‘Tangled Up in Blue’: the creation and hype of Blue Labour


3:30 pm - October 26th 2011

by Don Paskini    


      Share on Tumblr

Books about politics tend to focus either on the deeds and misdeeds of politicians, or on political ideas.

It is rare to find writers either willing or able to combine the two, as Rowenna Davis does so well in ‘Tangled up in Blue’.

The book describes the political ideas behind ‘Blue Labour’, and does so with far more eloquence and clarity than any Blue Labour advocates have managed to date.

It also offers a ‘behind the scenes’ look, based on wide-ranging interviews with the key people involved, at the last couple of years of the Labour Party as it went from power to opposition, and a mini biography of Blue Labour’s founder, Maurice Glasman.

Sympathetic yet not uncritical in tone, the book starts by describing the three pillars of Blue Labour, and then tells four stories – how Maurice Glasman developed the ideas behind Blue Labour after the death of his mother; his involvement in Gordon Brown’s barnstorming speech to Citizens UK just before the General Election; the role of Glasman and the Movement for Change in Labour leadership contest; Glasman’s elevation to the peerage; and the conflicts and criticisms which his media appearances caused.

I found that I was impressed by Maurice Glasman as a politician, but unimpressed by Blue Labour as a set of ideas.

The creation of Blue Labour was a quite remarkable achievement by Maurice Glasman. There are hundreds of professional lobbyists working for charities, trade unions and business which achieved a fraction of the influence that Glasman managed to achieve in his spare time when not working as an academic, raising a family or advising London Citizens. Using only his skills in building relationships with people, he managed to make contact with and influence key people at the heart of the Labour Party.

It’s also clear that Glasman’s work was of huge value to Labour’s elite. He helped Gordon Brown find his voice and get across his values before the election, and built friendships with both Miliband brothers and some of their advisers and friends after the election. Rather than identifying as a “Blairite” or “Brownite”, “Left” or “moderate”, Glasman was happy to work and talk with anyone who would have a conversation with him. It is a sign of how dysfunctional Labour’s elite was during this time that this simple approach reaped such dividends.

As Tangled Up in Blue makes clear, however, a key weakness of Blue Labour is that it is an elite project, with no wider movement behind it or even informing it.

Indeed, Blue Labour in practice has reversed the principles of community organising. In community organising, the idea is to develop policies through one to ones with ordinary people, and then mobilise them to carry out actions on decision-makers. In Blue Labour, policy is developed through one to ones with decision-makers, with the aim of using the Labour Party to carry out actions on ordinary people.

In part as consequence of this, the overall critique and many of the individual policy ideas of Blue Labour just aren’t very good. One inspiration for Blue Labour was Glasman’s horror at the threat posed by the “Red Tory” buffoon Phillip Blond and the Big Society. Labour faces many challenges in returning to power, but I think we know enough by now to be able to state with some certainty that David Cameron’s Big Society is not the existential threat to Labour which Glasman believed it to be.

Blue Labour’s critique of the state has some similarities to the least popular and convincing bits of the Big Society.

It is hard to see the evidence that free healthcare has the negative consequences which Blue Labour claims for it. Moreover, far from state-funded services such as Sure Start destroying the ability of people to form mutual support networks, the exact opposite is true. There are countless examples of people who made friends with other parents who they met at Sure Start centres.

In a similar vein, Glasman supports James Purnell’s idea that unemployed people should be guaranteed the offer of a paid job after one year, with the threat of having their benefits withdrawn if they don’t take it. Even the most rudimentary power analysis of the kind which is taught in the very first session of community organising training should highlight the flaw with using the threat of destitution to force people into work in this way.

Glasman “controversially” argues that “no effort” is put into helping people with disabilities to build up their own solidarity groups, to organise themselves to develop their own agenda, and that this is more important than providing services or paying state benefits. He seems unaware of the fact that the state has put substantial resources into Centres for Independent Living and user-led disability rights groups, or of the fact that solidarity groups of disabled people take a very different view of the importance of state benefits and service provision than he does.

The case against Blue Labour, therefore, is an easy one to make. It is an elitist project set up by a gifted lobbyist. Its critique of the state is divorced from the experiences of ordinary people, and is a mix of the ignorant, the patronising and the poorly thought through.

That’s even before we mention the “say something stupid-apologise-say something else stupid” approach to public relations, all of which is detailed in the book.

Yet, for all of that, I am persuaded by ‘Tangled up in Blue’ that there are things to learn from Blue Labour, shorn of its wilder and wackier aspects.

There is something very healthy about the way that Maurice Glasman, a grassroots Labour Party member, was able to get senior people in the Party to listen to his ideas. This kind of relationship building, not based on dysfunctional ‘Blairite’ and ‘Brownite’ factions but simply on the desire to listen, learn and understand each other, is immensely valuable.

