Painting All Workers as “Social Conservatives” Is Middle-Class Elitism

Since Labour’s election defeat, pundits have accused the party of being out of step with working people’s social conservatism. But the “Blue Labour” obsession with Christian morality and national pride offers a caricature of the working class — and ignores the ability of socialist politics to unite people across cultural divides.

Labour Party members and supporters stage a rally in Parliament Square calling for a general election amid Parliamentary deadlock over Brexit and the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister on July 25, 2019 in London, England. Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty

A rather twisted argument has been gaining currency within the Labour Party since its defeat in December’s general election. Voiced by the loose grouping of intellectuals known as Blue Labour, this narrative argues that in order to overcome its present difficulties, Labour has to go “blue” — socially conservative. According to Blue Labour advocates like Labour peer Maurice Glasman, the Left needs to embrace the values of “faith, family and flag,” which also means taking a tough stance on migration.

In the 1990s, the Third Way left of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder adopted this copy-the-right attitude on the economy, as seen in the enactment of many neoliberal policies. Now, the post-Corbyn left is being called to do the same on social and cultural issues. Only by shedding its cosmopolitan progressivism and adopting the mores of national conservatism, the argument goes, will Labour be able to reconnect with its traditional working-class heartlands.

Blue Labour first become prominent within the Labour Party after 2011, gaining influence during Ed Miliband’s leadership. Supported by intellectuals like Jonathan Rutherford and politicians such as Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas, it proposed that Labour should urgently seek a new footing in “communities” by engaging with religious groups and shedding progressive cultural values. This was widely credited with steering Miliband toward a hard stance on migration, as in an infamous Labour-branded mug during the 2015 election campaign that promised “controls on immigration.” After Corbyn’s defeat, Blue Labour is making a comeback in the Labour leadership contest, starting with centrist candidate Lisa Nandy.

Blue Labour’s advocacy of a conservative turn is representative of a broader cultural trend, seen across Europe and the United States. So-called sovereigntist or nationalist leftists argue that the Left needs to take aim at migrants — sometimes depicted in Marxist verbiage as a “reserve army of labor” undercutting native-born workers’ wages. Unlike the bid to attract figures outside the Left to socialist economic ideas — as shown, for instance, in Joe Rogan’s endorsement of the Bernie Sanders campaign — this approach proposes adopting part of the Right’s own political culture, indeed as the linchpin of a viable Left strategy.

Hence, in Italy, philosopher Diego Fusaro has presented himself as a Marxist while advocating draconian policies against migrants. He has recently founded a movement called Vox Italia — reminiscent of Spain’s Francoite Vox party — and gained some adherents among disgruntled leftists. Similar arguments are made within extremist tendencies such as Putinism, Assadism, and the followers of Aleksandr Dugin, a former organizer for the National Bolshevik Party and Putin adviser who has developed a communitarian ideology he pompously calls the Fourth Theory (as opposed to liberalism, socialism, and fascism).

While most of these tendencies appear small and uninfluential, some have gained currency in recent years amid widespread anger and disorientation on the Left. They share the idea that the typical political alignments of the twentieth century have to be questioned and overcome — yet the Left is also told that it needs to go back to the working-class heartlands it is accused of having abandoned. To this end, it is called on to relinquish its avowed commitment to civil rights and liberal values and be ready to embrace the bigotry and chauvinism that (it is alleged) are rampant among its “true” working-class supporters.

Here, the conservative left proposes a narrative of restoring the Left to its authentic origins while giving up any prospect of uniting workers across cultural divides. As a result, this ends up as a call to substitute the Left’s traditional commitment to social and economic transformation with a head-on plunge into culture war — on terms that guarantee that the Left will lose.

Blue Left Versus Pink Left

The main accusation launched by the conservative Left is that the existing Left has absorbed neoliberal doctrine and become “pink,” “purple,” and “rainbow” in color — terms used to express the Left’s commitment to women’s, LGBT, and migrant rights. For Blue Labour’s partisans, the Left’s championing of these rights reflects its metropolitan elitism, solely concerned with issues that excite the liberal middle classes. To remedy this situation, it argues, the Left needs to go back to tradition and religion, and to celebrate conservative mores — for these values, we are told, are the ones harbored by all true working-class people.

The disdain for the liberal left is so strong that, for many conservative leftists, it is better to engage with the Right, which supposedly shares its concern for defending the interests of true working-class people. Some conservative leftists have thus advocated the need to actively engage — or even build alliances — with the far right. Blue Labour figures in the UK have called for the party to open up a dialogue with supporters of the fascist English Defence League, while similar groups in Italy have entertained relationships with CasaPound and other far-right figures with whom they share a commitment to national sovereignty.

The currency that some of these ideas have gained within left-wing circles does speak to certain realities. After all, some cultural attitudes on the liberal left have become rather elitist. And radical progressivism may indeed alienate people of more conservative beliefs. At the same time, many left-wing parties have seen their electorate become more middle class and have at times championed civil rights measures even while embracing neoliberal economic policies that punish working-class people. Finally, it is true that the Left has sometimes displayed a patronizing attitude toward displays of national pride or religious piety.

