Blue Labour and Post-liberalism
This article was first published in Crucible: The Christian Journal of Social Ethics 2014:1. Used by permission of the author and the publisher. This article is one of several that appeared in Deep Purple? Post-liberalism and the Churches, the January 2014 edition of the quarterly. John Milbank and Adrian Pabst's article from the same edition is also published in these pages here.
Blue Labour and its Conservative Party-supporting alter ego, Red Toryism, signal the end of a liberal ascendancy in British politics.1
I am currently thinking very deeply about what it means for me to be a Christian with an interest in Labour politics and the churches’ presence in the public square. A corollary of this reflection has been my involvement in the Blue Labour movement for the past three and a half years. This is the closest approximation I have found on the centre-left to the values that I identify with in the twenty or so years that I have been a Labour member.
Blue Labour is a movement situated within the British Labour party which affirms the primacy of civic society, faith, family and the honouring of place. It postulates a political economy that rejects both neo-liberalism2 and liberal, statist Keynesianism.3 It is disposed towards a politics of the common good rather than being situated within progressive-liberal discourse.
Blue Labour is for good reasons associated with the debate on post-liberalism that has attracted some interest in the past couple of years in UK politics. By post-liberalism I refer to an intellectual recognition that liberalism is singularly insufficient to explain and establish the good life. It is a disposition broad enough to cover the views of non-liberals (communitarians, say, who argue that truth is situated within communities rather than abstract values) and those liberals who recognise their creed as a philosophy that may have run its course. In unpacking what this term means, David Goodhart refers to:
a kind of liberalism (or post-liberalism as I would now call it), social democratic in economics but somewhat conservative in culture; reformist towards the continuing wounds of race and class but sympathetic to the rooted communitarianism of middle Britain, and regarding a special attachment to fellow citizens not as a prejudice but as an asset in a more mobile and individualistic society.4
It is vitally important to state that this does not mean that everything associated with liberalism is to be rejected. Despite not self-identifying as a liberal, I am willing to concede that liberal principles, as properly understood, are good and can and have contributed to the good life. However, I am wary of a kind of ‘liberal dominance’ that can dominate significant sections of public life and ironically become illiberal to other sentiments. An element of any analysis of liberalism does indeed entail differentiating between its various forms. Some commentators have identified that divergent ‘liberalisms’ have emerged in the modern era and some are more preferable to others:
a schism could be detected in liberal ranks long before September 2001. I call the rival camps ‘fleshed-out’ and ‘hollowed-out’ liberalism. The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of material self-interest.5
The liberalism that, I believe, has atrophied needs to be clearly identified. In addition, the post-liberal conversation has gauged that a proper evaluation of the limits of liberalism is also requisite. As the New Statesman leader reflected in the Spring of 2013, ‘liberalism, at least in some of its guises, does not provide all the answers to Britain’s most entrenched problems’.6 Hence, political thinkers have begun to probe and reflect on what is beyond liberalism. Thus post-liberalism as an intellectual project and movement has gained some traction.
I believe that Blue Labour and post-liberalism are of more than a passing interest to Christians. However, I would hesitate to describe them as an ‘opportunity’ for the Church; that smacks of looking at faith through the wrong end of the telescope.7 However, situated somewhere in the continuum – or tension – between the churches’ prophetic social witness and the necessary pragmatism of political engagement, post-liberalism is a phenomenon to be taken seriously. I will explain why this is the case.
Blue Labour is a stimulant to a stale political debate that has proved resistant to orthodox Christian perspectives
I am fascinated by the interface between faith and politics and this interest has grown in recent years. The challenge of living out an orthodox Christian faith in a time that presents specific challenges to ‘serious’ Christians has only sharpened my interest and praxis.
These challenges are: an aggressive secularism that resists faith in the public square; a metropolitan liberalism (linked invariably to secularism) that can in its most assertive form border on illiberal tyranny; and the need to forge a common life amidst an atomised society whose foundations are fragmented. I have increasingly felt more sensitive to observations that social and economic liberalism have had their day, that secular capitalism is a de-humanising threat to the planet and society and that a Christian response is critical. This analysis aligns with the aims of the Blue Labour movement which is situated firmly on the post-liberal terrain.
