Courtesy Reuters

Britain's Left Turns Right

How Labour Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nationalism

Through much of the 1990s, the fabled special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom ran in parallel with a similarly special relationship between the countries’ center-left parties. Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party and Tony Blair’s New Labour shared a sense that electoral success depended on their ability to occupy the middle ground of politics, and, if necessary, steal some of the other side’s clothes, particularly on questions of welfare reform. But the ideological overlap between the two parties has recently begun to shrink -- and nowhere more so than on the issue of immigration. For both parties, immigration reform has become a paramount subject. But they approach it in vastly different ways.

In the Obama era, the Democrats have become vocal proponents of open borders and ethnic diversity, as evidenced by the recent legislation passed by the Senate with the president’s backing. In the United Kingdom, however, politicians on all sides, including Labour, have been competing to sound tougher on border controls, health tourism (visitors to Britain taking advantage of free health care), and limits on the issue of student visas. Unlike in the United States, in the United Kingdom it is center-left liberals, not center-right conservatives, who are facing existential choices over immigration. The issue has even provided the launching pad for a new political movement inside the Labour Party -- Blue Labour -- whose goal has been nothing less than a wholesale re-examination of the basis of the party’s political philosophy. And the fate of that movement says much about the future of the European left as it attempts to balance political principles against electoral considerations. 

The impetus behind Blue Labour came from a single encounter on the campaign trail during the 2010 general election. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, walking through Rochdale in the Labour-dominated northern heartlands, met a 65-year-old woman named Gillian Duffy, who complained to him about “these Eastern Europeans what are coming in. You can’t say anything.” Brown brushed her off. Then, unaware he was still hooked up to a live TV feed, he moaned to an aide travelling in his car about “that bigoted woman. She said she used to be Labour. It’s just ridiculous.” The leak of the audio was a totemic moment in the campaign and in Brown’s short premiership. He was forced to go back to Rochdale and offer Duffy a private meeting and a groveling apology, which she accepted.

The immediate electoral damage was minimal: Labour still held Rochdale comfortably, though the party suffered heavy losses in the south of England. But many within the Labour Party felt they were on Duffy’s side. Why couldn’t they say anything? She represented the sort of voter they feared they were losing: white, working-class, brought up with the welfare state, and now feeling that politicians had allowed immigrants to abuse the system while failing to protect the interests of local people who needed help. 

After Labour lost the election, a community organizer and political theorist named Maurice Glasman convened a series of high-level meetings to address Duffy’s concerns. The agenda was not apparently to oppose immigration. It was to counter Brown’s tongue-tied inability to say anything at all. Glasman laid the blame at the door of New Labour, which had accepted a market-oriented view of politics that tended to ignore the importance of community. This made Glasman’s project anti-Blair as much as anti-Brown, transcending the feud that had stymied the Labour Party throughout its time in government. Mass immigration from Eastern Europe was seen as a symptom, not a cause, of New Labour’s failure. It exposed a political class that prioritized cheap labor over social cohesion: politicians who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Glasman wanted Labour to get back to its Christian socialist roots and reconnect with local life: the church, the co-op, the pub, the political meeting. It sounded nostalgic, but it was meant to be progressive. The idea was to stop treating voters as consumers and start treating them as citizens. 

The Blue Labour name was a nod to a comparable Red Tory movement that had tried to drag the Conservative party in the same communitarian direction. Most people took the “blue” to indicate a conservative shift in Labour thinking. (British and American politics have inverted color schemes: red in the United Kingdom means left, blue means right. New Labour signaled its newness by adopting a purple rose as its symbol; David Cameron has done something similar by incorporating a green tree into the Conservative Party’s logo.) The founders of Blue Labour, however, had another view, reflecting their mix of intellectual ambition and political naiveté. “Blue” was meant to denote a tragic view of politics, inspired by the ideas of the German sociologist Max Weber. The sunny banalities of New Labour had to give way to some hard truths: as Weber said, politics is drilling slowly through hard boards. In 1895, Weber had warned about the dangers posed to German identity by an influx of cheap agricultural labor from Poland; the interests of the German nation needed to take priority over economic concerns.

Glasman’s agenda for Blue Labour went well beyond immigration. His writing encompassed class, gender, and history. (Among his wackier proposals was that socialists should rediscover the patchwork localism of England during the sixteenth-century Tudor dynasty.) But immigration proved to be the sticking point. In 2011, Glasman gave an interview in which he suggested a temporary freeze on all immigration except for a small number of highly skilled workers. He also indicated a willingness to engage in dialogue with supporters of the English Defence League, a far-right group whose anti-immigration rhetoric is often overtly racist (anti-Muslim, pro-white). Glasman quickly backtracked -- he insisted that his call for more localism included greater support for Asian immigrants, who are also traditional Labour voters -- but the damage was done. Ed Miliband, Brown’s successor as Labour leader and a champion of Blue Labour who had given Glasman a seat in the House of Lords, began to distance himself from the movement. 