But the solution proposed by conservative leftists exacerbates rather than overcomes this cultural divide — taking it as both permanent and central to all political choice. For it sets up an absolute opposition between working-class interests and issues like women’s or LGBT rights. In fact, far from a case of “listening to working-class people,” this presentation of the entire class as intractably reactionary is an insulting caricature. Blue Labour portrays petty-bourgeois racism as a natural working-class standpoint — in effect allowing right-wing tabloids like the Sun to define what “really” counts as working class.

Yet the real working class in Britain is diverse. It is not limited to aging left-behind men in former mining areas but rather comprises people of color, young people, and women. In December 2019, this working class, taken as a whole, by and large did vote for Labour. To present the working class as “naturally racist” is just a cheap excuse to embrace bigotry — and, at the same time, it raises an impoverished idea of working-class culture above the kind of economic demands that can unite the majority of working people.

New Labour by Other Means

Indeed, conspicuous in Blue Labour is its refusal to consider the possibility that the Third Way economic agenda pioneered by Blair and Clinton may itself have been at the root of working-class alienation. With socialist economic policies ruled out in advance, the only option left is to embrace the culture war — and side with the most conservative elements of the working class, taken as representative of the whole. In developing this discourse, ultimately, Blue Labour is continuing a long-standing tendency of New Labour, adopting neoliberal economic policies while often also appealing to right-wing anti-migrant discourse.

Indeed, in government from 1997 to 2010, New Labour often promoted xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, from home secretary Jack Straw labeling immigrants as welfare scroungers to the proposal of a form of educational apartheid where the children of asylum seekers would be separated from “natives” because they were “swamping” classrooms. And it was none other than Gordon Brown who first deployed the expression “British jobs for British workers.”

New Labour, obsessed as it was with its media image, more often than not capitulated to the anti-immigrant sentiment promoted by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press. Nor was New Labour’s flirtation with social conservatism limited to immigration. Blair embraced Thatcherite attacks on welfare dependents. And what could be a more opportunistic example of a “faith and flag” marketing blitz than the propaganda campaign unleashed in the buildup to the war on Iraq?

Many of Blue Labour’s most influential advocates are former Blairites: David Goodhart has been a longtime Blair supporter and a central figure of the centrist establishment think tank Demos, while Maurice Glasman was anointed as a Labour peer by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. Another prominent Blue Labour man — professor Matthew Goodwin, coauthor of the book National Populism — argues that Labour needs, above all, to regain the electoral coalition that Blair brought together in 1997.

It is thus unsurprising that many of Blair’s own recent interventions echo Blue Labour talking points. Writing in the Guardian, Blair argued that Labour’s defeat was due to the fact that it was “Too extreme economically. Anti-western. Lacking in patriotism. And therefore dangerous.” Furthermore, he advised that Labour needs to take back “pride in our country; support for the armed forces; being strong on law and order.”

In other countries, too, conservative leftists are former Third Way politicians who, until recently, backed neoliberal measures. Take, for example, the case of Italy, where many conservative left-wingers are former supporters of Bettino Craxi, a 1980s Socialist prime minister who anticipated some Third Way tendencies as he began to dismantle some of the working-class gains of postwar decades. Craxi was himself condemned by the “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) anti-corruption campaign in the early 1990s, but his political legacy has continued to define center-left politics. Hence, the conservative left’s lurch to the right on cultural issues has become a means of political recycling through which discredited figures can reclaim their political virginity.

Beyond the Culture War

The central problem with the conservative left is its antipolitical moralism. Instead of building a minimum platform for unity among working-class people, conservative leftists argue that we should wholeheartedly throw ourselves into the divisive cultural battles that pit progressives against conservatives. This is a recipe for disaster for the Left: while this culture war provides a unifying terrain for the Right, the opposite is the case for the Left.

Blue Labour’s insistence on social conservatism thus risks plunging Labour into an unwinnable cultural war. Indeed, its juxtaposition of London and other metropolitan voters as middle class, as opposed to the Northern working class, is a deliberately misleading account of Britain’s class structure in 2020. The working class in Northern cities like Manchester and Liverpool voted heavily for Labour — and not all those who live in small towns in the North are old and white. These lazy cultural tropes simply aren’t class analysis.

In fact, even since the early twentieth century, Labour has comprised a highly diverse group, including people with higher and lower levels of education, people with conservative values, and people with more progressive ones. What has historically united this diverse constituency has been an awareness of shared economic interests, and their priority over differing cultural views.

It is those on the Right and at the center who are interested in intensifying the culture war, and who want to limit our political horizon to identity politics. The Left should instead focus on building a class alliance among workers, regardless of their creed, lifestyle, or cultural attitudes. It should not aim at being “progressive” or “conservative,” but socialist.