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
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’.
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.
“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 pubs...in 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.
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