How to save blue Labour from itself

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 20 July 2011 in News
The politics of identity is an important part of the Labour conversation. Blue Labour has played an important role in deepening the debate - consigning it to history would be a shame, says Sunder Katwala

Is blue Labour dead? This brand offering a more socially conservative left politics has generated a lot of attention within Labour’s internal debates. But whether it has a constructive agenda to offer is being questioned after Blue Labour ‘guru’ Maurice Glasman gave an interview to Mary Riddell for the Fabian Review in which he called for a moratorium on immigration, and for Britain to renegotiate the rules of the European Union away from the free movement of Labour within the EU. 

Britain must ban migrants, splashed the Daily Express. Glasman's is much the hardest position on immigration to be found anywhere in mainstream British politics. Almost nobody thinks it is a position that Labour, or any political party which aspires to govern, could advocate.

The coalition government is going to find it difficult to achieve the prime minister’s ambition to cap immigration at a net 100,000 people a year by 2015 – especially given the commitment to doing so without harming the economic contribution that migration makes to the UK. That is the credible and mainstream ‘less immigration’ position in policy debate. The call for zero net migration, or as close to a complete freeze as possible, has had no serious advocates.

Even the pressure group Migration Watch – which has been the most vocal advocate of much tighter immigration controls – called Glasman’s contribution "over the top” with its chair Sir Andrew Green saying that the renegotiation of free movement within the EU is “simply not practicable”. That is surely right. The call for fundamental renegotiation is really a call for Britain to leave the EU – and indeed to choose not to negotiate the levels of trade and labour market access of EFTA members either. This is fantasy politics. Most people think we would damage our economy and society by taking that course.

Glasman is advocating a pumped up version of Gordon Brown’s slogan “British jobs for British workers” – but the evidence suggests that the public are deeply sceptical of being offered rhetorical proposals that could never be delivered.

Glasman’s position on immigration has been disowned by other blue Labour thinkers, such as Marc Stears as the ippr, who says this is a personal position and “not a blue Labour position” - arguing that "the British Labour tradition is an open, tolerant, and welcoming one".

But Dan Hodges at the New Statesman has today blogged that the fallout from the row will lead to the ‘blue Labour’ project being disbanded.

I hope this isn’t true. In fact, the issue for ‘blue Labour’ is more that it has never been ‘banded’ in the first place, combining Glasman’s personal advocacy with a loose, shifting set of conversations. It has never come anywhere close to proposing a manifesto; rather setting up themes for political debate.

While Glasman’s immigration argument is a deeply unworkable “stop the world” argument, there has been a good deal of value in blue Labour opening up conversations about the politics of relationships, belonging and tradition. I have set out how this could develop a real world approach to immigration too.

Secondly, it will make it much harder to have the open and frank public debate about immigration that we need if Maurice Glasman is treated as persona non grata just for saying something silly and unworkable about the subject.

One thing that prevents the immigration debate we need is the claim that it is a taboo subject in political debate. It isn’t. We have an endless and noisy debate. But it becomes polarised and unconstructive when claims of an elite ‘conspiracy’ meet allegations of ‘dog whistling’ – so crowding out the substance about the choices we should make and why. We need to move decisively away from a ‘should we talk about immigration or not’ debate to open up a frank debate about all of the choices we could make, the trade-offs they involve, and which of them would enhance and which damage our interests and values.

Dan Hodges’ crystal ball is not infallible. Having infamously declared "David Miliband has won" last Autumn, he revealed for the New Statesman three weeks ago that Chris Lennie would be appointed Labour’s General Secretary, and that rival candidate Ian McNicol would be kept off the shortlist.

Yesterday, the NEC appointed McNicol to the post. 

But Hodges has characteristically got straight back on the horse this morning with his latest bold prediction.

Instead, the Glasman interview may mark the moment when Blue Labour moves on from the phase of shock tactics of throwing hand grenades into the debate to pick fights. Blue Labour does not need more attention; it needs to demonstrate that it has the substance to merit the attention it has generated. This may even be a moment when those like Jon Cruddas and David Lammy who hate the name blue Labour while valuing the general perspective try to find a different brand

Whether it is called Blue Labour or not, a politics of identity, belonging and fraternity will be an important part of Labour’s political debate.

Blue Labour does not have all of the answers. It has perhaps been too quick to caricature opponents, But Maurice Glasman and the broader group have often challenged and deepened the Labour conversation.

I hope that rumours of its demise are much exaggerated.

Sunder Katwala is director of the new social justice communication organisation, (working title), which will be launched this Autumn, to inform and deepen public debate about migration and identity. He was formerly General Secretary of the Fabians. You can follow him on Twitter @sundersays

Tags: Blue Labour, DAN HODGES, Immigration, Maurice Glasman

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