity is not defined ethnically. But Blue Labourite Paul Collier writes that London will soon become a majority/minority city because he does not consider second or third generation migrants as ‘indigenous Britons’.
The increasingly strident tones of Matthew Goodwin arguing that the Labour vote in working class Britain is collapsing because people feel “like strangers in their own country”, is heading in that direction too.
However, go to car plants, hospitals and fast‐food joints and you will find a mixed working class, not a purely white English one. So progressives should argue for tight regulation of the labour market, for a high minimum wage which is legally enforced; stronger rights for trade union organisation, and so on. Furthermore, to address the social pressures on institutions, national government should institute a ‘migration impact fund’.
Progressives should not collude with those who simply do not like foreigners. Instead, they should offer a positive vision on migration. The successes of the German Greens in the more testing situation in Germany should give confidence that racist populism can be challenged successfully.
In short, a movement founded on the values of liberty, equality and solidarity cannot cave into those who believe that some citizens are more equal than others, or that some people aren’t citizens at all.
Critique of Blue Labour: Towards a renewed social democratic alliance
Labour’s successes in 1945, 1964 and 1997 came through linking together the labour movement, the public sector and middle class intellectuals. Alliances will not necessarily return in the ‘old’ form, but they need to be constructed. The first step is to articulate alternative models of globalisation.
Progressives need an economic policy promoting a new relationship with nature and a thorough green industrial strategy that addresses the economic and social concerns of those who globalisation has passed by.
Progressives should also seek to create a sense of interconnectedness. Blue Labourites find it hard to conceive that a person can approve of European integration and yet still retain a national and local identity. The modern world is interconnected and overlaps. For instance, the wings for an Airbus are made in North Wales and Bristol, but the aircraft as a whole is put together in Toulouse.
To sum up, as the Green movement expresses it, ‘think global, act local’. There is no gulf between the two.
A longer version of this article appears in the Political Quarterly journal.