Detail from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Blue Labour’s theology of the common good

This review was first published by the Scottish Fabians.

Blue Labour is the most significant intellectual movement to have emerged within British social democracy since Tony Blair’s modernisation project of the 1990s. It shaped elements of Labour’s 2015 manifesto, and is likely to become even more prominent in the wake of the party’s defeat.

New Labour rejected the party’s long standing faith in statist economic intervention in favour of a ‘soft’ neoliberalism: revenues generated from the play of an uninhibited market were channeled towards public services, with tax and benefits adjustments mitigating inequalities in the distribution of wealth.

Blue Labour proposes a fundamentally different political economy, rejecting New Labour’s instrumental view of the market without proposing a return to socialist economic planning or Keynesian macroeconomics. Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, a collection of essays edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, is the project’s weightiest publication yet, exploring Blue Labour’s philosophical foundations, and tracing its lineage within the history of the labour movement.

Several contributors are politicians and activists, including the Labour MPs Tom Watson, David Lammy and Frank Field, and community organiser Arnie Graf. But the heart of the book is a set of rich and demanding essays by political philosophers Maurice Glasman and Adrian Pabst, theologian John Milbank, and scholar-politican and Labour policy review leader, Jon Cruddas. These make clearer than ever before the extent to which Blue Labour is, at root, a theology rather than a political philosophy. For Glasman (Jewish), Cruddas (Catholic), and Milbank and Pabst (Anglican), Blue Labour is a movement of spiritual, not merely political, renewal.

Defining Blue Labour

Despite the considerable publicity it has received, and its influence on Labour’s soul-searching during opposition, there is still much confusion about Blue Labour’s message. Glasman, with characteristic dry humour, acknowledges the scholastic obscurity of much Blue Labour discourse:

It is a quirk of Blue Labour that we are fond of paradox, something that sounds wrong but is right, and in a rationalist, tin-eared and ungenerous Westminster village that has sometimes led us into trouble. Making statements such as tradition shapes modernity, faith will redeem citizenship, trust is the basis of competition, contribution strengthens solidarity, labour power improves competitiveness, decentralisation underpins patriotism can make us sound like highly educated idiots thus giving a new meaning to oxymoron.

But despite that tendency towards over-elaboration, Blue Labour’s fundamental argument is quite simple: Labour is at heart a communitarian political party that has been infiltrated by liberalism, a political philosophy from a different tradition, with quite different assumptions and objectives. The movement is named in response to the work of ‘Red Tory‘ thinkers such as Phillip Blond, whose ResPublica think tank helped evolve the Conservative’s abortive ‘Big Society’ project, which overlaps in certain respects with Blue Labour thought.

It is important to clarify here what Blue Labour means by ‘liberalism’. For Glasman et al, it refers to a soulless utilitarianism, a rationalist philosophy with a pessimistic view of the human, seeing people as essentially selfish pleasure seekers, calculating economic agents dedicated to the pursuit of their individual interests. They do not have in mind a more generous ‘liberality of spirit’: most of the book’s contributors, including the avowedly religious, are liberal in this latter sense in regard to matters of, for example, equality of gender and sexuality.

Blue Labour’s dispute is with a gloomy view of the human shared by a certain kind of liberal on both the political right and left, who regard the egoistic individual as incapable of living harmoniously with others without coercion.

For liberals of the right, people must be marshalled by the discipline of market competition: social and economic order emerges as the artless by-product of the self-interested choices of innumerable producers and consumers. Selfish humanity is redeemed by the ‘hidden hand’ of the market.

For liberals of the left, people can’t simply be trusted to organise themselves into just social institutions: we are by nature prejudiced, reactionary social conservatives prone to demonise the outsider. We need the guidance of an enlightened state, ruled by wise philosopher kings able to engineer a just social settlement.

For Blue Labour these liberalisms of both the right and left share a lack of faith in the concept of society: the capacity of people to organise themselves to pursue the common good. The solution is to recognise and foster a new trust in our capacity for virtue: our natural, though imperfect, disposition to bear in mind the interests of the wider community when we act, to transcend our particular interests through the exercise of qualities like respect, forbearance, compassion, and the patient pursuit of excellence. Blue Labour holds up the ancient ideal of the good society, according to which we relate to each other in a spirit of reciprocity, motivated not simply by our own interests, but by a sense of engagement in a shared enterprise. As another theologian, Rowan Williams, puts it in the book’s foreword:

The challenge to conventional politics at the moment is the question of what the political world might look like if it tried to work with rather than against the grain of our humanity.

Radical Romanticism and Biblical Covenant

The book spends much time seeking to demonstrate the consistency of Blue Labour’s philosophy with the founding principles of the labour movement.

