With the clock ticking down to the next election the Labour Party faces big questions about how to construct an attractive, plausible alternative to the politics of the Coalition. It needs a narrative which blames the economic crash of 2008-12 on unfettered capitalism rather than alleged Labour profligacy, but more than that it needs a vision of the future that can capture voters' imagination and persuade them that Labour can make a difference in tough times. The debates of the past three years have thrown up many powerful ideas which seek to provide both narrative and vision. Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour project began this process by declaring open season on many of the party's sacred cows (Glasman, 2010; Glasman et al., 2011; Davis, 2011). Its style was avowedly controversial; it was a good way to gain attention for new ideas, but not a good way to ensure that they were taken seriously by the sceptical and unaligned. By 2011 many felt that the wheels had come off the Glasman wagon (Davis, 2012). But Blue Labour's core propositions have not gone away; rather, over the past year they have fed into the debate about how the party might put flesh on Ed Miliband's proclamation of a new politics of 'One Nation Labour' (Cruddas, 2013).
In this essay I particularly want to look at how advocates of this new thinking have drawn lessons from the party's history to legitimate their arguments about current politics. I also want to make a few suggestions of my own about how the party should view its past moments of success and failure, and what lessons, if any, they may hold for 2015. But first, in the spirit of the situational politics advocated by civil society pressure groups such as Citizens UK, I should probably place myself clearly within my own politics. As a professional historian I have written extensively on British popular politics, and especially on the historic difficulties Labour faced constructing a stable, broad-based politics in the first half of the twentieth century (Lawrence, 1998, 2011a). But that's not why I agreed to write this piece. That has much more to do with my thirty year membership of the party and my own family background, which, as the son of working-class Tory parents from East Bristol who both grew up in staunch Labour households, is almost a parody of the Blue Labour analysis of the party's problem.
History matters to the proponents of 'Blue Labour' because at the heart of its politics lies a foundation myth: that Labour was born out of mutualist organisations developed by working people to tame capitalism in the nineteenth century, but lost its way in the 1940s when its leaders were seduced by the centralising and statist imperatives of power. Maurice Glasman set this this out most clearly in his 2010 essay 'Labour as a radical tradition'. It was here that he controversially argued that 'the victory of 1945 ... was the trigger for its [Labour's] long-term decline', thereby distancing himself from one of the triumphant moments of Labour's past that even Tony Blair found useable from time to time (Glasman, 2010; Blair, 1995). Glasman also played down the role of liberalism in the formation of Labour politics. In his analysis the party was hijacked by 'political liberalism' when middle-class intellectuals took over the show (Glasman, 2011; for a riposte see Jackson, 2011). Participants in the recent debates about One Nation Labour have generally sought to rehabilitate 1945 as the embodiment of Labour as an inclusive, 'national' party committed to social justice, but the place of liberal pluralism remains contested (Cruddas, 2013; Miliband, 2013).
Blue Labour history
There is a long tradition of Labour politicians reworking the party's history and traditions to serve present politics--we all need myths to live by, and politicians more than most need useable pasts (Samuel and Thompson, 1990; Lawrence, 2000). It would therefore be pointless to dwell on whether Glasman offers us good or bad history as history, since its purpose is myth-making for the present, but we do need to ask: where does Blue Labour's version of Labour history serve bad politics in the present?
Firstly, Glasman is clearly right that some predominantly (though not exclusively) working-class mutualist organisations such as trade unions and co-operative societies played a key role in early Labour politics, helping to shape Labour's sense of itself as a movement with deep local roots in specific communities. However, many other mutualist organisations kept Labour at arms' length--notably the massive friendly society movement, most working men's clubs, and most local churches and chapels. Moreover, Labour's mutualist bodies were not, for the most part, anti-statist or anti-welfare--on the contrary, from the first years of the party's existence they tended to argue that the state must step in to help those too weak or too poor to help themselves through voluntary association in trades unions and cooperatives. They recognised the limits of the associational principle (Thane, 1985). From the start so-called general unions, those organising the less highly skilled, saw the state as a potential ally in their unequal battle to raise wage levels and improve job security. By 1912 even the powerful miners' federation was working closely with the state to establish minimum wages and maximum hours for men at the coalface. Only the long established skilled unions tended to be wary, and these, contrary to Glasman's...