These are not the only challenges but they appear prominent to me and pertinent to the future of centre-left politics in the UK. These challenges have shaped the left and proved to be at odds with public Christian witness. The marginalisation of faith denies ordinary people a voice in society. Of course, this liberalism is neither always malign nor constantly conspiring against other contributions to the political debate. However, as a consequence of its singular dominance it has become the orthodoxy in an unthinking way. Many who hold to its tenets appear highly uncomfortable or even unwilling to think and act beyond the progressive matrix. Thus as economic and social liberalism collapses a vacuum has opened up.
As the nadir of liberal ascendancy is proclaimed in some quarters, movements such as Blue Labour and its conversation partner Red Tory offer important stimulants to public debate, praxis and the formation of the common life. This is critically important for a number of reasons. I suggest that they: speak to the social and economic challenges that Christians care about; are pro-faith and in part theologically literate; are cross-party in nature and yet crucially affirming of Parliamentary Democracy. To suggest something of their historical significance, they are intentionally part of a historic mission to restore the place of civic society vis-à-vis the centralising joint Leviathans of market and State.
Maurice Glasman – apparently the ‘godfather’ of Blue Labour – spoke at the Tawney Dialogue of the Christian Socialist Movement in 2011 and cited Jesus as the most formative influence on Labour. He commented that ‘the most important person in the history of the labour movement was Jesus.’8This quotation – a surprise perhaps to some – on its own may not mean a hill of beans. However, if we look at the linkages that Glasman has built with Christian theologians like John Milbank and Luke Bretherton, both from distinct forms of churchmanship, then we can see that the faith element within the Blue Labour wing of post-liberalism has substance. The liberal centre ground has run out of steam and new stimulants are needed to re-invigorate democratic life and strengthen citizenship. It is true that many people engage with Blue Labour from a secular vantage point, yet it is the faith element that could prove one its most enduring features as it underpins and explains many of the substantive themes.
Post-liberalism reflects a healthy recognition that economic and social liberalism has had its day
The liberalism that has dominated British politics for a generation is looking battered. The financial crash has eroded confidence in economic liberalism, while the shocking inner-city riots have done the same for social liberalism.10
Post-liberalism acknowledges that the past 40 years’ dominance of the ‘twin’ liberalisms has come to an end. This fragmentation is of course disconcerting; life is now much more unpredictable for many people. For many, there is much less money around, wages are being squeezed and foodbanks (thank God for them) are flourishing in response to acute need. Although I allude here to the exacting effects of economic malaise and the predicament of the ‘squeezed middle’, the fragmentation also plays out at the level of culture and identity. The anti-political mood embodied by the not so ‘flash in the pan’ rise of UKIP and more worrying street activism of the English Defence League are symptoms perhaps of this situation of flux. Sometimes this mood can be visceral, and sometimes it manifests itself in a more subtle fashion. Nevertheless, the challenges of the age are serious. Nature truly abhors a vacuum. The vacuum that opens up requires nothing less than a politics rooted in Christian theology. It recognises the need to build a generous space that includes others in the construction of a politics of the common good, seeking a more peaceable society and a nation at ease with itself and its neighbours.