For Adrian Pabst the movement owes more to 19th century High Toryism than Whiggish progressivism. Its pioneers were inspired by the radical strand within 19th century British Romanticism, a tradition encompassing Thomas Carlyle’s Condition of England question, the One Nation social novels of Gaskell, Dickens, and Disraeli, and the social criticism of John Ruskin and William Morris.

During the 19th century working people trusted in their own power, not just that of the state, to improve their circumstances, joining together to assert their democratic and economic rights through institutions of self-help and self-improvement such as trade unions, cooperatives and mutuals. That sense of solidarity and common purpose was motivated not just by a desire for improved material conditions, but by religious sentiment. And crucially, argues Jon Cruddas, they thought of society in terms of the concept of ‘covenant’ rather than ‘contract’.

The idea that our relationships are held together by contract is a founding principle of liberal political philosophy. Society is held together by a negotiated legal framework that defines a sphere in which we can pursue our own interests without harming others. John Rawls’s famous ‘Veil of Ignorance’ thought experiment, for example, suggests that our deepest motivation for seeking a just social settlement is the instinct for self preservation: asked to design a new society, without prior knowledge of what place we would have in its hierarchy, we would want to ensure that it would guarantee a certain level of public services and social insurance.

The notion of covenant is more visceral. Under covenant we respect and do things for others not just because we are legally obliged to do so, but because we take pleasure in the exchange of our mutual gifts, and are capable of acting in accord with a sense of common purpose. It is an old thought manifested most famously in the Biblical story of ancient Israel, the paradigm of a social settlement founded by covenant. Cruddas writes:

Religion has told a positive story about how human beings have made an agreement with God to agree amongst ourselves to celebrate each other and to share in justice the good things of life.

An understanding of this contrast between two ways in which we can relate to each other, through gift-exchange – reciprocity – or contract, is the hub of all Blue Labour thought. The ‘snake in the garden’ (a Biblical metaphor seems appropriate) of contemporary political philosophy, including, for too many years, that of the Labour Party, is the substitution of the concept of ‘contract’ for ‘gift’ as the defining characteristic of human exchange.

John Milbank argues that neoliberal pessimism about the capacity of individuals to act virtuously has theological roots:

[An] important root of modern liberalism, traceable for example in Adam Smith, derives from Calvinistic and Jansenistic theologies. For this theological outlook original sin is so extreme that human beings must be considered to be nearly or totally ‘depraved’ and incapable by nature of acting out of virtue to produce economic, social or political order. Instead, in a kind of proxy operation, divine providence must manipulate our egotistic wills and even our vices behind our backs, in such a way as to make will balance will and vice balance vice to produce a simulacrum of economic and political harmony, even though this had never been originally intended by self-obsessed individuals.

And just as the liberal right’s pessimism legitimises material selfishness, the liberal left’s encourages social breakdown. Milbank argues that the identity politics of the New Left is so distrustful of ‘shared tradition and consensus that it endlessly seeks to release chaotically various individual desire from any sort of generally shared requirements, which it always tends to view as arbitrary.’ For Milbank the left needs to recover faith in what George Orwell called ‘common decency’: the simple insight at the heart of any sober socialism that people ‘have always lived through practices of reciprocity, through giving, gratitude and giving again in turn.’

Catholic Social Thought and the ‘Civic Economy’

The challenge, then, as Blue Labour sees it, is to reconceptualise society in moral terms: to give us the opportunity to treat each other with consideration, to work together towards an inspirational common goal, and to escape the prisons of utilitarianism.

For Glasman, Milbank, Cruddas and Pabst, the most evolved political tradition consistent with Labour’s communitarian roots, is that of Catholic Social Thought (CST): each of their essays exploring how Labour might draw on elements of CST to develop a British communitarianism.

The tradition’s development coincided with that of the labour movement, finding its first comprehensive expression in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, and receiving further elaboration under successive papacies, most recently in Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. CST sees ostensibly estranged, conflicting constituencies within society as potential partners, insisting that workers, employers, central and local government, financial institutions, churches and voluntary organisations are capable of orienting their respective actions towards a shared horizon.

Blue Labour takes inspiration from two of CST’s most fundamental concepts. The first is that of ‘subsidiarity’, the principle that power should be dispersed, devolved downwards to the institutions best suited to exercise it. Subsidiarity means locally run and organised schools, hospitals, and house-building programmes, and stronger local authorities. For Blue Labour subsidiarity offers a governing principle for the pluralisation of the state, a useful corrective to Labour’s centralising tendencies.