I’d recommend it to anyone interested in how political ideas are developed, and in the future of left-wing politics and the Labour Party.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,The Left

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


1. Charles Wheeler

“The case against Blue Labour, therefore, is an easy one to make. It is an elitist project set up by a gifted lobbyist. Its critique of the state is divorced from the experiences of ordinary people, and is a mix of the ignorant, the patronising and the poorly thought through. That’s even before we mention the “say something stupid-apologise-say something else stupid” approach to public relations, all of which is detailed in the book.

Yet … There is something very healthy about the way that Maurice Glasman, a grassroots Labour Party member, was able to get senior people in the Party to listen to his ideas.”

I would have thought the reason why senior people in the Party listened to Glasman’s ideas was precisely BECAUSE it was an elitist project antithetical to state-based solutions.

I have a friend who rejoined laobur last year (leaving in 2003 for obvious reasons)Who’s reason for rejoining was Glasman, who wouldn’t have previously urinated on Purnell if he was on fire, (Gaalsman has ideas and he isn not only the only person the Tories are scared of,) ,he’s the one whois enocuraging people to join Loaubr and get involved with the debate, He should be thanked for that at least, and his views are to teh left of the current leadership, all this, Why don’t you join the tories quotes ,don’t understand what he’s saying.

3. Leon Wolfson

“Yet, for all of that, I am persuaded by ‘Tangled up in Blue’ that there are things to learn from Blue Labour, shorn of its wilder and wackier aspects.”

Yes, that Labour is moving right, not left.

This ‘Blue Labour’ crap comes up from time to time and I have to be honest, I have so far been unimpressed. From what little I have read it is basically ‘adopt policies of the Right, but couch in rhetoric of the Left’.

You do not help disabled people by making it easier to sack them on the flimsiest of excuses and then tell them they are fit to work on some kind of ludicrous criteria. You do not help people set up ‘solidarity groups’ by kicking the lungs out people when they have the temerity to campaign for something. A ‘solidarity group’? What kind of New Labourspeak is that? We have had ‘solidarity groups’ for the best part of a Centaury and they even set up a political party to represent them in Parliament.

If trade unions are not ‘solidarity groups’, then what is? Of course Blue Labour are not in the slightest bit interested in ‘trade unions’ because they are about attempting to draw power from a small elite of society, not sharing out the crumbs that happen to fall from the top table. When ‘Blue Labour’ is standing with trade unionists on picket lines or disabled groups outside ATOS offices, I may concede Glassman has a point. However, aligning yourself with these ‘unsexy’ groups is unfashionable (see passim) and is something Blue Labour has stressed that Labour should avoid these associations.

You do not encourage mutual support networks with playing everyone in society against each other in a mass race to the bottom. You do not help local communities by starving those communities of opportunities and decent jobs.

So, by all means we should try and redefine what Left Wing politics is all about, but no fucking way should scumbags like Purnell and Glassman have anything to do with it.

There is something very healthy about the way that Maurice Glasman, a grassroots Labour Party member, was able to get senior people in the Party to listen to his ideas.

I disagree. I think that the very fact that in the Labour Party, to get anything done, you have to get the people at the top to listen to your ideas, shows that Labour do not at heart believe in democracy.

What Labour should do, if they believe in real democracy, is follow the Pirate Party’s lead and have an open policy consultation, where anyone can propose and debates policies, and then let their memebers vote on what policies the party should have.

But Miliband will never agree to that, any more than Brown or Blair would have, because at heart all of them prefer a top-down model to a democratic one.

Even the most rudimentary power analysis of the kind which is taught in the very first session of community organising training should highlight the flaw with using the threat of destitution to force people into work in this way.

Could you summarise the argument for those of us not fortunate enough to have sat through even the first session of community organising training?

There are potential isssues with more bottom-up decision-making.

Some policy issues are complex and technical.

Recall that Rt Hon Lord John Monks, TUC general secretary 1993-2003, went on a stump around Britain c. 2000 saying we had to join the Euro. He especially kept mentioning that the then lower interest rates in the Eurozone would mean lower mortgage interest rates in Britain for those buying their homes on mortgages. What would have happened to house prices if we had followed his advice?

“Recall that Rt Hon Lord John Monks, TUC general secretary 1993-2003, went on a stump around Britain c. 2000 saying we had to join the Euro. He especially kept mentioning that the then lower interest rates in the Eurozone would mean lower mortgage interest rates in Britain for those buying their homes on mortgages. What would have happened to house prices if we had followed his advice?”

Nothing much. Ever met anyone who bought a house because interest rates were low? Meanwhile millions of British people have paid tens of thousands of pounds too much because we had to have over high interest rates for a decade. And millions of British people have been jobless, or paid less, because their employers had to pay those interest rates, or had to pay the costs of converting currency ever time they wanted to do business with our nearest neighbours.

