Blue Labour and nostalgia: the politics of tradition.

AuthorJobson, Richard
PositionESSAYS

The Blue Labour paradox was that it appeared simultaneously old and new. In this respect, it offers a blueprint that future intellectual currents within the Labour Party might be well-advised to follow.

In the recent history of the British Labour Party, few intellectual currents have received as much attention or have achieved as rapid a rise to political prominence as Blue Labour (see Davis, 2011). Many of the figures who were associated with the most active stage of the Blue Labour project now hold positions of significant power and influence within the party. At the time of writing, Maurice Glasman is a member of the House of Lords, Jon Cruddas heads Labour's policy review, Jonathan Rutherford is working behind the scenes on Labour's policy review and Marc Stears is a close political adviser to the Leader of the Opposition. Following some controversial comments made by Glasman on immigration that were reported in The Daily Telegraph in July 2011, Blue Labour appeared to dissolve itself (Hodges, 2011; Stears, 2011a). Nevertheless, many of the ideas that informed the Blue Labour project continue to exert an influence on the politics of the Labour Party and, in particular, its leadership (see Davis, 2012). In any case, in contemporary Labour Party debates, 'Blue Labour' is still framed as a coherent and legitimate description of a distinctive ideational position (for example, see Compass, 2013). Furthermore, a number of political commentators and journalists have highlighted the significant impact that Blue Labour has had on Ed Miliband's concept of 'One Nation' Britain. Writing in the aftermath of Miliband's well-received speech at the party's annual conference in 2012 (Miliband, E., 2012), Mark Ferguson, editor of the Labour-supporting website LabourList, proclaimed 'The truth is that Blue Labour never died. It didn't even leave Miliband's office. But it now has a new name. One Nation Labour' (Ferguson, 2012).

Blue Labour has described itself as the politics of the 'common good'. It is based upon the values of community, reciprocity and mutuality (Jon Lawrence has recently written in this journal about Blue Labour's attempts to engage with Labour's history of working-class mutualism: see Lawrence, 2013). Blue Labour is critical of the socio-economic effects of globalisation and unrestricted immigration, including unrestricted immigration from the European Union, and it believes that Labour needs to reconnect with its traditional working-class supporters who felt 'abandoned' by New Labour (for a discussion of many of the ideas associated with Blue Labour see Glasman, 2011a; Cruddas 2011a; Rutherford, 2011; Stears, 2011b; Wilson, 2012). It is also broadly post-statist--it is particularly critical of the centralised post-1945 welfare state (Grady, 2011)--and heavily influenced by the perceived successes of the post-war West German social market economy (see Glasman, 1996). It is not the intention of this article to provide a normative assessment of the political desirability of the ideas that underpin Blue Labour. Instead, this article examines the nostalgic dimensions of Blue Labour and the debates that have surrounded the project since its inception.

Above all, I will argue that nostalgia was central to the rise of Blue Labour and that the reasons for this were threefold. First, the dichotomous and adversarial nature of the nostalgia versus anti-nostalgia debates that played out in the media provided Blue Labour with a significant amount of publicity. Second, Blue Labour's articulation of a vision of the past, which seemed simultaneously to contest and operate within the parameters of Labour's nostalgia-imbued identity (outlined in more detail below), engaged and mobilised support within the party. Third, Blue Labour's historical narrative disrupted the right-wing/progressive versus left-wing/traditionalist positions that had become entrenched under New Labour, wrong-footed political opponents and created the ideational space for the Blue Labour project. This narrative was right-wing and promoted lost decentralist traditions but it was also framed around a form of nostalgia for a traditional working class that had previously been the preserve of the party's left-wing. For the purpose of this paper, I have separated the party's response to Blue Labour into three main categories or groupings: leftist, post-Blairite and feminist. I will argue that, of these three groups, only the party's feminists presented a coherent narrative about Blue Labour's understanding of the past. This incoherence was not just indicative of the pluralist nature of these groups: it was also a direct product of the nature of Blue Labour's historical narrative.

Much academic debate has surrounded the concept of nostalgia (for an important recent academic discussion of the role that 'history' plays in contemporary British politics, see Robinson, 2012). Broadly defined, nostalgia takes the form of an idealised attachment to the past (Santesso, 2006, 16). Nostalgia can shape understandings and current trajectories (see Boym, 2001). It is fundamental to political identities. Nostalgia, as a positive idealised form of memory, interacts with collective identity in the form of a complex symbiotic and reciprocal relationship that can be best understood as the 'nostalgia-identity' (for the idea of 'memory-identity' see Booth, 2006, xiii). Whilst collective identities can determine the nature and form of the collective nostalgic memories that are held by a group, collective nostalgic memories shape and mould a group's collective identity. Groups can hold unique and distinct nostalgia-identities. However, within these groups, nostalgia-identities might be contested and even overturned. Historically, Labour's nostalgia-identity has been based upon memories of a perceived era of heroic (predominantly male) traditional working-class struggle (see Jobson and Wickham-Jones, 2010; Jobson, 2013). Within this understanding of the past, the party's early pioneers, such as Keir Hardie, have gained elevated nostalgic symbolic significance. In terms of the role that nostalgia plays in the British political arena, the expression of nostalgic sentiment can be spontaneous, but nostalgia can also serve instrumental purposes: political actors can deploy nostalgia in order to achieve goals and secure objectives (see Strangleman, 1999). Yet, in practice, these two competing forms of nostalgic deployment can be methodologically hard to isolate: political actors will rarely indicate that they are intentionally manipulating group nostalgia-identities for political gain.

Blue Labour's historical impetus

Written in 1996, Glasman's book Unnecessary Suffering emphasised the productive strengths that he believed had characterised the post-war West German social market economy (Glasman, 1996, 138). Glasman suggested that, in part, such strengths had stemmed from the preservation of the status of traditional artisans and industrial crafts. He argued that 'West Germany [had] succeeded in institutionalising constraints on managerial prerogative in the organisation of the labour process' (Glasman, 1996, 140). However, a more direct historical emphasis on the British working-class trades and crafts of the past informed Blue Labour's analyses during the period in which the movement rose to political prominence. Members of Blue Labour referred frequently to a perceived need to return to the values of the early twentieth-century Guild Socialists (see BBC Radio 4, 2011). Furthermore, in order to support the ideas that were associated with the Blue Labour project, Glasman often mobilised memories of Labour's founding moments and made references to a number of heroic male traditional industrial working-class struggles from the past, such as the London Dock Strike of 1889 (Glasman, 2011a, 19). Glasman declared that the British labour movement had lost touch with the values that had sustained it during it its formative years, 'the institutional forms that it took, based upon mutuality, co-operation and solidarity, and in the distinctive moral and political traditions that gave it language and understanding' (Glasman, 2011a, 29).

Similarly, Jon Cruddas exhibited something akin to nostalgia for the male traditional industrial working-class communities of the past. Speaking at the Aneurin Bevan Memorial Lecture in 2010, Cruddas noted that traditional working-class communities, cultures and identities were in decline but he proclaimed that 'there is hope for Labour precisely because we have a powerful tradition; a collective memory built in previous periods of dispossession' (Cruddas, 2010). The following year, Cruddas wrote that 'Labour should democratise its own dead to conserve what it fought for. It needs to recover the value of the ordinary, the importance of the specifically English struggles of working people--a politics of English virtue, and not simply abstract notions of "progress"' (Cruddas, 2011a, 142). To a certain extent, this rhetoric was a response to the support for far-right groups that was present in Cruddas's Dagenham and Rainham constituency. Cruddas and Rutherford...

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