Democracy, Collective Action, and the State an Exchange

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From: Marc Stears

To: Tim Horton

Dear Tim

I hope you share my sense that this is an exciting time to be thinking anew about Labour and the priorities of the British left. There is an energy about Labour at the moment which is both sorely needed and stimulating to see.

It didn't necessarily seem as if it would be this way a year ago. The Labour leadership race did not really generate any great sense of debate or new direction in the Party. Perhaps it was just too muted because of the fact that the two leading candidates were brothers or perhaps it was because we were still all too stunned by the election defeat. But now I hope we will both agree that there is a sense that the Party is finding a direction again. Ed Miliband is also providing effective leadership both on short-term issues and on the long-term challenges facing Britain.

Where perhaps we might disagree is in the role that so-called 'Blue Labour' has played in this re-energising of the Party.

It seems to me that, for all of its faults, the debate that has surrounded 'Blue Labour', and that emerged from the e-book that launched that debate, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, has contributed significantly (Glasman et al., 2011). It has helped the Party find a new agenda and re-connect with parts of the public that had become distanced and detached during the last years of the previous Labour government.

It has done so in two ways. First, the 'Blue Labour' debate has placed the need for community-based politics right back at the heart of the Party's agenda. During the general election, the Conservatives had their 'Big Society', the Liberal Democrats had their tradition of 'neighbourhood campaigning', and we were left with almost nothing to compare. We had become far too reliant in our thinking - even if not actually in practice - on a statist model of social democracy, one that looked to Westminster and Whitehall for solutions for social problems without drawing on the energies of the people themselves. The debate over 'Blue Labour' reminded us that it didn't need to be like that. It reminded us, in particular, that throughout its history, Labour has been at its best when it has been the Party of local action, of co-operation, of small-scale action, as well as the Party of centralised state action. We were in danger of forgetting this crucial part of our tradition - the co-operative, guild socialist, municipal socialist part - and now that is right back at the forefront of our thinking.

Second, the 'Blue Labour' debate has also reminded us of the absolute centrality of democracy to Labour politics. People across the country - and especially within our own Party - had grown increasingly tired of the technical, managerial, and media-obsessed way of doing politics that had emerged in the New Labour years. We know why Blair and Brown created a disciplined Party machine; it was what was needed to beat the Conservatives back in the 1990s. But the Party had lost its soul in the process. Policy-makers had become removed from party members. There was a sense that there were only two kinds of people in the Party any more: those who wanted a career in professional politics and those who were willing to stuff envelopes or deliver leaflets. The sense of Labour as a democratic movement, where people enjoyed coming together, debating and doing, had disappeared. We now know that this has to be put right. 'Blue Labour' has started to help us think about how we might do that. The model of community organisations like London Citizens is helpfully invoked, and Movement for Change offers the beginning of a new way of doing politics within Labour. This is a tremendous step forwards.

Labour needed plentiful sources of intellectual and political renewal after the election defeat. 'Blue Labour' has been one such source.

All best

Marc

From: Tim Horton

To: Marc Stears

Dear Marc

Thanks for your message. …