Glasman’s offense was to pander to opinions that the Labour establishment would prefer to present as beyond the pale; what mainstream British politicians tend to fear more than anything is legitimating the voice of fringe parties, whose ability to siphon off votes can be decisive in a general election. The upstart party currently benefitting from anti-immigrant sentiment is the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is polling above the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s traditional third party and the coalition partner of the Conservatives in government. UKIP is not overtly racist. Its rhetoric is targeted at the European Union. But since it was EU membership that opened the door to the mass influx of workers from Eastern Europe -- the figures are contested, but it seems likely that over a million have arrived since 2004 -- UKIP is well placed to exploit the issue. Labour would like to see UKIP as a party of the right posing a direct electoral challenge to the Conservatives, whose supporters are more likely to defect. Glasman gave the lie to that view.

After Glasman's ill-fated 2011 interview, Blue Labour effectively split. Miliband recruited a number of its leading lights to work directly for him. These included MP Jon Cruddas, who is now Labour’s policy coordinator tasked with drafting the manifesto for the next election, and the Oxford academic Marc Stears, who has become Miliband’s chief speechwriter. Meanwhile, Glasman, having been ostracized by the party, adapted his message for a wider European audience. His views on immigration have given him an appeal in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where parties of the left are facing similar challenges from rising anti-immigrant sentiments. Glasman has also started talking up the religious roots of his ideas, drawing in particular on the tradition of Catholic social thought, which promotes ideas of social solidarity and the common good. This cuts very little ice in Britain, where Catholicism has minimal political purchase. (Cruddas is a Catholic, but his faith plays no part in his policy brief.) As Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell once said, British politicians don’t do religion. 

This is not true in continental Europe, including in Germany, where denominational values still count. Glasman has criticized the bureaucratic institutions of the EU that serve Germany’s interests, but he still admires the German social market model, with its emphasis on local control, worker participation, and responsible capitalism. In this respect, Blue Labour resembles the early version of Thatcherism, which was also pro-German but anti-EU. As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher’s original goal was to promote a homegrown “ordoliberalism,” which could graft German-style economic productivity onto native British culture. Her problem was finding a way to do this without seeming to Europeanize the British way of life. She never managed to do so, and in time the anti-EU message drowned out the pro-German one. Blue Labour is no better placed to square this circle. The virtues of being German are a hard sell to British voters. 

While Glasman is increasingly detached from the parochial demands of British politics (his most recent high-level contacts have been with the Pope), Miliband’s team has ditched the Blue Labour label in favor of a softer slogan: “One Nation.” This parallels what happened to the Red Tory movement, which was co-opted by Prime Minister David Cameron under the auspices of his Big Society program. The Big Society has since become a byword in Britain for political vacuity: Cameron rarely refers to it anymore, and when he does it is only to insist that he still cares about it, not to flesh out what it means. “One Nation” is likely to suffer the same fate. A phrase borrowed from the era of Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, it is a much blander idea than Blue Labour. It is designed to convey a sense of solidarity between ordinary people and the politicians who represent them: we are all in this together. But it avoids the most difficult questions, including about immigration. It cedes that ground to Cameron’s Conservatives, who are less ashamed about appealing to anti-immigrant feeling. It is likely that the next general election will be fought on Cameron’s terms.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is hard to square with traditional liberal Labour ideas about progressivism and justice. The Blue Labour movement was an attempt to uncover an alternative Labour tradition, which was unabashed by expressions of national solidarity. But Labour remains embarrassed by nationalism, despite the “One Nation” slogan. The party is currently torn on how to respond to Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership. The Labour establishment is still broadly pro-EU, despite rising voter antipathy. During the Blair years, a pro-European stance was part of the Third Way package of pragmatic reform. Labour has relied heavily in the past on the European issue to expose splits in the Tory Party (it was divisions over Europe that triggered Thatcher’s political demise). Cameron’s referendum move is designed to turn the tables. Many in Blue Labour, including Cruddas, are strongly in favor of a referendum, on the grounds that the party cannot afford to distance itself from public sentiment. But Miliband seems unsure whether he can accommodate public sentiment without being overwhelmed by it.

The Labour Party, like many of Europe’s center-left parties, faces a series of tough choices about national identity and voter preferences. Blue Labour was an attempt to get the party to honestly face up to some of those choices. Its rise and fall is a sign of the difficulties that the party inevitably faces in making them. 

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