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Blue Labour

2011 October 4
by Paul Vallely

There is to be no Plan B, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has repeatedly told us.  Then this week he launched what looked like Plan A-and-a-half with a “credit easing” plan to lend to business using a new arm’s-length agency. It may, or may not, be the right thing. But even Mr Osborne would have to admit it was an offering of managerial dullness rather than a convincing new narrative to embolden the nation through difficult times.

There were those who said the same thing about Ed Miliband’s speech last week. It was, according to your political prejudices, a move to the left, a move to the right or a move to the centre. But all the Press agreed it was flat and uninspiring.

But then in the corridors of a conference on the Church and the Big Society at Manchester University last weekend I heard Professor John Milbank – he of Radical orthodoxy – ask whether anyone had read the actual speech. “It’s been completely misread,” he said. “– it’s totally Blue Labour”.

Blue Labour is philosophy founded by several academics led by Maurice Glasman, who was recently made a Labour peer by Mr Miliband. It aims to reconnect the party with ordinary working people whose concerns have been ignored by the Labour elite.

It is Blue because it favours “flag, faith and family”, its leftist critics say. And certainly it wants to abandon over-reliance on the state in favour of a new politics of community, reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity. But it is old-style Labour in its fiery critique of the mess created in the Blair and Brown era when the market economy was allowed to over-rule all other political values – with a remote, bossy and managerial state created in spurious compensation.

One summary of Blue Labour – that “our lives go well only when they are lived in sustainable relationship with others” – reveals how rooted in a religious worldview its vision is. Maurice Glasman is Jewish but takes much inspiration from the social teaching developed in 17 papal social encyclicals over the last century.

Read some Blue Labour writings and then read Ed Miliband’s speech and it is clear that the Labour leader is marching off into new territory here. His language is about fairness not equality. He praises the vast majority of people who are “decent, law-abiding, community-spirited” and who believe that if they teach their children the difference between right and wrong and bring them up properly, they will get a good job, and a decent home.

And he contrasts that with those who are dishonest or out to make a fast buck – from benefit cheats to reckless bankers, fiddling MPs, and dodgy journalists. He speaks the language of merit not need – and how we require an economy and society that rewards “the right people with the right values”.

This is the vocabulary of morality. He uses it to condemn equally the asset strippers and business predators and praise the value of work – even going so far as to suggest that the very word Labour means it should be “the party of work”. Work, said Pope John Paul II, is the “quintessential human activity”, and that is far from the only echo between Catholic Social Teaching and this Miliband speech.

Yet it leads him into new and potentially dangerous terrain, such as his insistence that people who contribute to the local community should be given priority when it comes to getting social housing – which will ring alarm bells for some about the deserving and undeserving poor. Mr Miliband appears undeterred, as he is about voicing concerns about “immigration policy which didn’t work for the people whose jobs, living standards and communities were affected”.

The delivery may have been dull, but this is a new departure. It will not be an uncontroversial one.


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