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The Prophet of Brexit: An Interview with Maurice Glasman

Blue Labour emphasizes trade unionism, local democracy, patriotism, and the “covenantal bonds” of faith, family, history, and political community.

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Lord Glasman(Creative Commons)

Maurice Glasman is a political theorist, economic reformer, and a Labour life peer in the House of Lords. He is also the founder of the Blue Labour movement, which aims to restore Britain’s main center-left party to its origins as a vehicle for the working class, emphasizing trade unionism, local democracy, patriotism, and the “covenantal bonds” of faith, family, history, and political community. All this, in sharp contrast to the neoliberal tendency of so-called New Labour launched by Tony Blair, with its “uncritical embrace of globalization, domination of finance capital, and pitiless progressive modernism,” as Glasman puts in a new book titled Blue Labour: The Politics of the Common Good.

Glasman first gave voice to this seemingly paradoxical politics in the wake of the Great Recession and more than a decade of Labour rule that had left working-class Britons disempowered, economically precarious, and physically and spiritually dislocated. The very name of the movement signals its paradoxical quality. In Britain, blue is the traditional color of conservatism. To add “blue” to “Labour” is a scandalous thing (he credits his wife, Catherine, with the coinage, and she, in turn, took inspiration from the parallel Red Tory movement that similarly seeks to re-imbue British conservatism with the solidaristic, pro-labor elements that shaped it before the Thatcherite revolution swept them aside).

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But even before Blue Labour had a name, Glasman was sounding the alarm about his party’s neoliberal, progressive drift, which saw the left welcome capital’s “liberation from national government and national democracy”—that is, from the political achievement of the postwar class compromise on both sides of the Atlantic. A decade ago, he prophesied that unless Labour rethought its commitment to a borderless world, working-class people would abandon the party for other political havens. He was branded a reactionary by some, while too many others ignored his warning. A few years later, Labour would lose its grip on its northern heartlands, as working-class people voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union.

Now, as Tories stumble in government and Labour is poised to return to No. 10, I sat down with Glasman for an interview on the patio of a pub in South Kensington—my choice of neighborhood, to be clear—on a freezing London night. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sohrab Ahmari: Start at the beginning. Tell me about your origins.

Maurice Glasman: I was born in East London, a member of a dead tribe: Jewish, working class. My father had a really failing small business. My mum was religious, really religious and really left-wing. That’s what I mean about the dead tribe. Really strong adherence to the Shabbos. We were very Orthodox and very faithful to the left.

S.A.: Was your entrée to politics in the student left?

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M.G.: No, in college, I was only interested in music and the possibility of sexual intercourse. I couldn’t do student politics. It was too boring, tedious. Community organizing was my thing. I got a very close relationship with the Industrial Areas Foundation, then came back to the university as an academic. It gives you a lot of free time, so I could do those things.

In the late 1990s, London was becoming an intense, globalized city, but the cleaners, cooks, security guards, and so on weren’t making a living wage. So I got to organizing through faith communities, including mosques, but the Roman Catholic Church was the foundation of that. And they had relations with poor people. My politics came out of that.

And then came the crash of 2008. I launched an anti-usury campaign, because the banks were borrowing at half a percent, while poor people were borrowing at 5,000 percent—demented. Then my mum died, in 2008, at the same time as the crash. So I cried out about the state of my party, the Labour party: disconnected from labor issues, totally committed to globalization, the political-economy side completely dissipated. Blue Labour was really a love letter to Mum. Again, she was very conservative, very patriotic, and very Labour. I just gave a talk over her death, and this thing [Blue Labour] just started to explode. Before I knew it, I was being coopted by the Labour party and put in the House of Lords!

S.A.: Was there a policy agenda or more of a broad vision at the beginning?

M.G.: It was more of a cry of rage against what had happened to the things that I loved. The Labour party was no longer interested in working-class people.

S.A.: There were also some negative reactions.

