Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Blue Labour

It’s fair to say that this blog has, on occasion, suggested that there is a leadership vacuum at the top of the Labour Party, and that it has no clear idea why it is seeking office. The reasoning is that while Ed Miliband has put a lot of work in to coming up with a sort of sociological critique of modern Britain, this critique does not yet translate into a program of government, or even a strategy for winning an election. Having said that, I do think that it deserves some scrutiny, so that is what I’m going to try here.

Coming as he does from an academic background, it is perhaps unsurprising that Mr Miliband turned to the academy when he was seeking the raison d’être of his leadership, in particular to an academic called Maurice Glasman. Professor Glasman has come up with an idea he calls “Blue Labour”, which argues that the financial crash of 2008 was the result of a flawed method of organising our society, particularly our economy, and that we must now find a different, more effective way of arranging our affairs.

The argument runs that before 2008, Britain responded to globalisation by creating a workforce where everybody tried to have as many transferable skills as they could so that they could go and work in whatever industry made the most money (obviously I’m paraphrasing very crudely here). A legal and social framework was set up to ensure that money and talent were funnelled to wherever they could generate the greatest return. The result was that by 2008 Britain’s productive energies were dangerously focused on the financial services industry, which was based pretty much exclusively in London. When that crashed there was nothing else to take its place, thus the mess we are in today.

Glasman’s response is that we need to remake the very structure of British society. He wants to see workers, or more accurately unions, take a role in making executive decisions in companies, with up to a third of the seats on the board, and to give local communities a say as well, although he is very unclear on how he would do this. Furthermore, he says that we need to create a regional banking structure, so that investment is directed at places outside of London. The basic idea is to organise our economy around the common good of our communities, rather than have it chase high returns and leave most places (and people) behind.

This is real big picture thinking, and I don’t think it will quite translate into a political project for Mr Miliband. To begin with it requires changes which are not within the gift of a government to make. Glasman himself admits that if unions are to take a major role in company decision making then they will have to change their culture to something more cooperative with management, and managers will have to learn to cooperate with unions. Germany has this type of tradition, but it is not clear how such a culture change could be brought about here. As for a regional banking structure, how will that be created? Will the government own these banks? Setting up banks is very expensive, not to mention risky. I fail to see how the government could legally separate existing banks, which are global in size and owned by shareholders all over the world, into what Glasman seems to want.

These are, if you like, technical objections, in that they ask if the project is possible. My real philosophical objection is towards the bit about the common good of the community. Community means different things to different people. It can be anything from the people at a golf club to a religious identity, but Glasman seems to mean it to be the area in which you live. Frankly I find the idea of community based on location a bit medieval. The people of Britain haven’t actually been tied to a certain location since the invention of the railway, and that’s no bad thing. The underlying assumption of Blue Labour thinking is that a sort of inward looking local identity can be imposed on a society which is increasingly diverse and mobile. I don’t really see why Mr Miliband would want to try and turn this into his great political goal, even if it were possible, which it is not.   

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