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by Mandy Rhodes
04 February 2015
The architect of Blue Labour: an interview with Lord Glasman

The architect of Blue Labour: an interview with Lord Glasman

Labour peer Maurice Glasman and I meet at, of all places, the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, held just days after the referendum delivered a resounding ‘No’. He wholeheartedly welcomes the result although is less than complimentary about the man behind the Vow which probably helped swing it.

He is speaking at a fringe event about devolution for England. I cheekily ask him if he is grateful to Alex Salmond for giving England the opportunity to debate the topic. He laughs.

Five months and many conversations later, we meet in Edinburgh to talk about the Labour Party and what Jim Murphy needs to do to reclaim Scotland. He is a big fan of Murphy who he describes as ‘a substantial and reforming figure’ but is much less fulsome about other prominent Scottish MPs, particularly Gordon Brown. He is also wonderfully indiscreet and humorously acerbic in his descriptions of politicians which he softens with much talk of love and inclusion.

“That was not at all where I was coming from or had come from”

Glasman is a working-class Jewish academic whose political roots are in grassroots activism. He was a driving force behind the influential community organisation, London Citizens – an alliance of faith institutions, universities, schools and trade unions that he brought together to run community projects – and is also Reader in Political Theory at London’s Metropolitan University where he is also the director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme.

He always saw politics from the bottom up, with people and their communities holding the key to power, and he still does. He lives with his family – wife and four children – in North London in a flat above a tailor’s shop on Church Street in Stoke Newington, as opposed to the more gentrified New Labour haunt of neighbouring Islington.

His Labour sympathies are buried deep within his genes. He says both parents were ‘Labour people but not party members’. His grandparents arrived in England from Eastern Europe to escape the Holocaust and his parents believed absolutely that Labour was the true opposition to fascism. 

Glasman joined the Labour Party at 15 and basically forgot about it at 17 while he ‘pursued other things’, you suspect of a less cerebral nature, firstly at the University of York where he got a Masters in political philosophy and then at the European University Institute in Florence where he gained his PhD with a thesis on the German social market economy, published in 1996, entitled Unnecessary Suffering. He taught as a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s European centre in Bologna before returning to the UK in 1995 after his father’s death.

Family is extremely important to Glasman – not least his own children who range in age from 22 to 8 – and he returns to the topic often. He thinks the Labour Party became frightened to talk about family for fear of sounding moralistic or like the Tories. This was, he says, a mistake.

His biggest influence was clearly his mother, Rivi. She was brought up in a slum in Stoke Newington and Glasman says she was a very conservative Labour voter with a fundamental commitment to work, faith, family and country, and was very patriotic. 

“England, for her, was the country that saved the Jews from the Nazis,” he says “Alone in Europe, we survived. She was a monarchist. She was very religious, very radical and she thought the country was very unfair. She was very tied to Labour and she saw it as the great hope of working people. She was brought up in a really horrible slum in London in Stoke Newington and when she met my dad and was better off and had a house of her own, this was everything to her.

"I mean that photograph of her and my dad standing outside their own house is wonderful and she was devoted to this house, the house she ultimately died in.

"My only experience of student politics was when I went on one occasion to the Labour club at Cambridge and they were discussing their opposition to right to buy and I said, ‘how many of you were brought up in a council house?’ and of course, none of them but they all had an opinion. So that was my experience of Labour at the time.

“That was not at all where I was coming from or had come from. My politics was about street politics, of organising, which brought me much closer to churches, mosques and the institutions that I found people trusted that much more on the street. That’s where I focussed my political energies. But then my mum died and that led me to a deep grief where I also recognised the loss of Labour. 

“The last thing I watched on telly with my mother, she died in very late 2008 in the middle of the financial crash, was Gordon Brown saying that it was the destiny of the Labour movement to save the global banking system. And that statement –‘the destiny of the Labour movement to save the global banking system’…I looked to my mum and the last movement she made, really, was to shake her head. You know, it may be the fate of the Labour movement but it can’t be its destiny, that’s just crazy. She just looked bewildered by that.

