Blue Labour Returns

Of all the half-baked ideologies the opposition has flirted with over the last five years, none is more repellent than Blue Labour. Yet like a particularly stubborn brain-chewer from The Walking Dead, it shambles onwards in the face of every adversity, gobbling up column inches and spawning forth platitude after platitude- hectoring, moralising, criticising, sniping, compromising and equivocating.

Most recently it has found a fresh identity in ‘New-Blue’, and won new advocates among a number of rising stars in the party, including Liz Kendall and Stephen Reed, whose joint pamphlet- Let It Go (see what they did there?)- marries a practical New Labour call for public service reform with the hopey-changey rhetoric of Blue Labour.

I first encountered Blue Labour in Rowenna Davis’ opus Tangled up in Blue, which four years on from its publication in 2011 remains the definitive guide to the movement. Now I happen to believe Rowenna is one of the most engaging and genuine parliamentary candidates we have (go and meet her on a campaign day in Southampton Itchen, if you don’t believe me), but her analysis of Blue Labour reveals a movement riven with contradictions. Worse, it dictates an electoral strategy destined to lose Labour the support of its most passionate activists without winning enough new voters to turn the tide on the Tories.

In short, Blue Labour rests on the assumption that the party’s lost 4.5 million working-class voters can be won over by appealing to certain conservative values, such as faith, family, flag, community, responsibility and belonging. Though I applaud the ambition of parking Labour’s tanks on the Conservatives’ lawn, the strategy can only lead to defeat. When Blue Labour first emerged the Conservatives were still trying to shed their nasty party image, obligingly vacating the ground it wanted to occupy. As for UKIP, it was far from the force it is today, registering a vote share between 3 and 4%.

Now the Tories are duking it out with UKIP to reclaim the mantle of Britain’s true conservatives. This leaves precious little room for Blue Labour to make an impact or to win vote share. After all, Labour cannot trump UKIP among those voters who fear immigration. Nor can it trump the Tories among old-school patriots who blame Labour for ‘sending the country to the dogs’. The ‘community’ and ‘belonging’ strands of the Blue Labour philosophy, meanwhile, have heretofore been expressed through pledges on devolution. Yet even here Labour will struggle to compete with the rejuvenated nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland.

In trying to, though, Blue Labour leaves activists fumbling the party’s message on the doorstep. “Labour will be tough on immigration,” they say. “Oh yeah? How? Are you going to close the borders like UKIP?” comes the reply. “We want to build a community here, not just win votes”; “Then why do I only see you come election time?” Doorstep campaigners are wrong-footed without the compensation of winning new votes. I want a Labour government supportive of immigration, not committed to red lines. A Labour government open to Europe, not making anxious noises over hard-earned rights. A Labour government that will use the state to protect the vulnerable and create a more equal society, not abdicate this responsibility by devolving all meaningful decisions downwards. That’s the future Labour government I want to be canvassing for.

And it’s in this tension that the contradictions of Blue Labour are laid bare. The goal of the movement is to bring about “progressive conservatism”, yet we cannot appeal to UKIP voters and Green voters using the same strategy. We are progressives or we are conservatives. We cannot be both.

It’s time for Labour to choose who it is fighting for and who it wants to represent.   

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