Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer
Maurice Glasman is a Labour life peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University. In an attempt to revitalize the Labour party he invented "Blue Labour". He is also one of the leaders of the community activist group London Citizens and recently accepted a peerage offered by Ed Miliband in the 2011 new years honours list. He was interviewed by Moatez Chaouachi, the European Ideas Ambassador at London Met.
European Ideas: Dr Glasman, what is ‘Blue Labour’?
MG: Blue Labour is an interpretation of the labour tradition of politics that puts the stress on tradition, reciprocity, on mutualism, on resisting finance capitalism; but not exclusively relying on the state to protect and regulate it – a strong welfare democratic association. So the blueness refers to the traditionalism involved - very strong stress on family life, importance of faith institutions and patriotism. It’s all of those things; it’s a left ideology but has a very strong dose of tradition.
European Ideas: As I understand Blue Labour it’s both - a radical attempt to reconnect the Labour party with its traditions, patriotic politics, and conservatism with a small ‘c’ but also a challenge to managerialism, the commodification of human beings and nature. Is that a useful summary?
MG: Very useful. I add to this that it is also looking to reconnect with traditional labour motives to build borderlines for Labour that can win an election.
European Ideas: What distinguishes your Good Society from David Cameron’s Big Society?
MG: Fundamentally two things: The first is that Blue Labour takes associations into the market place. So we are looking at the representation of workers on boards – this is one aspect, establishing regional banks, institutions and associations that resist capital as well as the domination of the state. The second is that the good society places a very strong emphasis on democratic politics and not exclusively on forms of volunteering.
European Ideas: The new EU-regulation rules and the inward migration freeze you have suggested is as I understand a measure against the free movement of commodified labour and a call for resolving domestic problems with domestic people first. With this in mind, however, are you not running the risk to undermine both- internationalism, one of Blue Labour’s main pillars and also economic growth?
MG: I don’t think so. As regards the first, there is very strong internationalism in Blue Labour and it’s about solidarity with free and democratic trade unions. For example in China or in Bangladesh, to renew the solidarity of the labour movement around liberty and democracy, it is very important, in Tunisia too, to build free and democratic unions. The internationalism is about solidarity of workers. However, the idea that the economic conditions in Poland are comparable to the economic conditions in England, only an economist or maybe a philosopher can think such a thing. You know, the wages here are very significantly behind. So for example with the Polish immigration, Poland has lost a whole generation of its own workers who have come here, the workers who come here disrupt the employment relations that are here. My point is it’s an agenda for low wage and to actually inhibit organizations. So the first one is the combination of democratic politics locally and international solidarity and they go completely together. On the subject of competitiveness, there’s two ways of looking at it: Either competitiveness is defined by how low your wage levels could be and we can never compete with China on this because China has no unions, workers are very badly exploited. So we have got to find our competitiveness in high hand, skilled work. It’s not going be found at the low end. So Blue Labour is a strategy for international competitiveness and the example is Germany here when you notice there are so many blocs on the German labour market but the migration has been much lower.
European Ideas: You also addressed this issue to EU-citizens. Dr Glasman, are you a proponent of European integration? How do you see the future of the EU?
MG: The answer is the EU project has gone into great difficulty. I think the idea of non-differentiated economic space when there are such varieties of economies, we’re seeing that played out in Greece at the moment setting aside Spain and Italy with the eurozone and everybody wants to avoid the truth which is that Germany is the economic and now the political dominant force within Europe and the EU is a force that inhibits the development of national and local strategies of economic development. The German economic model has four legs on its table: worker’s representation on boards, vocational training, regional banking, and fiscal conservatism. So what we have is a European wide austerity program and very little growth. We also have a country like Greece for example which doesn’t have the necessary relationships with its neighbours Albania, Bulgaria, considers itself part of something entirely different and has gone into huge levels of debt without having a productive economy and its own currency. It thus has no way out of the crisis. I am an internationalist, I believe in European solidarity but as it stands the EU model is very flawed and going into enormous trouble and it looks like Greece might leave the euro sooner rather than later. So they had an election, they rejected austerity so now the only solution is let’s have another election and see if we can have a different result. But democracy is how you learn and at the moment there is an infantilization, everybody wants the money but nobody wants to do the work, so that’s the problem.
European Ideas: In an earlier writing of yours entitled ‘Abraham, Alinsky and Aristotle: Citizenship and Faith’ you maintain that: ‘The logic of the market has been complemented by immigration which has led to an intensified pluralism; religious, ethnic and racial that is now characteristic of all European cities. This leads to increasingly sectarian conflicts and the breakdown of traditional forms of solidarity within society, and most particularly cities.’ Dr Glasman, can’t pluralism and solidarity within society be perfectly reconcilable?
MG: Definitely, that’s the objective, that’s the idea. Pluralism and Solidarity are completely complementary. But without a new democratic framework, without some kind of common good, without new democratic politics, what you have is competition between groups for resources, without cooperation between groups on renewing the cities, so sectarian interests rather than mutual interests. So the answer is definitely Pluralism and Solidarity are mutual. I am taking the reality of citizens of London as a good example. There needs to be huge amount of work. If we look at Bradford the other week- a dominant Muslim vote which isn’t broad-based organizing, that’s a an example of a breakdown of community relations and I’m very concerned if there precisely is a common good between Jewish, Christians, Muslims, trade unions. They can be a framework for a common good and this is why I’m interested in community organizing. I’m describing the world as it is and with a hope of how it should be.