Then of course there was no reform of the banking system and this was all coming together for me; personally, politically, theoretically, that Labour was committed to finance and public spending and it wasn’t into democracy, it wasn’t into a common life and a common good and all the difficulties that are involved in actually working together with people who disagree with each other. It was a managerial, administrative thing and I didn’t like it.

"So my mum died and I didn’t know what to do with my grief and all these other thoughts were going on in my head and a close friend told me to honour her with whatever I did next. 

“What came next was Blue Labour. It’s true, I felt completely blue, a true Miles Davis kind of blue”

“And what came next was Blue Labour. It’s true, I felt completely blue, a true Miles Davis kind of blue, and the original phrase was ‘Kind of Blue Labour’. I was struggling with the idea that we had become hostile to sadness, difficulty, tragedy, which are inevitable parts of every single person’s life; loss, death, grief and so it started with the blue sentiment and was essentially the opposite of Labour’s ‘things can only get better’ theme tune, which seemed to me to be such a fundamentally untrue statement at every level philosophically. 

“I was dealing with my own grief and was deeply blue and overwhelmed with a sense of loss and because my mum was so Labour, Blue Labour really started off as a kind of love letter to her. She was about family, being conservative and she was ferocious about work. And so I began to re-engage with Labour and I gave this talk about Blue Labour which I had basically just invented and hundreds of people turned up, in Red Lion Square, in the Conway Hall in London and the reaction was phenomenal.” 

Glasman was already a moderately well-kent face in London’s more fashionable Labour circles thanks to his groundbreaking work with London Citizens but following his Conway Hall speech, he met up with Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham and James Purnell, the former MP for Stalybridge and Hyde. His encounter with Cruddas and Purnell was seminal. They basically said, ‘this is really interesting, proceed’ and suddenly his political philosophy of local activism was being touted by some as Labour’s answer to David Cameron’s ‘big society’.

The Glasman view is that Labour – real, traditional, pre-1945 Labour, as he would put it – is the only party with the values and beliefs that can make the ‘big society’ work. Unlike the Tories, whose vision relies on a volunteer spirit, Glasman sees ‘Labour’s big society’ based on ideas of ‘family, faith and the flag’ and cultivated through community institutions like churches, community centres, schools and football clubs, one, he says, that in some respects is ‘more conservative than the Conservatives’ and nudges the party back to its historical roots and it was this notion that catapulted him into the heart of government.

 “What did I think about Brown? I’ve said before, I don’t like his kind of politics. I didn’t really meet him properly but I identify him with state, state-ism, with simultaneously high morals and low cynicism. I never identified with that kind of politics. The last gasps of this idea that through the state you can transform society but how that then automatically leads to a dependence on finance to fund it. I don’t think Gordon Brown redistributed power to people. 

“That son of the manse thing, it’s a very heady paternal thing. It’s an idea that you are entitled to all and the people need improvement whereas obviously, my thing is to genuinely learn from people and to be transformed by people; it’s a very different approach.

“The nadir came out in Gordon Brown’s ‘that bigoted woman’ moment when I think what we saw was where a completely normal person, a Labour supporter too,  expresses something about what she could see in her life about there being a lot of immigrants and Brown dismissed her as a bigot. Well, I saw that as an absolute manifestation of a self-righteous, self-regarding, elitism in Labour that really despises the concerns of working people. Labour had reached a situation under Brown where most of the people in the party hated one another and they hated people outside the party too.” 

And yet despite this antipathy, it was Glasman who penned the eve of the general election speech that has been credited with helping turn public opinion around about the embattled Brown and some say saved the party at least 25 seats. ‘Battered PM finds his voice’, splashed the Guardian following Brown’s speech to a mass meeting organised by Citizens UK and channelled by Glasman. It was a barnstormer. The pity of it was that it had not come much earlier.

