Blue Labour should be about more than politics

The arts are the means by which we can look through the magic casements and see what lies behind.”
                                                                      ~ Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Blue Labour is the Labour Party’s only hope if it is to win elections while remaining a party of the left. This is my view.

This is still a far off vision though. Blue Labour is still quite an inchoate collection of ideas which many in the party don’t understand and others don't much like. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’ project sought to capture some of its narrative but failed to gain much traction and was quietly dropped.

So what is it all about?

One of Blue Labour’s originators Maurice Glasman explained the idea in 2011,

“This is not a politics of nostalgia, as has been claimed ... by some critics inside and outside Labour. It is a claim that practices and values crucial to what Labour is and stands for have either been forgotten, lost or wrongly downgraded in the party's list of priorities. Nor is it a defence of a vanished working class; it is a claim that the ethical vision of a humane society which led working men and women to found the party in 1900 is still relevant and vital today.”

Both Glasman and Jon Cruddas, who helped push the ‘One Nation Labour’ project, have emphasised this need to reach back into the party’s history to recover traditions – specifically that of ‘ethical socialism’ – that have lain ignored and neglected over the years. This is also a common practice of artists, writers and musicians of course - looking into the past for inspiration, guidance and also basic material to reuse and adapt.

I can’t help think that we could learn a little from those artists, writers and musicians and reach into the sort of areas they inhabit. Labour’s own history offers plenty of interesting lessons and ideas to pick up. But at a time when the party is relentlessly narrowing down upon itself - not least in the current leadership election - I’m thinking we need to find more meaningful ways of reaching outwards and making connections with people that might help create something new and enduring.

Blue Labour, semi-detached from the Party and interested in the broad brush of stories and ideas rather than narrow political positioning, could be a good vehicle for doing this. There is an opportunity here to participate in building something new in the social and cultural sphere as much as in politics - offering an attractive, interesting alternative not just to current leftist politics but to the denuded materialism of mainstream culture and institutions.

This would mean reaching into our culture and history to find voices who share our broad sense of life and politics and have something to say about our national story: of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. It would also mean welcoming anyone who shares the vision and wants to be a part of it, whatever their background and whether they come from within the Labour tribe or outside.

Vaughan Williams: music serving the people

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams provides a fine example for the sort of approach I am thinking of. A socialist of a particularly stroppy, non-ideological kind (he once said ‘I think that when I am with conservatives I become socialistic and when I am with socialists I become a true blue Tory’), Vaughan Williams believed that music should be for the masses rather than just for elite aficionados. He wrote some of the most enduringly-loved English music, including ‘The Lark Ascending' and ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, with his cat 'Foxy'

But this didn’t come about by accident. In the early years of the 20th Century, Vaughan Williams and his friends Gustav Holst and George Butterworth deliberately set out to create a new English national music, freed from the overwhelming Germanic influences that were dominant at that time. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams found much of their inspiration from the folk songs of common people – songs that were dying out even then.

The conductor Sir Roger Norrington has said of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony for example:

“He always felt that he should be serving the people; that’s why [the symphony is] full of folk songs. He went round, on his bicycle, to the country. He didn’t have a tape recorder [they didn’t back then], he had to write them down ... And then things like that would appear in his symphony.”

By all accounts Vaughan Williams was a generous and compassionate man, and that comes out of his music: it is accessible and not intimidating (though much of it burns with fire and anger like the post-WWII Sixth Symphony). His best works inspire and lift the soul as the best art does. He was also always keen to encourage young people as he felt he hadn’t been when he was growing up.

But like all great art his music encourages something that I think we neglect on the left, which is enjoying the moment – and not treating the world as something hostile that needs to be overcome. Our version of the good must be for now rather for a tomorrow that never comes. This idea of there being a good for here and now is a basis of ethics and something which Blue/One Nation Labour has sought to resurrect. One element of it can be found in music, which so often speaks louder than words.

Making cultural connections is of course only one part of any potential Blue Labour project, but I think it is an important one, not least because Blue Labour doesn’t fit into the Labour’s current institutional architecture and it is difficult to envisage it doing so. If it is to endure Blue Labour would need to set a different example to existing institutions in and around the party, demonstrating an alternative sort of inclusivity based on shared values rather than identity and ideology.

For me, the most obvious Blue Labour policy would be to propose a democratic process for choosing a new English national anthem.

