The Monday Essay In the Westminster village, the talk is of 'Blue Labour'. But does this nascent ideology offer a real way forward for the left, asks Amol Rajan - or is it just another empty political buzz-phrase?
It was hard, watching Barack Obama and David Cameron play table tennis together for the benefit of cameras recently, not to be struck by their synthetic similarities. Wearing crisp white shirts, nearly identical in height and both left-handed except in their high- fiving, these two young leaders with picture-perfect families embodied the telegenic imperatives of democracy in the internet age.
Such fun. But appearances deceive. Obama and Cameron are products of vastly different cultures. America's President came to maturity via Hawaii, Indonesia and the streets of Chicago; he is a one-man melting pot, whose very face speaks of a union between ethnicities. Cameron is an exceptionally competent sub-aristocrat from Berkshire, who never sought out the company of a poor person until it was politically expedient to do so; his face, by contrast, speaks of unblemished wealth.
At least by their heritages, then, they are not personally similar. And what of their politics? The conventional answer has been: not really. And the evidence comes from economics. Obama is a Keynesian, Cameron is a monetarist. And they have chosen opposing responses to the grand economic fact of our times, which is indebtedness. That analysis is fine as far as it goes (though both leaders, bent as they are on retaining power, are more flexible and more centrist than most caricatures allow).
But just as the past can highlight differences of personality, the deeper divergence in their political stances stems not from where they are going, but where they are coming from. And they are coming from two cultures that have chosen opposing responses to the grand political fact of the 20th century, which is the collapse of socialism.
Socialism is the great ideological casualty of modernity. But it died many different deaths. In Europe, socialism dominated the minds of both those who espoused it and those who despised it. It also, for much of that time, had a reasonable chance of high office (think Tony Benn). In the United States, by contrast, there was no socialist alternative on offer. Deriding socialists was frequently the surest route to power (think Richard Nixon).
But this meant that when, in the 1980s, socialism went into terminal decline, Europe and America responded in different ways. In Europe the collapse of socialism removed what divided the main parties. In America, it removed what united them. As a result, in much of Europe politics have been dominated by a bloated centre ground, while in America that centre ground has been a vacuum - until Obama turned up.
The European response is best demonstrated by what has happened on our own shores. In Britain, politics is now sequential rather than adversarial. Strong differences of opinion have emerged over public spending and Ed Miliband is more left wing than he lets on in public. But no party seriously thinks it can win from anywhere but the centre ground. New Labour was a triumph of triangulation. Tory modernisers understood a decade ago that their party must be more like New Labour if they wanted to be in government.
We shall return to what this implies about Obama, for now the key point is that many modernisers in the Labour Party (they do exist) are continuing this pattern by arguing that their party must be more like the Tories if they want to be in government. The proof is in Westminster's most voguish intellectual tendency. This is the cult of Blue Labour.
Blue Labour is an attempt to reclaim dormant traditions within the labour movement - in particular that of co-operatives - rather than reinvent the party. Crudely, this has been described as tapping into a "small c" conservatism. …