Blue Labour: stories of the Common Good

The American Theologian Stanley Hauerwas cites the story Watership Down to demonstrate the ‘…moral significance of narrative for construing the Christian life’.[1] In an essay in which he thoughtfully unpacks this point we are instructed that ‘…Watership Down is mean’t to teach us the importance of stories for social and political life’.

In many ways ‘Blue Labour:forging a new politics’ published in February is a collection of stories in essay form situated in the broader story known as ‘Blue Labour’.  Blue Labour offers a social and political narrative that speaks of the primacy of faith and family life: those anchors that give working people meaning and belonging, including also the value and dignity of good and meaningful work. It also honours a sense of ‘place’ in undergirding the attachment ordinary people have to their local community. A disposition that has been degraded and tested in the modern world but still holds true for many people. It is these stories and traditions which constitute Blue Labour. Blue Labour allows these stories to be articulated and therefore offers a real opportunity for Labour to re-connect with ordinary people. Allowing those stories which secular modernity resists or disowns to be fully expressed implicitly recognises the importance of the people who can articulate and identify with these stories.

One practical means to allow these stories to be voiced is through the discipline of community organising. An approach central to the formation of Blue Labour. This point is well made in an essay by Arnie Graf, the American community organiser who has worked with the Labour Party in recent years. He recounts the powerful story of Marian Dixon, a Black Roman Catholic women from Maryland who as a young girl insisted on sitting on the front row of her church much to the chagrin of local elders. After months of persistence Marian Dixon triumphed. Graf reflects:

'She had never know anything outside of her family, her parish, and the school where she taught, but her story told me all that I needed to know about her’[2]

To draw upon Hauerwas’s literary device; what stories have been constituting UK political life? What has been their impact? Have these stories been truly diverse in nature?  Political discourse has for too long been characterised by a secular ‘illiberal’ variant of liberalism crowding out the narratives that constitute the lives of working people. The marginalisation of faith denies many ordinary people a voice in society and a sense of agency. Liberalism’s singular dominance has become ‘the’ orthodoxy. Some who hold to its tenets appear highly uncomfortable or even unwilling to think and act beyond the progressive matrix.  However, as economic and social liberalism has fragmented a vacuum has opened up. In the light of the crisis we face new stimulants are needed to re-invigorate democratic life and strengthen citizenship. The vacuum that opens up requires nothing less than a politics rooted in Christian theology. In fact the alternatives are far worse. Blue Labour recognises the need to build a generous space that includes others in the construction of a politics of the common good, seeking a more peaceable society and a fostering a nation at ease with itself and its neighbours.  Many people engage with Blue Labour from a secular vantage point.  Yet it is the faith element that could prove one it’s most enduring features as it underpins many of the substantive themes.

Blue Labour has stimulated a debate about a range of themes, policies, practises and institutional forms that constitute this essay collection. These themes are rooted in the politics of the common good – an approach to politics informed by Catholic Social Teaching which resists the dominance of sectional interests in public life. For example, Jon Cruddas in reflecting on the profound challenges facing Britain writes ‘…we need to look to an idea deeply rooted in Christian life and thought. The idea of the common good’[3]

Maurice Glasman draws upon Catholic Social Teaching - a programme with practical import -

which can offer ‘…durable materials, appropriate practices and profound insights in a synthesis which can challenge and defeat the combination of economic and political liberalism that has subordinated diversity to homogeneity, institutional mediation to individualised care packages, vocational training to transferrable skills and neglected entirely the conditions for flourishing markets and democracy’[4]

Blue Labour is essentially about rendering life more meaningful, peaceable and bearable for working people without offering them false utopian dreams. Thus, Luke Bretherton asserts that practice comes before theory and a good apprenticeship in the craft of politics comes through the immersion in associational forms of ‘..self-organised institutions and mutual associations such as unions, churches, residents associations, small businesses and disability support groups’.[5]

These vignettes attest that Blue Labour is very much a post-secular political approach. Indeed, the UK centre-left, seriously needs to explore the possibilities of building a Labour Party which accepts the limits of secularism, agile enough to think and practice its politics beyond the liberal ‘straightjacket’.

A particular Blue Labour story speaks of the future of political life in the UK reckoning with a pro-faith, post-secular and post-liberal narrative. Its explicit reference to a politics of the common good, rooted in Catholic Social Teaching means it is of profound interest to genuinely orthodox Christians. It is actually a story rooted in particular tradition, as Maurice Glasman has commented:

The Labour tradition and the Christian tradition are completely linked, and it’s about protecting the status of the person from commodification and the idea that our bodies and our natural environment are just to be bought and sold. In the politics of the common good, there has never been a greater need for the gifts that the Christian tradition brings, of which the greatest is love.’ [6]

The General Election will see many stories being narrated. Perhaps Blue Labour will allow in time the stories to change and a different social and political conversation to emerge.

 

Ian Geary, Executive Member, Christians on the Left

 

[1] ‘Story formed community’, The Hauerwas Reader, eds John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, 2001

[2] ‘Community Organising and Blue Labour’, Arnie Graf in ‘Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics’, IB Tauris, 2015

[3] ‘The common good in an age of austerity’, Jon Cruddas MP, ‘Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics’, IB Tauris, 2015

[4] ‘The Good Society, Catholic Social Thought and the Politics of the Common Good’, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics’, IB Tauris, 2015

[5] ‘Vision, Virtue and Vocation:Notes on Blue Labour as a Practice of Politics’, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, Luke Bretherton, IB Tauris, 2015

[6] Third Way magazine, February 2012

 

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