M.G.: Really nasty! I didn’t really realize the extent of it at first. Blue is the color of conservatism. It’s also the color of sadness. And I was combining those sensibilities with a party that had become overwhelmingly progressive, despising of history, stranded in the present, contemptuous of the things that I loved, like family. It led to an astonishing reaction, that this was fascist, colonialist.

S.A.: Labour has moved on from those traditions.

M.G.: It’s moved on from those people. Now there’s a story there that matters to me especially because I’m Jewish, namely, that the British working class did not hesitate to fight in the war. They didn’t go Communist, they didn’t go Fascist, they just joined the Army and they fought. I have huge respect for those people and their ancestors. But that working class, New Labour said, “No, they have no relevance, they’re left-behinds, they’re a problem.”

To me, these working-class people weren’t a problem — they were the inspiration and the solution. And those people voted for Brexit, and they voted in their millions for the Conservative government in 2019. So the new era is an era in which the working class are decisive politically, whereas in the previous era, they were completely irrelevant to political calculation.

S.A.: But there were certain industrial conditions that prevailed when the Labour traditions you celebrate were waxing: regular factory work, predictable hours, with people working side-by-side. That all created conditions for militancy and organizing. The clever thing the neoliberals have done is to eradicate those conditions. A lot of production is offshore, work is irregular and gig-based, workers don’t have the opportunity to form solidarity, let alone turn that solidarity into collective action.

M.G.: First of all, it didn’t manifest itself in “militancy” in Britain. It manifested itself in a quite conservative organizing that just wished a recognition of labor as an aspect of the country that should be heard. And despite the changes you describe, that hasn’t gone away: the pandemic showed us that. Suddenly, there was this distinction between people who could work on Zoom, and other people who actually had to go out. Suddenly, the country recognized its dependence on these people, that they keep the country going. Indeed, they were turned into heroes, though in my mind I said, “No, they’re workers—they’re just workers.”

Now, in relation to the changed conditions, emigration is a huge part of that story. The connection between Labour and the working class has been severed. Labour didn’t talk about family, about community. Labour and to some extent the unions have severed themselves from that vision, they have no place for working-class values. So now things are on the move. Those areas and those people, in small towns, this is what happened in the Brexit vote. Those places still had a notion of solidarity, they still had an affection for the existing political system: Parliament, democracy, accountability, they understood these things are at stake. And they voted to defend it. So, yes, capital has tried to fragment this political sense of solidarity, but it turns out they haven’t succeeded. That’s the remarkable discovery that’s been brought to the table.

S.A.: It looks Labour will most likely win the next election.

M.G.: Yeah, so it turned out that Conservative party was perfectly positioned [to succeed]: Brexit, patriotic, pro-labor. But the Conservatives couldn’t accept it. Boris Johnson was got rid for eating a piece of cake and having a drink. This is ludicrous. They were unable to build their electoral position. So people think they’re useless and corrupt, and the default position is that they will vote Labour. But Labour isn’t [wholeheartedly embraced]. True, Labour has moved. It’s accepted Brexit, it talks about some limits on immigration, it’s talking about retraining workers. But they’re still stranded really in 2008. They’d like everything to go back to how it was. So they’re not running on a [populist] electoral program that would give them a mandate to transform the economy and to recognize labor. So they’ll win, but it will be an insignificant win. And part of that is the inability to face the conservatism that is profoundly a part of working-class people: a desire for a home, a desire for security in a restless world.

S.A.: One of the challenges pro-labor conservatives have in the United States is that while the mainstream left might have individual policy preferences that would help working-class people, they recoil at any attempt at answering: what are we doing all this for? What is the telos, the end point, of the human person? As a person of faith, I have an account of that, one that even secular people could at least partially sign up to: people thrive in families, people thrive in orderly environments. I suppose that’s the blue part of Blue Labour.

M.G.: They do recoil from the blue part, but the working class aren’t abandoning the blue part. They’re non-colonized. They’re blessed by not going to university and having the compulsory linguistic and moral servitude put into them. They understand reality: you’ve got to work, you’ve got to give, you’ve got to sacrifice. They understand that love is hard, that it’s difficult but necessary to maintain those relationship of obligation through the generations.

