Blue Labour and the Limits of Social Democracy

By Rooksby, Ed | Renewal, Autumn-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Blue Labour and the Limits of Social Democracy


Rooksby, Ed, Renewal


According to at least one of the major figures behind it, 'Blue Labour' is no more. Jonathan Rutherford announced in late July that 'the small group of people associated with Blue Labour [had] disbanded itself' (Rutherford, 2011b). Nevertheless, despite Rutherford's declaration, it is not at all clear that Blue Labour really is finished.

It is surely significant that in the same article Rutherford also argues that the current political conjuncture 'requires Labour's politics in England to be both conservative and radical' - the core idea animating the Blue Labour project - and goes on to set out what is effectively a restatement in all but name of the Blue Labour approach as the necessary political response to this conjuncture on the part of Labour.

Elsewhere it has been reported that Rutherford and Jon Cruddas (another key figure behind Blue Labour) 'hope that it will be possible to salvage some of the ideas and themes' (Hodges, 2011) that Blue Labour has been developing. It is clear, then, that there is still some sort of future for Blue Labour ideas even if, as seems likely, any reformulated project discards the Blue Labour label.

It certainly strikes me as unlikely that Blue Labour ideas will disappear without trace. The Labour Party requires, pretty urgently, a new political-ideological narrative of purpose and identity to fill the post-New Labour void and also to reposition itself in the context of the unfolding economic crisis which is slowly but very fundamentally reshaping the political terrain. It is hard to see Labour returning to New Labour territory. Blair's discourse of individualist 'aspiration', 'choice' and wide-eyed veneration of 'globalisation' is wholly inappropriate for a new era of austerity. The set of ideas advanced by Blue Labour provides, to date, by far the most coherent alternative organising ideological narrative for the Party and, in the absence of any other developed approach, it is difficult to believe that they will simply vanish.

Given, then, that Blue Labour is probably not quite as dead as it might at first appear but is, rather, in a state of flux and recomposition, it seems an appropriate time to reconsider the terms of the debate surrounding this set of ideas. Critical discussion of Blue Labour has, in the main, tended towards sweeping denunciation rather than considered and nuanced analysis. This is, in many ways, a shame. Away from the controversy-courting media sound-bites, Blue Labour has some deeply sophisticated and interesting things to say which tend to get lost in the polemic. It is time for a fairer and more thoughtful appraisal of Blue Labour's key ideas which is attentive to nuances and complexities. I hope that this article might, in some small way, contribute to this.

I shall not focus here on the main areas of controversy that have surrounded Blue Labour thus far. The major lines of criticism are well known and tend to cluster around Blue Labour's ideas in relation to immigration, 'multiculturalism' and its attitude towards women (1). I intend, in this article, to focus on three more valuable elements of Blue Labour thinking (which are closely intertwined). These are, firstly, the idea that the political conjuncture today is characterised by two coinciding crises of political legitimacy. The second area I wish to examine is Blue Labour's thought in relation to the socialist tradition and its relationship with the other two core political traditions of modernity - conservatism and liberalism. My final area of focus will be Blue Labour's approach to capitalism.

The overlapping crises of social democracy and neo-liberalism

According to Blue Labour figures such as Rutherford and Cruddas, social democracy is in crisis internationally (see Cruddas and Rutherford, 2011). It is, in effect, a crisis of identity - social democracy is no longer quite sure of its historical purpose or what it stands for. The problem is, however, much more acute in England than elsewhere (why England, specifically, and not Britain as a whole, is never made quite clear).

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