The second big CST idea for Blue Labour is the ideal of a ‘civic economy’, a bold effort to transcend entrenched differences between the left and the right about the role the market should play in the good society. Against the (far) left, CST argues for the retention of some form of marketplace as the most effective means of economic exchange; and against the (neoliberal) right, that it should operate within a moral framework: economic actors should act with reference not just to their own interests, but also a sense of how their actions relate to the good of the wider community.

CST refuses to regard the interests of capital and labour as being inevitably opposed, holding open the possibility that private profit and public benefit can coincide through the sharing of reward, risk and responsibility amongst all stakeholders, including owners, managers, workers, consumers, suppliers and communities in which business is conducted. Economic exchange doesn’t have to be a cold, impersonal transactional affair. Milbank argues:

[O]ne can be both pursuing a reasonable profit for oneself, and at the same time trying to offer to other people a social benefit – in return for a social benefit that they are offering to you. One can trade in real human goals as well as in hard cash. Likewise a contract can be a reciprocal agreement about a shared goal and value, not just the joint meeting of two entirely separate individual goals.

How might this holistic ideal of economic exchange be encouraged to take root and flourish? CST suggests that it is possible to start the process of ‘crowding out’ bad behaviour and facilitating the good by developing a market framework that rewards economic activity yielding demonstrable social benefit: habitual good behaviour can be embedded within market relations.

Glasman holds up the German ‘Social Market’ as an example of an economy wired for socially beneficial economic activity. The German economy is organised to encourage stable economic growth that distributes wealth fairly. It is focused upon the production of high quality goods by clusters of medium sized businesses that invest in their employees by training them and paying them a decent wage, with worker representation on company boards helping manage wage differentials. A robust regional banking network provides the patient long term capital necessary to allow firms to develop.

Other elements of the civic economy model can be found – as one might expect – across the Catholic world: in the Basque country, notably in the form of the Mondragon cooperative, and the ‘Economies of Communion’ in Portugal and South America. The closest approximation to the ideal, for Milbank, can be found in the Italian cooperative sector:

[T]hey combine a Renaissance exaltation of the creativity of human labour with a medieval sense of constitutional corporatism that is neither statist nor merely free-market in character. Worker participation in management, control of entry conditions to labour by voluntary associations, and high-status technical education are all predicated on the relative primacy of labour with respect to capital. And labour, not capital, is the dynamic factor, because it is to do with release of personal, creative human power.

Each of these examples is imperfect, but for Blue Labour they contrast starkly with the unstable and inequitable Anglo-Saxon economic model. Here we are close to John Ruskin’s ideal of the just city imagined in The Stones of Venice, a sacred text for founders of the Independent Labour Party. Glasman imagines its transposition to the UK:

Self-governing cities with embedded universities, vocational colleges, banks, parliaments and budgets that are governed by their citizens are part of that. We can imagine, for example, the City of London, with its mayor, guildhall, livery companies and aldermen representing all of London, in which all Londoners are citizens and where the democratically elected mayor lives in Mansion House and the Guildhall is London’s Parliament.

The book suggests a range of policies that would help to move Britain towards a more stable, reciprocal economic system, including:

  • the rewriting of company law to demand statement of social purpose and profit-sharing as conditions of trading;
  • a new public institutional trust for the pooling of technological knowledge to replace the current patenting system;
  • ethical as well as economic negotiation of wages, prices and share-values amongst owners, workers, shareholders and consumers;
  • vocational training and membership of vocational associations as a condition of entry to business practice;
  • a contributory welfare system whose mutualism would preclude any need for a means-tested safety net.

Blue Labour’s influence: from ‘New’ to ‘One Nation’ Labour

Blue Labour might seem to occupy a world of abstractions with its rarefied ruminations on the geneaology of liberalism and Catholic political economy, but the movement has had a concrete influence on Labour’s programme for government.

During his leadership Ed Miliband briefly appropriated the High Tory ‘One Nation’ image to symbolise Labour’s commitment to healing social divisions reflects the influence of Cruddas and Glasman. And his frequent explorations of the concept of ‘pre-distribution’ were close to the thought world of Catholic civic economy, with its emphasis on the importance of defining an economic system structured so as to ensure the fair distribution of wealth without requiring the intervention of the state. For Miliband, a well designed economic framework delivers stable growth, high quality work and decent wages by design, reducing the burden on government to compensate for the failings of a low wage, low skill economy.

Several 2015 Labour manifesto pledges bore the influence of Blue Labour’s vision for a renewed economic settlement, including the emphasis on vocational training, the banning of zero-hours contracts, the increase in the minimum wage, the commitment to break up the banks, the energy price freeze, and the proposals to devolve significant power to the regions.