This could draw in Britain’s musical community to develop suitable versions of different pieces to replace God Save the Queen as England’s anthem (while retaining it as the United Kingdom anthem). In this way we could remove an element of the symbolic hegemony of England in the relationship between the United Kingdom’s different nations, while paying some long-overdue attention to the state of England and the meaning of England. In doing so, we would also offer a powerful example of the democratisation of meaningful life that Blue Labour seeks to promote, giving those of us who live in England a chance to bind ourselves to a new, fresh symbol of being English.

As you might guess, my personal choice would probably be something from Vaughan Williams – not least because one of his passions was to recapture and propagate a music that was distinctively English. But the only condition I would place on a new anthem – of a piece with Vaughan Williams’ own rejection of any ‘programme’ being put to his music - is that it shouldn’t prescribe anything or exclude anyone.

Some people will not like what the majority chooses but there should be no reason not to like it.

For more on the Labour Party, see The Labour Party, and other party politics page.


  1. Ben, I fear its too late. Labour is doomed. At some point its going to have to split between a centrist social democratic party with pragmatic values, and a lunatic left wing force that follows the Corbyn / Owen Jones path.

    Unless that happens, within a generation, Labour will basically be the party for public sector workers, Guardian readers with bleeding hearts, and Muslims in inner-cities.

    Multiculturalism, cultural relativism and the stupidities of hard-left ideology have turned the Left in Britain into an untrustworthy mess. Labour is stigmatised by being of the Left, whose instincts are of contempt for patriotism, and hatred for the white working class, and support and apologetics for Islamists and jihadis (witness Russell Brand's comments on a minutes silence for Tunisia victims being 'bullshit')

    I am not exaggerating when I say that Labour faces an existential crisis. The only hope for a pragmatic left wing force is probably for Labour to split and UNITE to form a separate party, a Corbyn / Owen Jones faction.

    Do not underestimate the hatred brewing for the Left and for Labour in constituencies because of its abandonment of the white working class and its patronage of multiculturalism and cultural relativism.

    I genuinely think the next election will see a similar meltdown in the midlands and north, as happened in Scotland (not to the same extent, but still significant)

    ~ Luke ~

  2. It's all very worrying.

    Regarding what Luke has said above - I largely concur with his analysis although to me, despite the fact that I respect Jeremy Corbyn (a nice man who saved my blushes at a public meeting once*) and Owen Jones (a well meaning lad that I've had the pleasure of meeting*), aren't they and UNITE part of the problem? Don't they exhibit all the cultural relativism and multicultural nonsense that Luke accurately diagnoses as being a big part of where Labour went wrong?

    *I say this not to name drop but to illustrate that the personal touch counts for a huge amount in politics. Had I not met them, I may well have written them off as being idiots.

    I've just got off the phone to the sharpest man I know and he is firmly of the conviction that we are going to go through a period of fascism. Not neo-Nazi fascism but the original meaning of the world - the merging of the State and big business. Why this gives me the willies is that he's been right on everything else in the years since the crash. Did you know that all potential permanent secretaries have to do an MBA before they can be considered for promotion? Where once they were supposed to act as an impartial buffer now they are expected to do the bidding of business.

    I cannot forsee how we can avoid another financial crisis - there's been one at least every decade or so and no one believes that the last one was fixed. What does that mean in the current neoliberal paradigm? More cuts. And as Paul Mason has noted, the real meaning of austerity isn't just cuts - it's the driving down of wages and conditions until they meet the rising middle classes of India and China...

    For you Ben, I offer this comment from my friend: ''I wouldn't want to be living in London when it all comes on top''.

    Despite being a chippy Northerner, I used to love our capital, and now it leaves me cold. It's not a part of the country that I grew up in and I resent the fact that I am expected to 'celebrate' how it's changed. And this is me - a previously self-professed 'internationalist' who has visited 55 countries! If I feel like this, what do others feel?

    We won't go through nationalist fascism though - it's not in the nature of this hugely flexible country. People will just abandon those parties which insist on pushing this line and may well detach themselves from politics altogether.

    And the really irritating thing is that having spent two hours with my MP last week, I really don't get the sense that they care that much. They worry about the destruction of the welfare state - and believe me, it is being destroyed, America is the model - but on the cultural aspect, they really don't get it.

    As per Jonathan Haidt's most recent work, they really don't get the value of loyalty. And the Greens are not going to replace them because they are even worse.

    What a mess.

    1. really interesting thoughts Phil, and indeed from Luke above though those aren't so new to me. I don't really see the whole 'fascism' thing happening though there are certainly concerns about what the government is doing. It is a Conservative government, and it could be a helluva lot worse - indeed that is one of my criticisms of the left, that we consistently exaggerate the 'evil' of our opponents and treat them more as enemies, leaving them looking relatively sane.

