From Red Tory to Blue Labour

Posted on April 21, 2011

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Recent years have seen interesting developments in political thought. Two years ago, Phillip Blond wrote an article for Prospect magazine – ‘The Rise of the Red Tories’ – calling for a new brand of ‘civic conservatism’ which would be ‘socially conservative but sceptical of neoliberal economics’. He criticised the big market vs. big state dichotomy which has dominated British politics since World War II and followed this with a book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It.

First Red Tory, now Blue Labour. A recent episode of Analysis on BBC Radio 4 examined a new movement within the Labour party described by one of its proponents, Lord Glasman, as espousing a ‘a deeply conservative socialism’ centred in ‘family, faith and the flag’. Scepticism about whether the ‘family’ part of the equation has any substance is probably justifiable, but one would hope to be proved wrong in this. The Guardian has written about Blue Labour – sceptically – and Prospect has a feature on ‘Red Tory vs. Blue Labour’. Despite differences, there seems to be a remarkable degree of agreement between the two camps, particularly in their critiques of the post-1945 Welfare State, calls for more co-operatives and mutual societies, and emphases on solidarity and localism.

Blond has previously argued that historically the left has concentrated on socially liberal policies such as gender and sexual equality, and the right have focused on liberalising financial markets.

Recent years have seen these boundaries become somewhat blurred. Back in August 1998 John Hills of the LSE published a paper, ‘Thatcherism, New Labour, and the Welfare State’, highlighting important points of continuity between the Conservative and Labour administrations, and in the book Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, Simon Jenkins argued that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were as thoroughgoing adherents of Thatcherite policy as John Major ever was. It was, after all, Mr. Brown himself who admitted that he had failed to regulate financial institutions with sufficient rigour. Similarly, some on the right have moved away from their previous Reaganesque combination of social conservatism and supply-side economics toward a more all-embracing liberalism. Daniel Hannan, a rising star in the Conservative party who has had a number of his ideas adopted as party policy, has at times advocated decriminalising drugs and disestablishing the Church of England, whilst the website of The Freedom Association, a group with strong links to the Conservative party, carries articles praising advances in gay rights and bemoaning tougher regulations on strip clubs due to be introduced in the City of London later this year. Whatever type of conservatism this is, it would probably not be familiar to Edmund Burke or the Duke of Wellington. It is not without reason that Phillip Blond has spoken of a ‘covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right’.

Lord Beveridge, architect of The Beveridge Report

Whichever party has been in power, the years since 1945 have been dominated by a public discourse based almost entirely on liberalism. The post-war consensus (1945-1979) promoted state intervention in the economy to engineer social equality – particularly in education and health – and free the individual from the five ‘great evils’ identified by The Beveridge Report (squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, disease). The Thatcherite consensus in turn sought to free the individual from the great evils which it saw as having been caused by the post-war settlement: creeping socialism, national economic decline, the iron grip of the trade unions, and so on.

Some of these things were genuine evils, and it is true that we now have more ‘choice’ than ever before. Yet what matters is not so much choice but, as Blue Labour thinker Marc Stears has pointed out, ‘the quality of our relationships’. Whilst the individual has prospered in many ways, local communities and traditional family structures have suffered under the liberal consensus, and an obsession with choice has cooperated in their destruction. Whilst the extension of economic choice has ravaged local communities who depended upon the availability of certain types of work in certain areas, liberalising reforms regarding divorce, sexual offenses, and the place of women in the workforce, have contributed to the undermining of stable families. The result has been misery, because the proliferation of choice has not improved – and in some cases has destroyed – the quality of our relationships. As man is a social animal, it is ultimately the individual – the supposed beneficiary of the liberal project – who has suffered.

One cannot of course expect too much depth from think-tanks and political speech-writers. But if movements such as these can contribute to ‘changing the terms of the debate’ in British politics as Phillip Blond hopes, the future may look brighter.

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(Photo of blue rose: © Qwert2364)

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