Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Blog

In Defence of Blue Labour

Jonathan Rutherford


Eduardo Drapier

| 8 mins read

Jon Bloomfield’s article in the Political Quarterly on ‘Progressive politics in a changing world’ claims to explain the "fallacies of Blue Labour". Here’s a response to it.

Bloomfield begins his story by letting the reader know where to place Blue Labour on the axis of good and evil. Authoritarian nationalism is rising across the world and its toxins have spread into British politics.

Without irony he points his finger at Blue Labour trade unionist Paul Embery who he infers is anti-semitic because he tweeted the words  “rootless, cosmopolitan”. Embery writes for Unherd which Bloomfield describes as a ‘Conservative website’. Embery, he says is, ‘lauded’ by Blue Labour intellectuals, one of whom is Adrian Pabst. And Pabst retweeted Douglas Murray’s support of Embery, and Bloomfield calls Murray ‘anti-Muslim’.

In two tweets Bloomfield establishes his political thesis. Blue Labour and the hardcore right are linked by “accelerating common perspectives”. What these are he does not say. He then without evidence accuses the “newly enobled Maurice Glasman” of having given prominence within Labour to the nationalist right.

Any quick online research of Blue Labour’s founding years would demonstrate that it evolved out of Labour political tradition. Nationalism played no part in shaping Blue Labour’s political philosophy which owes to Aristotle, community organising, Catholic Social teaching and ethical socialism.

Blue Labour’s commitment to the democratic practice of the common good, which brings together estranged interests, is diametrically opposite to the intransigent ‘them’ against ‘us’ of a populism that stokes hostility between migrants and natives whatever the ethnicity of either. Its approach to political economy is completely counter to the often libertarian, free market economics of continental populist parties.

Defending Blue Labour and class

The intellectual paucity of his analysis does not stop Bloomfield passing judgment on its ‘flaws’, the first of which he says is class. He doesn’t reference anything that Blue Labour has written on the subject. He passes no view on the actually existing cultural class conflict dividing the country, nor on its causes. There is plenty to draw on, for example the work of Thomas Piketty. He engages with none of the arguments or evidence about the geographical distribution of capital and class across the UK, or what he terms the “rapidly evolving nature of the working class” and what this means.

Blue Labour and the economy

Bloomfield’s second Blue Labour flaw is the economy and the way in which its writers ignore, disregard or diminish the realities of a globalising world. He appears to suggest that Blue Labour advocates a “stand-alone economic strategy within one country”. His superficial argument is a travesty of the kind of economics developed over the last ten years.

From 2009 onward, Blue Labour argued for putting institutions at the heart of a new political economy in order to mediate the power of capital and to limit the commodification of society. Establishing vocational education was necessary for revitalising productivity and giving back dignity and status to work and workers. Putting workers on boards is a means to redress the power of management within firms. Developing regional banking is a means of recapitalising the regions starved of investment.  Promoting trade unionism will increase labours share of national income and reduce inequality. He appears entirely ignorant of it all.

Blue Labour and sex and family

Bloomfield’s third Blue Labour flaw is its attitude toward sex and family. He claims Blue Labour asserts that there is an essential unchanging bedrock of common sense and patriotic values at the core of the working class. Nobody in Blue Labour argues this kind of ahistorical, un-sociological romanticism. Bloomfield then cites the 2011 census that shows the rapid rise in people cohabiting and the numbers of lone parent households. He attributes this to trends towards greater variety of family forms, people living together outside marriage, more divorce, separation and single parent households. Is Bloomfield saying these trends are unalloyed social goods?

Today one in nine children in England now suffer a mental illness. Those most at risk are children in the poorest fifth of families. Up to 1 in 5 in display symptoms of mental illness, in comparison to 1 in 20 children in the richest homes. This inequality is getting worse.

Undermined family life?

For those children most affected, the social bonds that once tied their families into society have been either weakened or have disappeared. Children absorb the stress and insecurity. This is the experience of many in low income families where 48 per cent of children between nought to five years old do not live with both their birth parents. This proportion of children rises to 65 per cent by the time they are sixteen. In comparison only 16 per cent of nought to five year olds in middle and upper income families do not live with both their birth parents. This proportion rises to 39 per cent by the time they are sixteen.

Has the social destruction of the liberal market settlement of the last forty years undermined family life and damaged childrens’ mental health? Is marriage which statistically leads to more secure partnerships over the longer term and is much more common amongst the wealthy than the poor a social justice issue? These are questions to be debated, but Bloomfield dismisses them as simply “turning the clock back”.

Blue Labour, race and migration

His final Blue Labour flaw is race and migration. Blue Labour he says is taking a political trend into “very dangerous territory”. But he doesn’t say what he means but lets the reader think the worst. He then picks two right wing thinkers Roger Scruton and Douglas Murray, neither Blue Labour, and wrongly and malignly accuses them of belonging to the white nationalist right, inferring that they believe British citizenship is defined by ethnicity.

Neither take this view. Where have either argued it? Bloomfield doesn’t say, but this does not stop him accusing those he defines as fellow travellers of Blue Labour heading in the same direction.

Bloomfield then accuses Blue Labour individuals who support the Full Brexit manifesto which calls for a “genuinely internationalist and democratic politics of national sovereignty” of playing into the hands of the hard right. According to Bloomfield any talk of national sovereignty encourages the dangers of nationalism. But national sovereignty is essential for our constitutional democracy and the social order. It is the source in time and place of the agency that constitutes our nation based political system. What is Bloomfield talking about?

The fundamental problem with Bloomfield’s essay is that he doesn’t actually understand what Blue Labour is and so is unable to construct a critique of it. Instead he relies on slandering individuals by association and insinuation, name calling, and passing inaccurate, uniformed and dogmatic opinions.

There is a debate to be had about Blue Labour and its political ideas. It doesn’t start here.

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    Jonathan Rutherford

    Jonathan Andrew Rutherford is an academic who was formerly a Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Middlesex.

    Articles by Jonathan Rutherford