    2. London is now basically Monte Carlo, or Dubai on the Thames. The opening up of it to the international Moneytrash set injected it with steroids, on top of increasing atomisation caused by high rates of immigration.

      And yes, Corbyn and Owen Jones are the very personification of this pernicious multiculturalist relativism that is the problem. I'll add to your fears....the idea that this could be the moment when Labour and the Left loses the trust of the people completely, and that the trust will never return.


  3. I have of course completely misread what Luke was saying!

  4. I'll sum up Labour's problem in one word: disloyalty.

  5. Can't help feeling that Labour is on the verge of a civil war.
    The Left in general too.
    Cameron's speech on extremism has made it more plain. Apologists for extremism attacking Cameron are multiple on the Left. Sensible left wingers are being crowded out. There is nothing more certain to alienate the masses, especially in working class white communities, more than left wing apologetics for Islamist extremism.
    The Left, and Labour are in crisis. Only a civil war can settle this. And I feel that the sensible, decent left doesn't look in a good position to succeed.
    The natural thing would be for a Owen Jones type far-left wing political party and a sensible, decent Labour Party along your point of view.

    The Tories are laying traps for the Left and for Labour and they are walking into every single one of them


    1. "There is nothing more certain to alienate the masses, especially in working class white communities, more than left wing apologetics for Islamist extremism."

      - Yes, with bells on.

  6. Thanks guys.

    The point regarding 'fascism' is a hard one to convey properly as the word has been mis-used for so long and is associated purely with Hitler. Rather it is the definition proffered by Mussolini which is the one I was referring to. It won't *look* like that but the philosophy will essentially be the same - that the State exists to ensure capital accumulation and to 'manage' those who cannot get in on the system.

    Look at the US, it has essentially been 'fascist' for a century - there is and always has been a revolving door between the government, big industry, the military and the intelligence services. Consider General Butler Smedly's autobiography, 'War is a Racket' or the very public knowledge that the Rockefeller family founded the CIA. Or look at the ownership links between Standard Oil and IBM and the German companies which ran the death camps. This is not conspiracy theory.

    Observe the recent revelations in the Independent that during the war Churchill had the Governor of the Bank of England put under surveillance due to his links to the German Central Bank

    Then consider the fact that the Tory Trade Minister, Stephen Green, was the Chairman of HSBC when it was laundering billions in drug money for Mexican cartels. He was warned what was happening and he did nothing.

    It's not about Jack Boots and Swastikas - it's about money and power.

    Finally, observe the influence that big money has on our old favourite mass immigration. Here is the Chairman of Goldman Sachs telling Parliament that the EU should undermine the homogeneity of its constituent nations.

    Why? Well, I suppose the one thing which might stand in the way of a nation's exploitation by multinational corporations is a strong sense of collective national feeling. Or, when the going gets tough, popular anger can be directed toward their new fellow citizens.

    And here are the Rockefellers:

    'The Grapes of Wrath' was written during the time of the Robber Barons when the trusts would use immigrants to break nascent trade unions. Today, the Rockefellers fund organisations like the NIESR from which immigration zealot Jonathan Portes churns out his propaganda.

    I suppose in many ways, aside from on immigration, my analysis sounds closer to the Corbynite-Jones school of thought. But then one does not have to agree with the medicine to agree on the nature of the illness. The truth of the matter is that the Tories *have* been engaged in a massive transfer of wealth from the majority to the minority. What was the actual meaning of the 2008 crash? That the values of the assets belonging to the top 5% - and the 0.1% in particular - COLLAPSED in the space of hours. Had the banks not been bailed out, those people would have lost 70-80% of their wealth. Had Ireland not bailed out the unsecured bond holders of AIB, Bill Gates would have seen Microsoft's profits for that year (for they are all off-shored in Dublin) disappear. These are the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world - and they are not going to tolerate that.

  7. It is a FACT that the wealthiest have seen their wealth DOUBLE in the years since the crash.

    How has that happened? QE to pump up the stock market and asset prices, privatisations and cheap loans to fund mergers and acquisitions.
    AKA government policy.