European Ideas: Moreover, in order to make Labour reconnect with the working class you argued it should seek to involve with supporters from the far-right movement The English Defence League (EDL). In doing so are you not risking to add too much to Blue Labour?
MG: Yes I think so. That was completely taken out of context. What I said is we have to talk to supporters of the EDL. There’s two strategies dealing with it: One is to demonize everybody and the other is to say well there’s this issue of aggregate dispossession loss and the traditional way of the labour movement is to play far wide by building alliances. And one of these is an alliance between working class and immigrants which leads to the common good. And that can’t be done without talking to the working class, you know that’s very poor. To clarify, I really hate the English Defence League.
European Ideas: Considering your critical article in the New Statesman, how would you describe your current relationship with Ed Miliband?
MG: My relationship with Ed Miliband is fine. Blue Labour is a strategy and a set of ideas and it causes tensions. That’s politics that’s how it goes.
European Ideas: Last Weeks local election results were disastrous for the Coalition Government, both parties losing over 730 council seat. At the same time, Labour saw a huge gain of 824 councillors. Is this a sign of improvement in Ed Milliband’s leadership?
MG: Definitely, definitely, that’s definitely a sign of improvement. But we have a very long way to go. It was a very low turnout. We still haven’t defined a compelling and hopeful story. People turning to labour begin to realize the coalition is what I call a love-less marriage held together by a hasty prenup –tied in, there’s no energy to be found. Labour has to emerge as the hope of the people and that’s what I’m hoping to see over the next three years.
European Ideas: What does London Citizens mean to you and to what degree did it shape your political orientation?
MG: It really did shape it. It means a huge amount to me. What the organization does, that’s where I get these ideas that things that are divided- immigrants and locals, Muslims and Christians, middle class, working class, secular and religious can actually find a way of working together for the common good- a fundamental political education.
European Ideas: Over the course of our discussion, one could identify elements of Aristotle, Alinksy, Karl Polanyi and probably others beyond my knowledge, rooted in your political vision. To what extent have these thinkers formed your political orientation and awareness and how important is the appreciation of political philosophy in understanding contemporary politics?
MG: I will take this into relation to the final bit – political philosophy and understanding contemporary politics: Not much. Because I don’t think contemporary political philosophy is very good but in terms of the thinkers you have cited, I very much work within and Aristotelian framework – the idea of the social nature of the person, the importance of institutions and the common good, that’s really important. Polanyi taught me the dangers of Capitalism and a variety of coalitions that emerge in order to resist the commodification of the human being and of nature. I mentioned Alinsky in terms of community organizing. They’ve had a huge impact but none of them is as big as my mom.
European Ideas: Dr Glasman one last question: Karl Polanyi argues in the TGT that the development of market societies over the past two hundred years has been shaped by a double movement. On the one side there is the movement of laissez-faire and on the other side there has been the movement of protection- initiatives to insulate social life from market pressures. When he wrote TGT, Polanyi anticipated that the era of a double movement might finally end since much of the world had come to recognize the folly of organizing human society around self-regulating markets. The survival of Hayek’s doctrine, however, proved him wrong. But despite Polanyi’s failure as a prophet, the question remains open. Is humanity doomed to endless cycles in which one movement is in the ascendancy followed by the other? Or is it possible that the age of the double movement could finally be transcended?
MG: Great One! I wouldn’t use the word doomed. I would say that this is the human condition. One of the lessons from the decline of communism is that there has to be innovation that the market sends signals through the price system about what we want and there has to be adaptation to that. But it goes too far if human beings themselves and the natural environment are turned into commodities. And it’s always the case whether it’s through new forms of Islamic political movements or new movements of labour movements, new forms of nationalism, new different places whether its peasants or aristocrats, all different ways, people have to learn in any generation how to cooperate and how to live with that conflict between improvement and habitation and because the world changes, because there are technological changes and changes in knowledge and movement that has to be relearnt. So I don’t use the word doomed. I say politics and democratic politics is the best form of adaptation and we learnt from it. So what I’d like to see is great diversities and responses. I would love to see a coalition between, for example following what’s happening in Tunisia, in Libya, in Algeria, in Egypt as well, a stronger place for unions in Islam constraining the domination of the rich within a framework of democracy. And it’s going to be different times and different elements but the fundamental thing is that there is no end, we hope, to human life and the adaptation of human society to new knowledge, new practices, and it is always the case that capital and money will try to dominate and it’s always the case that human beings will find different forms of resistance and the thing about socialist or the labour tradition is to try to root that in democratic associations rather than in authoritarian states and that’s the key thing. So China is the great negative model – no freedom in state and no ability to resist the domination of the market. But I’m hoping that the double movement in its diversity, will lead to a renewal in democracy and liberty.