oh fuck hell, it’s that extensive future-of-the-Labour-party post at last.

OK, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. My problem with the whole “Blue Labour” concept, and further, the love-affair between people like James Purnell and American “community organisers” is this: If you’re so smart, why haven’t you got health insurance?”

Seriously. Isn’t trying to learn from the American Left a bit like trying to design a football team by studying Plymouth Argyle and the career of Peter Ridsdale? Obviously, there is much to be said for the analysis of failure as a road to knowledge. The aviation industry made a whole trade and a near religion out of crash investigation, anonymous reporting through CHIRP, etc, with excellent results. But it’s far from obvious that Glassman and friends have spent much time on the failures of US progressive politics.

Part of this is the unvarying, universal force of time. We all idealise the causes and methods that marked our lives. For Maurice Glassman, it’s the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. He looks at himself and remembers the marchers of Birmingham, Alabama. Other people recall the rainbow coalitions of the 80s, the 1992 Clinton campaign, the campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment running up to the Seattle G8. History defines us before we define it, in opposition to Winston Churchill’s remark about shaping the things we build that thereafter shape us. That’s why he’s so keen on churches.

But what made civil rights work? It wasn’t just grassroots organising. Neither was it the intervention of the Feds or the Democratic control of Congress and the White House. Both things had happened before.

Many of the institutions of black self-organisation had existed for years without achieving anything like it. Similarly, even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration hadn’t even tried particularly hard. Part of the problem was that not all of them even agreed that society could be changed – the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s career before his break with the Nation are cases in point – or that it could be changed short of the final world revolution, like the communists thought.

British workers had plenty of miners’ welfare clubs and brass bands in the Great Depression, too, and indeed the First Depression of the 1870s. But nobody seems to have found that satisfactory.

What I’m driving at is that neither Labour, nor the civil rights movement, achieved anything much until they lined up the movement at the grass roots, their own institutions, their influence in other institutions, and a central government that was basically sympathetic. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were willing to send the army and the FBI to enforce the law on the unofficial powers – the flip side of the big society – of the South. Democratic appointees to the courts, the National Labor Relations Board, and a million other committees were available to hear their arguments. The grassroots institutions of Labour were there to hold Attlee and Wilson’s feet to the fire, just as the Tory thinktank/lobby/academic world was there to hold Thatcher’s feet to the fire.

There is no contradiction between the broader movement and the electoral party. This is a false dichotomy.

But what are those institutions today? Of course, the biggest are the unions. At the other end of the scale, perhaps the blogosphere might even count, eh.

One thing they are probably not is religious. Glassman seems to imagine that we can all win by making friends with the churches. Unfortunately, the biggest religious group in the UK is unbelief and the next biggest is Anglicanism, and there are at least as many church Tories and worse (pseudo-American rightist evangelicals) as there are fans of Faith in the City, which is a bit of a while ago now.

Another thing they are not is anything other than “urban and metropolitan”. This is something both “Blue” and “Purple” like to moan about. The great majority of the British live in cities or their suburbs and quite a few of those in London. Further, they have stopped moving out of them and reversed course. If the MLK porn element of Blue Labour is an American import, this is a much less desirable one – it’s the usual crap from David Brooks about Real Americans, who by definition have pickup trucks, etc, etc. We don’t need this crap.

By definition, an electoral strategy that is founded on winning the hearts and minds of a shrinking minority of a minority – religious people, susceptible of conversion to Labour, who live in the countryside! – can only fail. It is a question of arithmetic. There aren’t enough of ’em! Even in London, this all risks shedding Labour people like the unionised bus drivers who live around here at at least the rate god-botherers are signed up.

Come to think of it, the only solution to the equation is if the electoral turn-out keeps falling, faster. If you assume that the religious will keep voting (an assumption borrowed from the Americans), perhaps there’s something to be said for clinging to the last voter. But that would work as well for the activist Left and the unions. Anyway, I somehow doubt the final extinction of the swing voter is actually what anyone wants. Even if the whole political class does sometimes seem to be trying to foster extreme cynicism as a strategy.

Anyway, to take this to the bridge. Not so long ago it looked like the Obama campaign would be the model we would take with us, what with its RESTful interfaces and ward teams and whatnot. Now that looks like a busted flush, a depressing miss, a lucky shot in an off year for the other side. The saddest bit being the vanishing of the movement.

A question: the last time the British Labour movement launched a new, independent, task specific organising effort was the Anti-Nazi League. What is the equivalent for economic aims, and would anyone dare?


  1. Well the real reason that Obama lost all his support, was because he treated his supporters with contempt, and refused to do the things that they thought they voted for. Maybe there’s a lesson there for Labour…

    And yeah I find the obsession with going over to the US for answers baffling. They have the worst health system in the world, so we’re going to use their ideas… They have a dismal education system, so we’re going to look over there… They have a really expensive education system, so we’re going to look…

  1. 1 [BLOG] Some Friday links « A Bit More Detail

    […] Yorkshire Ranter Alex Harrowell observes talk about the people talking about the change necessary for the Labour Party to succeed, noting […]

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