“So, I discovered things I didn’t know about myself,” says Glasman. “I knew I could campaign, campaigning was what I did, but I then discovered I could write speeches too so I ended up, weirdly, writing that speech for Brown – his ‘Let me tell you who I am’ speech.

"I wrote that because in community organising you talk from your own experience, you bear witness, you know, you give what they call testimony. So I started from the point of who is Gordon Brown – he’s the son of a Church of Scotland minister. I was just suggesting a framework to fit around the fact that no one knew really who this guy was.

"So I just Googled him and he was the son of a Church of Scotland minister – write that down, he was involved in the anti-apartheid campaign as a student – write that down, that he was also involved in a better pay for the cleaners at Glasgow University – write that down and really, the story of who he was was just there but it just got so immersed in data that people didn’t really get any feel for him.

“It was interesting,” says Glasman about the experience. “I was discovering things about myself as well as others. For instance, I’d never written a speech for anybody before. In a strange way, I discovered that I could do these things and I was certainly up for the adventure, that’s for sure. Through that process a real friendship with James Purnell and Jon Cruddas formed, which has endured. Thank god.

"Through James I met David Miliband and along the way, I met Ed, I had no idea Ed would stand for leader. I mean, at that point, it seemed to me that all power lay with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, that these were people who were just part of their scene. So in a way, we were Labour people who were concerned with Labour working at the edges of a Labour government. James had left by then and Jon certainly expressed no desire to lead. Jon continues to lead Labour’s policy review and I was, and I still am, very interested in Labour.

“To put it in context, Labour was on 23 per cent at that point and I walked into a party that was in desperate trouble. There wasn’t a sense of power; it was definitely the end of a big party. Obviously, most people were very defensive about Labour’s record and I recognised that their lives had been invested in that and I was a very upsetting person because I was so, ‘well, it’s not looking good with the deficit, disenchantment, estrangement, loss and so on…’ that wasn’t very positive and I was literally blue talking about a different way for the party.”

“That wasn’t very positive and I was literally blue talking about a different way for the party”

He says that Ed Miliband was one of a number of politicians who were interested in aspects of Blue Labour and the two had many discussions about it. And then came the unexpected peerage – he tells me that when the call came through, his wife had to phone him twice; first to tell him to accept it and second to remind him to phone them back and say he would accept it. 

“I didn’t even know what it really meant,” he says. “I got a call saying we’d like you to be a peer and I rang my wife to share this with her and she said, ‘I want you to ring back and say yes and ring me back to say that you’ve said yes’. I think she thought I might forget because I can stumble through a day and forget to call someone back.

"I really didn’t know what it meant but my experience of the House of Lords has been amazing; the people I’ve met there, people with experience in government, people of experience outside government. It’s been an amazing adventure and a place of genuine interest to me. I would be loath to lose that aspect of it, people of experience, filmmakers, authors, scientists. I love history and the library is really good.”

When Miliband sent Glasman to the Lords, he told him: “I really like what you’re doing and want you to keep doing it.” And although that relationship has become less warm, following comments by Glasman about the party’s direction, comments about immigration and the questioning of Ed’s leadership skills, he continues to feed into the party’s policy review under Jon Cruddas.

Cruddas describes Glasman as “a force of nature, an iconoclast, an irritant and a philosopher”. The “bottom line,” he suggests, is that “after our worst defeat since 1918, Labour has to rethink what it is. We need more Glasmans, not less.” 

To re-emerge as a viable political force, Glasman believes Labour has to get the Gillian Duffys back onside and re-engender the idea that people enjoy working together for the public good. It will do so, he says, not by promising to deliver a more just, equal society from the commanding heights of Westminster, but by standing with people in their local struggles.

I ask Glasman if there is anything in the current Labour Party that he recognises as being in the one he joined at 15. 