Of course, post-liberalism does not have a monopoly on the common good but it should have a seat at the table. I write as the Conservative Party Conference draws to a close. It could be argued that the modern Conservative agenda is highly liberal. The developing narrative of a reviving economy (not untrue) and the creation of one and a bit million private sector jobs (contestable) sets the scene for a Conservative election campaign that will reflect the ‘good old years’ of the 1980s – i.e. ‘Britain is on the road to recovery, don’t let Labour ruin it’. This to me sounds like a recipe for little real change in our political economy and a re-hashed Thatcherism being served up for the British people. Equally, the centre-left is still stuck in a progressive matrix. Yet, just like liberalism, the progressive project, despite being well intentioned, has run out of steam, is ill-defined and elitist. As Alexander Rosenthal has argued: ‘The belief in human perfectibility and inevitable moral progress no longer has credibility after Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago.’10
It appears that we have a political class hopelessly distant from the more conservative instincts of British people – whether it is on the issues of gay marriage, our role in Europe, family life or immigration we seem to be presented only with binary choices that are unsatisfactory. The problem is that the anxiety and uncertainty felt by people, exacerbated by the (almost complete) collapse of trust in public institutions, could drive people into the hands of UKIP and even worse the far-right. So post-liberalism is not some novel, complacent back-patting exercise for social conservatives and fellow travellers. It is an essential project that can, in some manner, connect Christian perspectives and notions of the common good with the complex challenges of our day. We need to be discerning and recognise what is happening. As liberalism has over-reached itself and the atomistic society self-evidently creaks we need ‘men of Issachar’ who can understand the times and guide the Church into its prophetic role of speaking to the nation. The Church can stand with secular voices who understand the challenges too: ‘With its emphasis on abstract individualism, liberalism, the great driver of social emancipation and economic prosperity, now feels inadequate to this new age of insecurity.’11
Post-Liberalism is a political space that transcends party boundaries but has roots in the traditional party hinterlands
Perhaps for the first time in thirty years politics is changing. The old orthodoxies of left and right are still dominant, but they are no longer hegemonic. Beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting; boundaries are blurring, and ideologies are returning to first principles, creating a new terrain that is slowly beginning to emerge.12
I am tribally Labour; however, tribalism should not equal sectarianism and absence of generosity or refusing to learn from others and their traditions. I am a Christian first and foremost and believe that this nascent post-liberalism debate can be fostered in a space that is not crowded out by stultifying machine politics.
Blue Labour and its ‘opposite’ Red Tory are more than just dialogue partners – they share overlapping concerns: a critique of liberalism; an understanding of localism that includes religious institutions (i.e. authentic localism); a promotion of the politics of the common good; the cherishing of civic society; suspicion of unbridled, atavistic capitalism; and an understanding of the limits of secularism. This is not to say that they are the same thing but I welcome ResPublica’s positive work on the social and civic role of the Church of England – a unique contribution for a UK based think-tank – and also their report on marriage amidst the not very inspiring ‘debate’ on same-sex marriage earlier this year.13 Equally, I admire much of the work of the Centre for Social Justice and am fascinated by the work of Jesse Norman,14 who recently paid tribute to Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman. There is a paradox at work here. Just as political parties are essential to a flourishing Parliamentary democracy (and we must will their good health) this is an hour when spaces need to be found where fellow travellers who sit in different political camps can work, think and agitate together. This means those people of faith, social conservatives and non-liberals, all share much in common. They can pursue a politics of the common good and still operate in their party structures. The social and economic problems we face are too great to allow for a petty partisanship to halt the development of the common good and a peaceable society. I am not calling for a ‘new politics’ but rather the development of a mature political space that will allow post-liberal insights and activism to emerge.
The development of this new political space is crucial. For the current political system restrains and even marginalises those whose instincts seek such a harmonisation of different movements that I refer to above. In fact, it appears to mitigate against the privileging of a voice for the ordinary people of Britain. Post-liberalism is situated in a different space to the left-right matrix (which is itself an unnatural product of the enlightenment settlement). If you are post-liberal you cannot feel wholly comfortable with the party system. However, as I have suggested, you don’t abandon it either in some utopian search for a ‘new politics’. Blue Labour is of course situated within the British Labour Party, and there it will stay. Yet, as it has developed and challenged conventional thinking and ‘Labourspeak’, it has disturbed some people. Well, so be it. We cannot go on making the same mistakes. A key challenge for post-liberalism will be to find clearer definition of its substantive themes, to act as a mature agent in the public space and to retain an ability to appeal to and speak into the political system.
Post-liberalism allows for a re-imagining of politics from an ethical perspective
Politics is deeply disenchanted. The dominance of economic and political concerns squeezes out the ethical appeal. I believe that post-liberalism can challenge a number of contemporary problems: the cult of youth, a dominance of middle-class interests and a general lack of vision and direction in the public square.