‘Civic nationalism’: a Scottish Blue Labour?

It’s interesting to note briefly some parallels between Blue Labour’s communitarianism and the idea of civic nationalism at the heart of Scotland’s ongoing independence debate. They should not be overdone: the civic nationalism advocated by the most interesting parties within the Yes movement uses a different political language from Blue Labour, taking its inspiration from the Nordic social democratic model.

But, like Blue Labour, civic nationalism hopes for the possibility of reconciliation between seemingly opposed economic and social interests in service to a transcendent ideal, in this case the development of a modern, social democratic nation state. Certainly, a profound process of healing and reconciliation would be essential for the prospects of a newly independent Scotland, which, as last year’s fiercely contended referendum made clear, would surely be riven by conflict and recrimination as the new nation sought to weather multiple economic and political storms.

Questions for Blue Labour

Blue Labour has intellectual firepower, presents a provocative challenge to established orthodoxies of the left and right, and, following Labour’s defeat on 7 May, has growing influence: the movement has been name-checked by several of the candidates for the party leadership. But it is open to several lines of criticism that are only partially addressed in the book.

First – a profound issue for all political challenges to the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy – is how Britain’s economy can be remodelled within a global system dominated by multinationals and finance capital.

It would be possible for a reforming Labour government to start the painstaking process of introducing elements of the social market model into the national economy: a renewed focus on apprenticeships, the fostering of regional banks, strengthening of worker representation, and so on. But taming free floating multinationals and capital flows would require action on a larger stage. Never mind socialism: is civic economy possible in one country? The best a Blue Labour government might be able to do in this regard would be to work to refocus the European Union on the ideal of a social rather than neoliberal Europe.

A second question concerns Blue Labour’s grounds for its hopeful view that people are by nature disposed towards virtue rather than vice. Are we waiting to be set free from the bonds of social and economic liberalism, or do we rather like them? If communality is so fundamental to us, why have so many of the traditional institutions that embodied the virtues of which Blue Labour speaks deteriorated so quickly?

It’s true that changing economic conditions, notably the rapid decline of major British industries during the 1970s and 80s, have ushered the collapse of many local communities. But it is hard to blame economic malaise for the precipitous decline of other long standing institutions, including the mainstream churches, political parties, trade unions, mutuals and cooperatives, and, arguably, the traditional family unit.

For many, the established patterns of life anchored by these and other associations were associated less with stability and anchorage than the stifling of individuality and creativity. Many find release in the anonymity of urban life, free from the established codes of the closely bound community. One wonders whether the natural tendency of people of faith to idealise communal bonds allows them to fully appreciate the bracing sense of freedom and adventure that animates the best liberal thought.

A related question concerns Blue Labour’s tendency towards nostalgia. The book’s best essays are at pains to distance Blue Labour from Burkean social conservatism’s Golden Age pastoral of monarchy, faith, family and flag. Adrian Pabst insists:

Far from being nostalgic or reactionary, [Blue Labour] appeals to perennial principles of the common good, participation, association, individual virtue and public honour.

And so, at its best, it does, thinking in terms of how to generate new institutions as well as revive the old. But some of the contributions, including those by Glasman and Frank Field, come perilously close to the conservative inclination to eulogise a past Britain that never was, and the essay by Dave Landrum of the Evangelical Alliance presents an intemperate diatribe against the evils of ‘progress’, a mix of John Gray and Biblical literalism making a curious and unappetising brew.

Another serious question is the extent of Blue Labour’s engagement with socialism’s perennial scepticism that capitalism can ever be reconciled with social justice. Can labour and capital work in concert, or is their relationship necessarily antagonistic? Some accommodation might be possible at times of national crisis, during, for example, the Second World War, which forced competing economic forces to work together for the national good. But as today’s radically unequal economy demonstrates, the challenge of designing a just market system that delivers for all remains as severe as ever.

But Blue Labour is interesting because it has something new to say. Or more accurately, perhaps, something that only seems new because it is so old, forgotten by contemporary political debate for many decades: a renewed focus on the ancient idea, at the heart of classic political and religious thought, of the common good. To conclude with the words of John Milbank:

Blue Labour should call us to abandon false and dysfunctional either-ors in favour of strangely possible paradoxes. Not state or market, religion or the secular, Anglophonia or Europe, or nation versus the global. Instead, intimate reciprocities in ever-widening circles from the local street to the planet, fusing economic, political and ecological purpose in the name of the flourishing of each and every person and their combination as workers to erect a shared and beautiful cosmopolis.

Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, edited by Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst, is published by I.B. Tauris.

The image above is a detail from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, located in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy.