In this post I argue that Blue Labour has some important links with Flemish Christian Democracy, and that this has everything to do with their use of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), which emphasizes the importance of dialogue and cooperation. Historically, this has led to a strong emphasis on subsidiarity and intermediary structures, which I will clarify later on. But first, allow me to explain the roots of Flemish Christian Democracy.
At the end of the 19th century, working conditions in Belgian factories were appalling. Wages were extremely low, people often had to work more than 14 hours a day and child labour was generally accepted. Due to the hard and long work, many children died. The dominant political forces were the Catholic and the Liberal Party, both mainly representing the employers. The only opposition was a still young Socialist Party, for whom many were not willing to vote.
It was both a Catholic priest, Adolf Deans, and his brother Pieter Deans, a publisher, who strongly advocated workers’ rights in Aalst. Inspired by the first social papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, both men strongly championed the Christian Workers Union (currently ACV). Adolf Deans understood that, to be relevant, he had to operate on a political level. He therefore established the Christian People’s Party (Christene Volkspartij) and stood in the general election of 1884, in which he won his seat. The party’s main objective was to make the Catholic Party more democratic, social and radical. This move cost him his priesthood (the previous Archbishop, Léonard, rehabilitated Deans). Although its success remained isolated and fragmented, the party formed an important basis for the foundation of the Christian Democrat movement. Its growing influence within the Catholic Party forced the latter to move to the left, which was supported by the Belgian bishops.
After World War II, the Christian People’s Party (Christelijke Volkspartij), a centre party, was established out of the Catholic Party. During its first general election (1946) the party immediately won the largest number of seats in parliament. Since then, the party has implemented social reforms and pushed the agenda for more regional autonomy. Essential to its ideology are intermediary structures and the principle of subsidiarity. The focus on intermediary structures means that Flemish Christian Democrats favour consultations between groups who represent the workers, employers and farmers, before the proposals are brought before Parliament.
Subsidiarity means that decision-making power rests with the lowest capable institution. So for instance, when a community, for instance in a town, is perfectly able to handle a certain issue, this specific issue should be the responsibility of the town and not Westminster. Only when a case is too big for this community to handle, Parliament should be responsible.
Another essential element of its ideology is personalism, which emphasizes the uniqueness of God and every human person. As a consequence, it gives a central role to the dignity of the human person, thereby acknowledging that people always stand into a relation with one another. These relations are needed to achieve the common good. Therefore, one might say that we are always dependent on one another. Another essential element of these human persons is their free will. This partly explains the importance of grassroots organizations, in which people develop relations.
It is not difficult to draw some lines with the Blue Labour movement. Making the Labour party more democratic, social and radical are its main objectives too. Although Blue Labour wants to move Labour to the right, the ultimate goal is the centre of politics, the place where elections, leading to stable governments, are won. Further, CST is an important inspiration for Blue Labour’s ideology. For Blue Labour, the “balance of power” is rooted in CST. This means that Blue Labour also advocates consultation between workers and employers. Also, subsidiarity is an important element of its philosophy.
The latter is probably the movement’s main strength. Something which a lot of Flemish Christian Democrats championed, was more Flemish autonomy. For Flemish Christian Democrats, improving the lives of workers went hand in hand with a devolution of power, which is in line with their emphasis on subsidiarity. By embracing this principle of subsidiarity, Blue Labour could find large appeal in Scotland and Wales. Finally, Blue Labour believes that, in order to come to the common good, people must come together. Central to its ideas, are the notions of mutuality, reciprocity and solidarity, or, one could say: personalism, which believes in the dignity of every single human person, who are, in turn, linked and dependent on one another.
In the end, I am convinced that Blue Labour and Flemish Christian Democracy hold a common basis in CST. This has brought both movements to embrace intermediary structures, subsidiarity and personalism (or reciprocity, solidarity and mutuality). What CST, Adolf Deans, Flemish Christian Democracy and Blue Labour all hold in common is their emphasis on the common good, and its conviction that giving people control over their situations, will empower them in their strive for a brighter future.
Jeroen Jans, is currently a PhD student at the Radboud University (Netherlands), developing a thesis title, “State without religion? Perceptions of young Christians, Muslims and humanists on religion-state relationships”.