In these extracts from journalist Rowenna Davis’s new book, Tangled Up In Blue, Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman and ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond speak about each other’s work
Glasman’s frustration came to a head in a seminar with Blond in Westminster’s Portcullis House in the spring of 2009. Blond had been brought in to discuss his ideas with a set of left and Labour party activists, MPs and journalists. Glasman was clearly irritated by Blond’s presentation, but he was even more annoyed by the reaction of Labour party members in the room. Once again, no one seemed to be challenging Blond’s “corrupted” replica of Labour’s ideas. Instead, the audience seemed to be disowning their traditions by criticising Blond’s work on the grounds that it marginalised the state. As Glasman explains:
He [Blond] was talking and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as a response, he was talking about friendship, solidarity, belonging and all the people on the left were talking about equality, diversity, basically the state, and not talking about the quality of relationships or most importantly, capitalism. No one on the left was talking about capitalism, which you will ?nd out if this goes ahead is a genuinely a life long obsession, so be aware that capitalism plays a central role in the story, and I remember sitting there and thinking sorry I got the wrong end of the stick, I think I remember saying I thought the Labour party was the party where people came together to resist the domination of the rich, I didn’t think it was some kind of welfare agency, you know, democratic welfare agency.
In one of the most unconventional but little-known friendships in political circles, Glasman ending up befriending the Red Tory himself, Phillip Blond. Although Blond had his own much grander apartment in North London, he took to coming around to Glasman’s crowded ?at in Stoke Newington. In a sign of genuine trust, Blond joined Glasman and his family on Friday nights. This was an intimate space where the family lit candles and ate together in honour of the Jewish tradition and rested after a hard working week. Several years later, Blond still refers to Glasman with genuine admiration, calling him a “deeply good man” and a “dear friend”. He used to call him up – only half jokingly – and ask Glasman to join the Red Tory camp.
This uncanny ability to form unexpectedly warm alliances in unexpected places was to become quite a trait for Glasman. There was an important political energy in this friendship; the two could make more noise together than apart. The two worked together in tension, going head to head in a public debate billed as Red Tory vs Blue Labour at Conway Hall, and publishing an email exchange in Prospect magazine. Later Blond went even further and said that he deliberately helped promote Glasman – whose name was at that time virtually unknown in Westminster – by participating in these joint debates. Blond had always had huge con?dence in the signi?cance of his ideas, which he believed would extend well beyond the Conservative party. There were good strategic reasons then, for supporting Glasman and his Blue Labour project. A “sister movement” would help push what Blond saw as a new political consensus:
I would only win and my ideas would only succeed if there was a similar movement on the left because we needed to create a new centre ground and that takes both sides to agree. Maurice and I genuinely differ which is right and proper and we differ most on markets, so it’s not like we agree but I think his insights are in authentic parallel to mine on the left and I know history and I know that to create a new centre ground you need two sides to agree.
Of course there were signi?cant differences in their ideology. Most notably, Blond thought that Glasman was too confrontational in style and too Marxist in substance. He believed Blue Labour lacked an appeal to a British sense of aspiration, and was unlikely to play well with the electorate as a result. Glasman for his part believed that Blond did not take the power of capital seriously enough. He also argued that Blond’s model for mutualisation was not sufficiently transformative because it didn’t include a range of interests. For Glasman, it was important to foster and encourage a diverse number of interests within any organisation. Handing over control of services to workers simply replaced a monopoly of the state with a monopoly of employees. Glasman’s model of mutualisation, in contrast, would encourage representation from di?erent groups to encourage pluralism.
It’s also interesting to compare the two men’s positions within their own parties. On a surface level, they were operating in a similar space. Both thought that their respective parties should change, but both lacked an official position of in?uence in their chosen institutions to achieve it. But although they were both party political insurgents, it would be a mistake to think of their positions as identical. Although Blond always had more resources than Glasman, he remained a much more isolated ?gure within his own party. He had none of the signi?cant and close relationships with the leadership that Glasman went on to have. Glasman could see that, for all the bluster, Blond’s project was a much lonelier one than his own. Talking to Glasman, it seems as if his affection for the Red Tory was tinted with a desire to look after him:
[Blond has a] very generous, gentle disposition to him and by far the best way of having a relationship with him was to embed him, for him to come over, he never has a cooked meal, he only has takeaways, was to come over have a Friday night meal, with children, it turns out he is brilliant with children, he gives them quizzes, he and Isaac, can you imagine have a kind of equality of ego, with a ?ve year old child Phillip, he and Isaac can go completely head to head it’s brilliant and he’s very loving with children.
Others share this concern that Blue Labour might not be able to speak to the demographic it claims to represent. Phillip Blond of the think tank ResPublica, for example, argues that Blue Labour’s appeal to the working class cannot work because Britons no longer label themselves in that way. They are too aspirational, which means the brand won’t appeal to them. It is worth keeping in mind that over a third of Britain’s school leavers now go on to university, and with manufacturing industries still largely in decline, there is less respect associated with the working class label. Blue Labour, says Blond, hasn’t really caught up with this:
[Blue Labour] hasn’t really recognised what Blair was writing about and speaking to, Blue Labour still won’t appeal to the majority of British people, it still remains an appeal to a type of working class that is very much in the minority, that’s unionised, and low waged, there is no appeal here to small business people, or workers who wish to be high wage and high skill, no appeal to the modern structures that most people live in or desire.
Even if voters did accept Blue Labour labels, Blond does not believe that Labour would ever be able to swallow the socially conservative values it proposes:
I think Labour will always be hostile to social conservatism, or as I term it “social conservation”, it will always privilege Liberal autonomy above all things, so I never think it can be a radical party for that reason.
Although Blond does not rate Blue Labour’s ideas as they stand now, he does think they are underestimated by his colleagues in the Conservative party. Blond says that although current cabinet members do have Blue Labour “on the radar” they are not worried that it will steal capital C Conservative voters. This, Blond believes, could be a mistake:
I think they underestimate him [Glasman] and Ed Miliband, but if Ed keeps with the notion of squeezed middle, transmutes Blue Labour into that space and I think that’s a potent mix.
Tangled Up In Blue is published by Ruskin