John Monks is still saying we should think about joining the euro. He’s still right.

As for Blue Labour – it was pure fascism.

Blue labour was purse fascism, I dodn’t know that Galsman bascked Micheal foot’s facsist policy of the Closed shop ,or Backed Blunketts time as Hime secretary, (also fascistic)

“Could you summarise the argument for those of us not fortunate enough to have sat through even the first session of community organising training?”

Of course. Community organising aims to build power for organised citizens. It distinguishes between “power over”, where some people have control over others, and “power to”, where citizens have the power to act.

In this particular instance, I think there is a fundamental difference between seeking to give unemployed people the opportunity of working for a living wage – which increases their power – and seeking to give state bureaucrats the power to make people destitute through the use of sanctions – which can humiliate people and make them powerless.

@9 Purse Fascism? Is that what Louis Vuitton bag owners engage in toward those with lesser brands?

12. Rob the crip

Blue labour is New labour and it does not even know it, we have a dentist working in Tesco down here, because we have so many people now having to have private insurance to get dental treatment. We are seeing low employment or no employment in my area so where would Newer Bluer Labour get the jobs for the people who are out of work, the old change from the so called Dole to JSA was the ending of people on long term unemployment , it stated people would be given jobs, what they mean is the job center would send you for a job but does not mean the employer is going to take you on.

We know we have a group of people whom work is not going to happen, so how do you get employers to employ them, in the state working in the NHS.

Blue labour is new labour and sadly it does not even know it.

As for the disabled I suspect they’d all decide Hitler had some things right

13. Rob the crip

John Reid your an idiot

@ Chris: “Ever met anyone who bought a house because interest rates were low? ”

As I can recall well for personal reasons, there was a house-price bubble in the mid 1970s, when real interest rates were low as the result of Heath’s cheap money policy to boost the economy, and another in the late 1980s after Lawson had been keeping interest rates low so the Pound would be competitive against the DMark on the way to joining the Pound to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

In the event, John Major, his successor as chancellor, did that in October 1990 which led to terrible consequences in September 1992:
http://www.housepricecrash.co.uk/graphs-average-house-price-to-earnings-ratio.php

Our understanding of the housing market would become amazingly interesting if house sales and prices were insensitive to the availabiltiy of mortgage finance and real interest rates.

“John Monks is still saying we should think about joining the euro. He’s still right.”

The last EU Commission official pronouncement that I read on joining the Pound to the Eurozone said that – as per the Maastricht Treaty – it would have to serve at least two years in the ERM prior to joining while maintaining a stable exchange rate.

Should Britain seek to join the Eurozone before or after fiscal union in the Eurozone? Fiscal union is going to be ever such fun with federal fiscal systems to compensate countries with chronic balance of payments issues and low per capita GDP.

The Eurozone “settlement” last night amounted to no more than a series of declarations of intent.

All the important details have yet to be worked out on the financing and use of of the €1 trillion stabilisation fund, on how the Eurozone banks are going to raise €160 billions for refinancing and about whether banks holding Greek debt will “voluntarily” agree to accept 50% haircuts and what will happen if any don’t. A little way downstream, there are the issues of Italy’s massive national debt and what to do about Spain and Portugal.

Btw there’s a good assessment IMO of prospective EMU challenges by John Major in Thursday’s FT. One delicious story therein is his account of the pressure from France to admit Greece to the Eurozone in the first place: You can’t say No to the country of Plato.

Note that: not the country of Socrates or Aristotle but Plato, whose prescription in the Republic for the “ideal” state is thoroughly authoritarian. For Plato’s philosopher-kings, read graduates of L’École Nationale d’Administration in Paris and never mind the economics of monetary union.

15. john P reid

11 cylux, it was a spelling mistake

13 why Am i A idiot,(do you mean the speling mistakes?)


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Book review: Tangled Up in Blue http://t.co/RqOWN9UJ

  2. Don Paskini

    my review of @RowennaDavis book about blue labour is now up on @libcon http://t.co/KRdawbvh

  3. Rowenna

    my review of @RowennaDavis book about blue labour is now up on @libcon http://t.co/KRdawbvh

  4. Mark Taylor

    my review of @RowennaDavis book about blue labour is now up on @libcon http://t.co/KRdawbvh

  5. Blue Labour

    Don Paskini | ‘Tangled up in Blue’ persuaded me there are things to learn from Blue Labour, shorn of its wilder aspects http://t.co/ID1LHMFZ

  6. Alissa Talanki

    'Tangled Up in Blue': the creation and hype of Blue Labour | Liberal … http://t.co/UdSwbc8r





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.