Thank God, that hasn’t gone away. They haven’t succeeded in rooting it out. So the left is stranded in a weird position, where they know they need these workers, but they still treat them as really unpleasant relatives whom they’d really like not to invite to the family party. And don’t underestimate the extent to which the Church has become colonized by progressivism. Sometimes it’s indistinguishable from an NGO.

So a rediscovery of the notion of covenant has become very important to Blue Labour. Thank God we have Parliament, we have the monarchy. The Church is sadly the weakest link of that chain: it can’t talk about the Kingdom as the Kingdom, and the role of politics in generating that [sense of faith-based solidarity]. I’m sorry to drop this on you, but it turns out that it’s the more conservative, more faithful elements of the working class that are more able to resist capital. Because they have that sense that human beings are sacred, that nature is sacred, that we have obligations as trustees of these gifts, rather than relating to them as entitled recipients.

S.A.: OK, we’ve plenty bashed the left, now let’s bash the right a bit.

M.G.: Let’s do!

S.A.: The most frustrating part of being a pro-labor conservative in the Anglo-American world is that you hear your fellow right-wingers lament various cultural phenomena—collapsing church attendance, declining family formation and total fertility, and so on. But they never link these cultural developments to material developments in the political economy. I find it maddening.

M.G.: OK, that’s on us. That’s our obligation in our generation: to integrate the conservative traditions with a general critique of market society. But this goes back to the roots of Anglo-American conservatism, this goes back to Burke: for all his genius, for all the huge amounts he got right, he couldn’t deal with the revolutionary disintegration of social bonds generated by capital. He couldn’t do it. So the capture of conservatives by free-market fundamentalism is a reality, and they don’t see the concentrations of power, they don’t see the liquidation of solidarity, they don’t see the desecration of the holy.... You see that time and again. You saw that with Trump. He promised to have a national industrial strategy, but he couldn’t really pull it off. You see it now with Conservatives here. So our work is to integrate the honorable obligations of conservatism with the best of the political-economic analysis of the left, which failed in so many respects but was correct about “everything holy becoming profane”—in that, Marx was correct.

S.A.: And conservatives once had their own critiques of market fundamentalism: Eisenhower and Nixon expanded the New Deal in various directions, and now conservatives look at them with a sort of puzzlement: how did these figures of the right come around to the idea that, say, wage floors are necessary?

G.M.: Conservatives also abandoned real industrial capital! They abandoned productive capital in favor of finance capital.... There used to be in America local industrialists who formed associations, they’re completely subordinated [to Wall Street] at the moment. So that’s the challenge. It’s not intellectually articulated, but this politics exists among the people: They want liberty, they want solidarity, they want decency out of the system. We’ve got to find a way of offering that.

S.A.: What makes you hopeful? Where do you see the glimmering shards of hope?

G.M.: Well, frankly, both parties have adopted something like this. Even the Conservatives, though stranded in a market fantasy, generated Brexit: sovereignty, democratic control, accountability to the people. They moved into that space. They moved into a much more pro-labor position. Remember Boris Johnson saying, “F—k business,” when he was told, “The City of London doesn’t approve.” Michael Gove’s “Leveling Up” project is very important, and you across the Atlantic should pay attention: this is the first time since the ’60s that we’ve talked about industrial strategy and national self-sufficiency.

And on Labour’s side, despite the waves of hate and loathing, they’ve accepted Brexit, they’ve accepted immigration limits, they’ve begun to engage with national industrial strategy. The thing going for us is that we can’t lose. Because people are people, and they love each other. That’s the amazing thing. If you look at the forces against us, we stand no chance. But because of the obduracy of the working class, we stand over them like a constant shadow. We don’t organize, but labor moves and endures. We’re people of faith. We understand that they can’t destroy human relationships and the meaning found from that. And the dignity of workers—they can’t, they can’t destroy it. 

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