Red and yellow Ed turns blue: Blairism reemerges in the guise of Blue Labour

A guest post by Chris Hurst

Forget ‘Red’ Ed: the attempt of the right-wing press to depict the Labour Leader’s ascent as the second coming of Tony Benn always rang hollow. Forget ‘Yellow’ Ed: Miliband’s partially successful strategy for winning over disaffected left-wing Liberal Democrats is old news. The only remaining route is to go ‘Blue’ – so say Blue Labour strategists, although some of their thinking is flawed.

Since becoming leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband has struggled to establish a public persona. Polling research suggest he has worse approval ratings than Nick Clegg and most voters simply know him as the man who usurped his brother for the Labour crown. The emergence of Blue Labour – a high profile pressure group urging the leadership to address the disconnection between the Party and socially-conservative working-class voters – is nothing new. The thinking which underlies it began under Tony Blair.

In 1994 Blair recognised Labour’s weaknesses. It was not trusted by the business classes to run the economy and its traditional vote – the unionised working class – was diminishing rapidly. It was therefore essential to prove the Labour party was on the side on of more socially-conservative working-class voters. The courting of Rupert Murdoch and the easing of restrictions on the rules relating to cross media ownership was part of the wooing of the populist right. Blair’s promise to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ was similarly aimed at readers of The Sun.

Up until 2003 and his lurch rightwards, Blair was able to combine liberal values with populist appeal. But the fear of a resurgence of the Conservative Party always governed much of his thinking. In his desire to neuter the Tory Party, Blair was guilty of continual cross dressing: strict public sector spending constraints meant the government of 1997-2001 actually spent less than the previous Major government; the part-privatization of the public sector; tuition fees and identity cards. All testify to Labour’s pitch to the right.

However, through these constant overtures to conservative voters, Labour lost direction in government. Blue Labour threatens to repeat this mistake. As Michael Meacher put it recently, Labour’s continuation of ‘the Thatcherite agenda of unfettered markets’ remains a central problem.

Clearly Blue Labour offers Ed Miliband the chance to toughen up his image. At the same time he cannot afford to abandon liberal minded voters who were appalled by the Iraq war and frustrated by Labour’s authoritarian stance on civil liberties. Jon Cruddas, a prominent support of Blue Labour thinking, may warn of the dangers of ‘a liberal metropolitan elite’ running the Labour Party, but the shortcomings of the Blair and Brown governments proved the limitations of Blue Labour’s conservatism.

The liberal left still requires reassurance from Labour. Ed Miliband acknowledged this in his conference speech last September where he illustrated Labour’s liberal heritage, with its emphasise on civil liberties, international law and promises of constitutional reform. He made a direct appeal to Liberal Democrats, not only promising to support the now doomed Alternative Vote but by accepting that: ‘Wisdom is not the preserve of any one party. Some of the political figures in history who I admire most are Keynes, Lloyd George, Beveridge, who were not members of the Labour Party’.

Miliband’s appeal to voters’ liberal instinct went so far that Simon Hughes, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, joked on Question Time in September 2010 that Miliband was in fact positioning himself to be leader of the Lib Dems.

Blue Labour supporters argue the local election results highlight the limits of Miliband’s strategy of winning over disaffected Liberal Democrats. Labour thumped the Lib Dems in the north but Tory-Labour marginals like Swindon in the south showed Lib Dem bashing has its limits. Jon Cruddas claims this is because appealing to Lib Dems is all well and good. But we have to start to reach out to the millions of working class former Labour voters who left us for the Tories. We need to encourage them to come home’.

It is undeniable that working class voters left Labour after 2005. Immigration has been central to this. As soon as the effects of large scale immigration from Eastern Europe hit, it seems that many people in working class towns and communities resented the pace of change. Labour was guilty of failing to forecast the adverse effects of allowing free access to its labour market for the eight European nations which joined the EU in May 2004.

Similarly, successive decisions, including the scrapping of the 10p tax band, went against the interests of the lower paid. Clearly some voters switched to the Conservative Party as the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election defeat proved. But the Liberal Democrats have been the major beneficiaries of Labour’s conservatism not the Tory Party. Between 1997-2010 Labour lost five million votes; the Liberal Democrats gained two million votes and the Conservative Party only just over a million.

By simply rebranding Blairism in the guise of Blue Labour, Ed Miliband will not find a narrative of his own. The policies pursued by Blair and Brown, the Iraq war, detention without trial and opening up the public sector to private companies muddled Labour’s identity. In short, the Party lost its soul.

If Miliband is intent on adopting some of Blue Labour thinking to appease the right of his Party then he cannot afford to ignore his own liberal instincts. Whilst civil liberties and constitutional reform may not excite the passions of many voters, they are central strands of the Labour movement. Ed Miliband needs to keep to his word when he says: ‘I won’t let the Tories or the Liberals take ownership of the British tradition of liberty’. Labour has not consolidated the deal with disenchanted Liberal Democrats on the left – it still must prove its liberal credentials. Blue Labour seems to ignore this.

As Neal Lawson of the left-wing think tank Compass warned, after mixed local election results: ‘Labour is flatlining from its terrible result at the general election. It still looks, feels and acts too much like New Labour.’ The decision of the majority of Labour MPs to oppose voting reform, its attitude to constitutional reform and the Party’s stance on issues of law and order means it repeatedly positions itself on the right of centre. Labour’s failure to challenge orthodox thinking on Trident is yet another example of the Party leadership’s lack of courage to stand up for its former principles. The limitations of the Blair era proved the Labour Party should abandon radical conservative positions. Ed Miliband should take note.

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