“Yes, there’s still elements of the party that I recognise; still a very strong lobby in there for unreformed public services that I completely recognise. Quite a lot of people who want to make the world a better place and in every Labour Party constituency that I go to, I still see very strong archaeological remnants of the party I joined.

"During the referendum, in particular, I got a sense that Scotland wasn’t really part of the Empire or part of the story of Britain."

"In the London Labour Party, which I originally joined, there was a very robust Scottish international socialist wing, particularly Glaswegian, I remember. I sometimes found it difficult to tell the difference between that and communism. It was distinctly and very strongly unionist and anti-nationalist, and I kind of recognise that as still being the case. That small ‘c’ conservatism is something I recognise fundamentally in the left of Scottish politics and why I think Blue Labour could make some real in-roads.

“When Keir Hardie stood in West Ham, the Labour Party was infused with Scottish tradition, quite rooted in congregationalism. The big change that happened to Labour was that Labour tried to get away from its faith origins. It tried to deny that whole tradition that was so fundamental to its creation. Keir Hardie always had temperance, for instance, but I don’t think that’s really a big issue anymore.

"Although, actually, it’s one of the things that I really like about Jim Murphy is that he’s strangely true to those traditions, that idea of virtue and of a better life, of understanding the problems besetting working-class life such as drink or the disintegration of family life. These were realities of Scottish urban life and of English urban life. Labour was a strangely small ‘c’ conservative force in that, and that’s the thing that I no longer see in Labour, an affection for the everyday, faithfulness or moderation.

"That’s the Blue Labour paradox, the past is the future and that’s got to be part of another paradox which is tradition is part of modernity. That it’s not annulled in modernity.

“Blue Labour was conceived with that in mind too, to speak to that particular Scottish tradition, except that it seems that the Scottish progressive ruling class [the nationalists] are not ‘conservative with a small c’. They’ve become quite progressive and cosmopolitan in outlook.”

What is his understanding of the SNP?

“I’m open for correction on this but what I always understood about Scottish nationalism was that it actually came together in the ‘30s, or that it was established in the ‘30s, as a kind of opening – if the war didn’t go the right way – that they would have been more open to a combination with fascism. Now, look, I’m just talking about the stories that were passed on to me. As it stands, modern Scottish nationalism seems to be inclusive, very inclusive, and very progressive, so I think there has been, clearly, a change in the weather there. 

“I would say that what I heard from Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon during the referendum and since is absolutely conventional progressivism. I would say that the same was true certainly under New Labour, right across the board, and I’m including Brown every bit as much as Blair in this, a kind of idea that inherited traditions would put a block on modernisation, that a sense of place undermined things. 

“Jim is one of those very rare politicians who is genuinely a real person”

“I wouldn’t judge that progressiveness as disingenuous; I’d just say that it’s very conventionally and orthodox progressive. What I’m getting at there is Scotland, in my imagination, has always been far more conservative than that, with a very strong sense of place and a very strong sense of thrift and frugality. I don’t see that at all in the SNP’s public spending or in their attitude to the state, which is bountiful and theoretically unlimited. I don’t see it in an attitude to enterprise and small business. I don’t see it at all.

"You see, in my mind, there’s a massive conservative disposition in Scotland, particularly among the working class, that’s not being expressed in that general progressive outlook.

“What I don’t see in that politics is an idea of people organising themselves, helping each other and genuine negotiations between estranged interests. What I see lurking there is a kind of collectivism. 

“I’ve always considered Blue Labour to have a tremendous Scottish future, and to speak to a strangely radical yet conservative disposition.

“I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of Scottish politics. It’s one of the reasons that I was really delighted to be invited here and I’d like to spend more time here. I realise that, during the referendum, that very different dynamics were in play, and that very different narratives were in play.

"Obviously, in England, Thatcher was a hugely violent disruption of things, but there was also an opening up and an energy, and I didn’t get a sense of an energy or an opening up in Scotland, just of a darkness.

