It is a classic paradox of Parliamentary democracy: when a party is in opposition they tend to act in a way detrimental to them regaining power.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2001. In the wake of New Labour’s landslide win, the Tories slid to the right, adopting a noxious stance on immigration and tax that greatly misjudged the country’s emerging optimism. Historically Labour have been just as culpable. In 1931, after falling to just 46 seats, the party spent years in the political wilderness, flirting with pacifism under George Lansbury and becoming riddled with factionalism.
It seems then that in the wake of a defeat, parties have a tendency to turn in on themselves.
There are of course exceptions to this general rule of political thumb. Having become Labour leader following the untimely death of John Smith, Tony Blair radically reoriented his party, turning it from rank outsider to a political force to be reckoned with. While New Labour is sometimes seen as mere froth, the ideology developed by Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and others within Blair’s inner-circle should not be underestimated. Harold Wilson’s efforts to reposition Labour as a technocratic part not tied to the prevailing class system are no less impressive and saw him not only become the youngest Prime Minister in seventy years, but a modernising and reforming presence.
Judging Ed Miliband’s time in opposition is difficult. While he has not achieved the dizzyingly successful reorientation of Blair, nor has his rule been as disastrously insular as William Hague’s. While questions still remain as to what Ed Miliband really believes in and wants for the country, they are tempered with some ideological development behind the scenes.
Lord Maurice Glasman has been particularly active in his calls for “a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity” and a decisive shift away from the kind of centralisation that has typified Labour in the late twentieth century. He has gone some way to rebuking the Blairite focus on market economies and neo-liberalism, instead promoting progress at a local level through cooperation within communities and traditionalism, not least the belief that full employment should be a Labour government’s goal.
Glasman’s credo, dubbed ‘Blue Labour’ draws upon a longer continuum of Christian socialism within the labour movement and has won support from MPs like John Cruddas and Frank Field, as well as from Ed Miliband himself. He wrote the preface for an e-book on Blue Labour, suggesting that: “Even in the aftermath of a profound economic crisis, politicians of all parties need to realise that the quality of families’ lives and the strength of the communities in which we live depends as much on placing limits to markets as much as restoring their efficiency.”
Although the tenets of “family, faith and flag” appear anathema to the urbane cliques that dominate much of Labour discourse, they have great resonance among the party’s traditional constituents, many of whom feel they have been left behind by progress, be it social or economic. Blue Labour has not been without its critics. Deputy leader Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott has been particularly vocal in their denunciation of Glasman’s social conservativism, which they perceive as inherently exclusionary.
Labour’s growing support for regional devolution, the administration of schools and health care facilities through community organisations and guaranteed employment for 18-24 year olds, bear the hall marks of Glasman’s influence, but question marks remain over Blue Labour’s viability.
Frank Field writes that the current leadership has failed to give “serious thought” to the movement, preferring instead to muddle along, responding to, but not shaping, circumstances. There is perhaps some merit in this. With two months until the General Election few, even within Labour circles, could map out what exactly Ed Miliband stands for. He still has little by way of an elevator pitch as to why he should be Prime Minister.
To date Blue Labour has generated a handful of books, a myriad of think pieces and a wealth of conversation. Although participants are small in number, their collective experience and influence should not be underestimated. They are not only drawn from the traditional Westminster bubble, but also from the clergy, media and academia. Such diversity generally points to a significant movement, though perhaps in this case it is one that will not bloom until it is too late. It does not seem then as if Labour’s time in opposition has produced a new defining zeitgeist, but rather a smaller, quieter set of ideas.
Writing in 1996 Peter Mandelson wrote of the New Labour project: “Every political party has periodically to renew itself, to enable it to bring new life and policies to the country.” Though for Blue Labour this process is incomplete, if Ed Miliband enters 10 Downing Street in May he could do worse than drawing upon the work of Glasman et al. Similarly, if he fails in his electoral bid, the nucleus of Blue Labour will become a valuable starting point for a deeper assessment of what the Labour Party’s place in modern Britain really is.
This article was originally published last Friday in Whitehall Weekly. You can subscribe here.
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