Post-liberalism opens up politics to a community of practitioners who have been doing some theological heavy lifting on politics and virtue ethics. I stress we are talking about virtue not moralism, legalism or perfectionism. This is not an abstract academic point. People are clearly yearning for something inspiring, authentic and generous. The liberal and secular frame appears inadequate for building community and does not even seem to possess the language from which we can construct the good life. The connection between these theological and ethical sources and public policy could allow for a re-imagining of politics around an ethical vision of community that is not dominated by short-term economic and political considerations. Post-liberalism stands positioned to re-articulate the political terrain as now shaped by these insights. It recognises that liberalism has been complicit in precluding a political conversation that honours the virtues:
the predominance of liberal politics has been a key reason why the virtues have received inadequate attention in recent ethical discussion. Liberalism, of course, pre-supposes and encourages certain kinds of virtues, but that it does so is often insufficiently acknowledged or articulated.15
What I posit is no means a given. So much is stacked up against it but I believe there is a possibility for politics to be re-imagined ethically, and to be shaped and sustained by theological resources, so that it presents a challenge to the dominance of liberalism without caving in to utopianism or nihilism.
The Church has the resources to nourish political debate and praxis
In my analysis post-liberalism must also be post-secular in that I perceive liberalism and secularism to have both advanced from the enlightenment project. As post-liberalism allows for a political dialogue that is not confined to a secular straightjacket, it allows for a number of new possibilities. The Church should possess the resources to shape and nourish a new and distinct political conversation. There are signs that in some quarters the vitality of these resources are being acknowledged. It is notable that some politicians are now open to the contribution of Catholic Social Teaching and Anglican social thinking. This could be explained by the paucity and hollowness that characterises much political debate in the UK.16
The development of social action and evangelical mission as an integrated whole has been an observable feature of Church life in the UK in the past 20 years. The churches understand the need for a meaningful emotional connection with the poor and marginalised in a manner that political liberals aren’t always connected to. Initiatives such as CAP, Street Pastors, winter night shelters and foodbanks all indicate the grassroots engagement that churches engage in to meet social need and demonstrate their commitment to the local place. This was noted in a recent report by the Evangelical Alliance which stated that:
Faith groups make a vast contribution to their local communities across a range of predictable and surprising activities. Repeatedly local authorities cited the role of food banks, Street Pastors and debt advice centres. Other activities were identified which demonstrate the ‘cradle to grave’ support that faith communities provide, from caring for the young and the elderly to helping with dog training and anger management.17
Clearly more can be done, but in many urban areas the church is deeply involved in work with the marginalised. This activity is not undertaken for political reasons, let alone at the behest of a political party. However, this broad based work gives the church an authority to speak to difficult issues such as welfare, migration and criminal justice informed by on the ground experience. These insights should shape, challenge and inspire politicians faced with dwindling resources to tackle social problems and concerns about civic participation. If Blue Labour and Red Tory can join the dots the public debate would be enriched and more importantly this work could be embedded and flourish.
For the first time since perhaps the days of William Temple the Church has not had to conform to some singular dominant mode of secular public discourse. This is not a cue for triumphalism but perhaps there now exists a distinct space for a robust Christian engagement in politics of a different kind where we truly begin to change the terms of the debate. In that context post-liberalism is a small but not insignificant contribution to broader changes that the Church can be alive to, speak into, lead and serve.
In many ways post-liberalism is ‘messy’ – it defines a spectrum of opinion that accommodates non-liberals, communitarians, ex-liberals, liberals who can see beyond their tradition and others I am sure. It is one vista emerging amongst many of course. It certainly invites more crisp and robust definition. Nevertheless, it represents a possible opening up in debate that could be significant for political thought and life in the United Kingdom. As Red Tory and Blue Labour are pro-faith and acknowledge the contribution of Christianity to public life we need to assess their potential and take them seriously. Post -liberalism is indeed messy; so it must be real. Did not Christ engage with mess and reality?
© Ian Geary
Ian Geary is Public Affairs Adviser at The Salvation Army, and is co-editor with Adrian Pabst of Blue Labour - Forging a New Politics. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Ian Geary's article is used by permission of the author and the publisher. First published in Crucible: The Christian Journal of Social Ethics 2014:1. For further information on Crucible, see http://www.cruciblejournal.co.uk/.
Click here for further reading material.