"During the referendum, in particular, I got a sense that Scotland wasn’t really part of the Empire or part of the story of Britain. It defined itself very much as against England, and yet everything that I understood about Scotland spoke against that. I was kind of comforted by the role of the Queen in this, that in fact it wasn’t the case that the people of Scotland didn’t consider themselves to be part of the same story.

"It was a very timid, self-righteous kind of discourse that went on, as if Scotland was without sin and the rest of the UK was sinful. As if Scots were a great, great people, oppressed and denied by the nasty rapacious, capitalist, imperialist England, and there was a real lack of love for England, its workers, English liberty, the distinctive traditions of England. This antipathy was absolutely not reciprocated, in my experience, by the English. It came as a bit of a shock to people.

“And now there is discourse in England that would horrify Scotland, which sees UKIP and the SNP as similar forces. Now, this is something that I’m aware is wrong, but where it is correct is in refusing to accept the natural right of Labour to rule, and in challenging from an insurgent, non-Conservative position, the idea that Labour could put whoever they like to stand and they would win.

“I wouldn’t exaggerate the idea that if Labour loses in Scotland, it loses the election. A one per cent swing or a two per cent swing to Labour in England would equal any loss in Scotland. Labour has got to win the General Election in England. If Labour had a very strong offer to England, it could win without Scotland.”

Can Jim Murphy turn Labour’s fortunes around in Scotland?

“I really think that Jim Murphy will come through. He’s someone who I’ve really respected, and he’s an excellent British politician. I don’t know enough about Scotland, but I’m sure, to paraphrase you, Mandy, that the real Jim Murphy will stand up in Scotland and that he’ll be a far more effective leader up here since Donald Dewar. He’s a serious politician at many levels. 

“The Jim that I know was always very strong for family and really understood that and the responsibilities for families to care for each other, that where the state should come in is in supporting families, not replacing them. The Jim that I knew was absolutely for public services, was very strong for contribution and was imbued with a Catholic disposition – of subsidiarity, of decentralisation, of respect for work within a general quite aggressively patriotic culture.

"So give Jim a little time. Now he’s got to make a decision about whether Scotland is universally progressive or whether there’s a more conservative disposition out there that’s not quite being heard at the moment. I have faith.

“Jim not afraid of organising, of bringing people in and engaging, he really welcomed it and was a champion of it and that’s where the future for Scottish Labour will be, in genuinely developing leaders from its constituencies and the people it represents and who will be, in many ways, more conservative in their disposition than the university graduates who have so far been in the dominant positions.

“Jim is one of those very rare politicians who is genuinely a real person. I don’t doubt that who he is will come through and that’s certainly not going to be a lurch to the left. He’s very strong on equalities, he’s hugely anti-racist given his experiences in South Africa.

"There is an aspect of Jim who is really absolutely committed to a progressive agenda and the same part of him understands completely the nature and sympathies of working-class life and I think he has been brilliant at challenging racism, sexism and at the same time being strong for family, church and all the good stuff.

“My whole experience of the SNP is that they are bureaucratic centralisers, they are not into the redistribution of power, and they’ve got a lot more in common with those aspects of Brown, in a strange way. Jim is something else, I think he comes from somewhere else and crucially he is very good at football. He’s very skilful.”

Does he think Ed Miliband is up for the job down south?

“He’s the leader we’ve got. I’ve said a lot of things about this and I don’t intend to say too much more but I still think that there is a sense that people don’t quite know where we’re at. I said three years ago that we needed a strategy. He supported local organising – something that Jim Murphy was really strongly for and that I identify with – which is the leadership development of core people in the constituencies we represent but we seem to have lost the energy of that. 

“We could talk about leadership and the effect of that but I think that Labour, certainly in England, has got a huge amount of work to do to reconnect with the realities of the values of people within their everyday lives and to stop talking in abstract and general terms and managerial terms and start realising that it’s a political party and not an administrative party, and that requires bold leadership.”   

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