Even Laborites get the blues
Will the ALP be looking to Maurice Glasman, purveyor of “dangerous ideas”, for inspiration?

Image by ChurchesTogetherCTBI (Flickr).

Maurice Glasman is a dangerous man to know.

The resolve of recovering smokers, including that of yours truly, can weaken in the company of the chain-smoking, bespectacled British Labour Party life peer in the House of Lords.

But it is his ideas that are truly dangerous to congregate around.

When Glasman opens his mouth, as historian Frank Bongiorno remarks, “secular, cosmopolitan, left-leaning and middle-class” audiences shift uncomfortably in their seats.

For good reason. Whereas the majority of Australians who identify with the Labor (and even Greens) cause style themselves as politically progressive, Glasman is the spiritual leader of the “Blue Labour” grouping, which proclaims itself to be the bearer of his party’s authentic tradition of “radical conservatism”. A love of the familiar – family, faith and English nationalism – is favoured over the liberal cosmopolitan embrace of free markets for labour and capital, and change for the sake of change. And the last thing a patient wants to be told by their doctor, Glasman likes to joke, is that his or her disease is “progressive”.

What does this have to do with Australian politics, you might ask. Plenty, as Glasman embarks on a second tour of our shores this week to give a number of lectures, as well as meeting with Bill Shorten’s shadow cabinet. Indeed, there is a growing interest in an antipodean application of Blue Labour ideas, which cuts across factional divides. Today, many of the challenges that Shorten Labor presently faces mirror those of its British cousin. The relentless modernisation of both parties has alienated their traditional electoral bases and left them feeling ideologically unmoored. The deeply unpopular “austerity” governments of David Cameron and Tony Abbott have arguably not produced a wave of popular support for either Opposition party.

Enter stage left – or right as some critics would have it – Maurice Glasman. A faith and community organiser and former academic, Glasman is an accidental politician by any measure. Following the death in 2008 of his orthodox Jewish, Labour-voting mother, Rivi, the personal became the political. Glasman channelled his grief into anger at the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown-led New Labour’s modernising ways, which he and others saw as ignoring the everyday concerns of millions of working-class Britons.

If Blair rode to victory in 1997 to the strains of pop-group D:Ream’s smash-hit ‘Things can only get better’, the Global Financial Crisis and Labour’s 2010 election defeat proved otherwise. As the party sought to distance itself from the excesses and missteps of the New Labour years, notably its approach to mass immigration and light-touch regulation of the banking system, Blue Labour was hailed as “Westminster’s most voguish intellectual tendency”. Glasman, whose self-professed influences include Aristotle, Miles Davis, footballer Lionel Messi, the Pope and the American-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, was spectacularly ennobled by Labour leader Ed Miliband in 2011.

Glasman is critical of the globalised free-market economy – especially the predatory instincts of the financial industry – and of the top-down, bureaucratic style of governance, both of which, he argues, tend to treat citizens and the environment as commodities. He has appealed to British Labour to re-embrace what he calls a small-c conservative form of socialism: a system that values community-based voluntary endeavours such as trade unions, sporting clubs, faith groups, mutual societies and co-operatives. Set against Blair’s cosmopolitanism, Glasman wears his deep-seated English patriotism, inherited from his mother, as a badge of pride.

Policy-wise, Glasman calls for a new, relationship-based politics, inspired by German-style capitalism, and built on social market ideas such as employee representation on company boards, regional banking and vocational education. He is a fierce critic of the British welfare state seeing it as a tyrannical force that demoralises the poor and weakens solidarity.

By summer 2011, commentators had written off Blue Labour, owing to Glasman’s call for an immediate halt to immigration from the European Union (no matter that he had organised immigrant low-paid workers during his time at London Citizens, campaigning for a living wage and arguing that unrestrained immigration potentially injured both host and emigrant populations). But reports of Blue Labour’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Labour’s “One Nation” policy review, undertaken by Blue Labour co-founder MP Jon Cruddas, and its current election manifesto have a distinctly blue tinge. Should Labour win or lose the upcoming May election, the party’s agenda will be shaped by Blue Labour preoccupations, such as reforming the state and devolving power to local communities. A new book featuring Glasman and Cruddas called Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics is arguably a better guide to the future of British Labour than any of Ed Miliband’s recent utterances.

Following a meeting with Labor’s shadow cabinet in Canberra on Monday, I talked with Glasman about his impressions of the local scene. Is the ALP destined to become indistinguishable from centre-right parties? Glasman was pleasantly surprised by the openness to new ideas of the Labor politicians and thinkers he has encountered, but also senses that the party needs to “sharpen its appeal”. This message, he says, must respond to people’s real yearning for a new politics that goes “beyond stale orthodoxies of left and right”, or calls for “more individualism or more collectivism”. Instead, Labor must draw on its best traditions in order to help “broker a new common good” between divided people. This new politics must make demands on us all, he says, including “business and labour, immigrant and local, secular and faithful, inner-city, suburban and rural citizens, or men and women”. Glasman’s prescription sounds an awful lot like Bob Hawke’s call for “a national effort towards national reconciliation” made at the 1983 federal election.

Glasman’s presence is a reminder that Australian and British Labo(u)r have prospered when attuned to the new ideas and policy creativity generated by each other. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ALP benefited from the missionary zeal of British activist Tom Mann during his seven-year stay in the country. Gough Whitlam’s modernisation of the ALP during the late 1960s owed much to the revisionism of British Labour thinker Anthony Crosland. The Third Way ideology of the New Labour project was indebted to the 1980s and 1990s Labor governments of Hawke and Paul Keating.

Labor is only just beginning to articulate a constructive alternative to the stumbling Abbott government, most significantly in relation to the budget deficit. It confronts a populace distrustful of the ability of centralised government and unfettered markets to improve their lives. Yet many within Labor’s ranks suffer from an unhealthy nostalgia for the Hawke-Keating years, as if the experiences of a government that took office more than 30 years ago can solve today’s complex problems. There is a danger that Labor might repeat the follies of Abbott’s wasted years in Opposition, when three-word slogans were favoured over serious policy work. That, more than any silly gaffe, is bedevilling the government.

As Labor begins preparations for its July national conference – the party’s highest policy-making platform – now is the time to get the blues. The alternative, favoured by some, is to roll up into the smallest of small targets. A dangerous choice, some would say.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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