    But the truth of the matter regarding the financial system is that it is still chock full of bad debt and crazily over-leveraged banks and hedge funds. The ability to create credit out of thin air (fractional reserve banking) coupled with the insane use of derivatives like credit default swaps means that more loans have been extended than there is physical wealth in the world. THAT's why everything is being privatised - not because it's ''more efficient'' but because the paper wealth of these people is over-valued and they need real streams of real income AKA our labour. Does Iain Duncan Smith really believe that people should 'save for their own sickness and unemployment'? Well, he probably does but someone in the City is telling him that 'fortune accounts' are the way to go because that way they get their hands on another revenue stream.

    Don't believe me? Wait til you see what they do with the State Pension. I bet our 'NEST' accounts which most people have forgotten about are what they will use to try to convert the good old pension into a 401k style affair.

    It IS the Tories who are doing this, Ben. I know it's tempting when one is culturally sick of the Left to look at the Right and feel more at home with them but believe me, things will happen under George Osbourne which you would never have dreamed possible just a few years ago.

    My money is still on all the police being armed within a decade.

    I've written far too much. I do apologise.

  8. I quit Labour yesterday. A succession over the weekend of what in Manchester we call 'bollocks' was enough for me. First up, Corbyn's equivocation over his links to Sinn Fein / IRA. His refusal to see any downside to mass immigration was predictable but I let it ride since on austerity he is largely right. But the photos of him with his 'comrades' Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - two murderers - was too much for me.

    The final straw was Yvette Cooper's call for the UN to process asylum claims in Calais.
    a) I am sick of how readily Labour is prepared to give away sovereignty
    b) the UNHCR is ideologically predisposed to allowing as many 'refugees' to enter a country as possible. The UN's migration chief is none other than the Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland - a fully paid up globalist (he founded the WTO) and advocate of a no borders multicultural world.
    c) Labour's finger wagging to the Tories over Calais is incredible since it is the diasporas which they created over 13 years in office which are the pull factor for these 'refugees' (if they need sanctuary, why not apply in the first country they arrive in?)
    d) Ditto Labour's criticism of the new findings about health tourism.

    All parties engage in this kind of hypocrisy but I've had enough of the sanctimony of the left in this country. Five years ago, I started out on the left of Labour - and as regards the political economy of the country, I still agree with much of the critique if not the solutions - and now I have quit. How does Labour / the left manage so successfully to alienate so many of the people who should be supporting it?

    For me it comes down to the problem which has been so accurately diagnosed here and over at Ed West (a conservative)'s blog - culture and identity. I accept that Labour is in a difficult position over this because the country is fragmenting culturally, but then they were / are the ones who keep preaching the benefits of diversity!

  9. Interesting article but as Luke has eloquently stated, Labour is now too far gone between competing and conflicting ideologies and visions. It's certainly too late for me.

    I haven't voted Labour since '92 and the death of John Smith appeared to signal the death of the kind of Labour Party I might have supported. I found New Labour's social liberalism and denigration of tradition and history too much to stomach.

    As an orthodox and socially conservative Christian, the modern Labour Party is not a party I can support. It's a party run by and for Metropolitan Middle Class social liberals such as Polly Toynbee.

    I can't abide the notion of women only short-lists that propel these Metropolitan Middle Class types into safe Labour seats in The North of England - Luciana Berger, Lisa Nandy, Yvette Cooper, Kitty Ussher, Ruth Kelly and the list goes on.

  10. I think Corbyn's election to leader of the Labour party is a start on the long road to sanity. Labour didn't get hammered in Scotland by the Tories but by a radical socialist party. The majority of policies that Corbyn has announced would have been acceptable to Ted Heath and Harold MacMillan. Thatcher and her like have moved British politics so far to the right, that a moderate centre left politician is now easily labelled as a rabid Trotskyist. Nye Bevan had utter contempt for the tories he wouldn't have tried introducing their policies and claiming them as acceptable to the working people he served. We are in economic terms rerunning the thirties with exactly the same results, Maynard Keynes, identified the problem and provided the solution, the solution that the Tories have ignored, the solution that Corbyn, the SNP and the Greens are advocating. I have never voted Labour in an election, it had never in my lifetime been radical enough, this may for me now change.

  11. so it's a Labour "Back to Basics" campaign. I think it's the wrong time. We need to work through the mess created by Blair first- both international and national repercussions of wars and immigration. As with the original 50's immigration assimilation into the culture of Britain has been completely mis-managed on all levels. The party that builds up communities that trust each other will stand even as opposition with their heads high.

  12. There is a "Blue Labour" party - the Populist Party. Not "Populist" in the way UKIP is described, but a fusion of moderate social conservatism, communitarian social democracy and centrist localism.


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