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Owen Smith and Blue Labour's Republicanism.

During the leadership contest, Owen Smith began to sketch out a new form of 'Blue Labour' vision for Labour--republican, federalist, not overly socially conservative, opposed to concentrations of wealth and power, and launching a patriotic assault on inequality. This vision holds out the prospect of reconnecting with some of Labour's lost voters. The party would do well to build on it.

What lessons can we draw from Owen Smith's leadership challenge? Some would respond that it shows that a candidate promising to prioritise competence and electability cannot make gaffes like suggesting that the UK should negotiate with ISIS. Others add that since Smith only really drew policy battle-lines on a second EU referendum, his defeat shows no challenger can hope to out-Corbyn Corbyn. Instead, it is claimed, Labour moderates (which includes every non-Corbynite faction from the soft left to the Blairite right) need an inspiring vision of their own: only then will they deserve to win back control of the party.

So far, so obvious. Largely overlooked is that Smith briefly made gestures towards the kind of political renewal Labour so desperately needs. Early on in the contest Smith gave two extensive interviews--one on Newsnight, the other with Owen Jones--which addressed Labour's estrangement from the country. (1) He spoke of the existential threat of UKIP storming our working-class heartlands in South Wales and Northern England, advocated a properly federal UK, and argued for a patriotic Labour party which tackled inequality and insecurity while openly addressing immigration. It was, in other words, a partial embrace--subsequently abandoned--of the Blue Labour approach to socialism.

Anthony Painter argues that Blue Labour combines two strands of thought currently in exile from the Labour movement: republicanism and social conservatism. (2) Modern republicanism, stretching from the Italian Renaissance to the American and French Revolutions, conceived of the common good as freedom from domineering rule. (3) Blue Labour applies this notion to political economy, holding that strong local governance, workplace democracy, and civil society organisations are the means by which we can best free ourselves from economic domination, and so realise the common good. Blue Labour's social conservatives, meanwhile, also advocate a contributory approach to welfare, tough controls on immigration, and stress the importance of national identity.

The republican and socially conservative strands of Blue Labour are to varying degrees at odds with Corbynite state-socialism. While the first partly dovetails with the co-operative tradition, generally palatable to the left, the second represents a radical departure from Labour's socially liberal consensus. Unfortunately it is precisely this willingness to confront immigration and identity which makes Blue Labour so relevant to the country, yet unpopular within the party.

The underlying reason is this: over the course of several years Labour has ideologically parted ways with both swing voters and our traditional working class supporters. Those deserting us value hard work, tradition, and the national interest: qualities which are primarily associated with the Conservatives and UKIP. By contrast, most Labour members--myself included--prioritise the abstract and universal concepts of freedom, social justice, and equality.

Jon Cruddas and colleagues have analysed the consequences in an enquiry into Labour's 2015 general election defeat and dire performance in the 2016 local elections. (4) It makes for sobering reading. The lesson is only partly that we lost due to poor communication and an unappealing leader (problems which have only intensified). The tougher lesson is that we have also lost support to UKIP and the Conservatives because their emphasis on immigration, welfare, and identity simply chime better with many working class and lower-middle class voters.

Clearly, the country wants us to address their concerns about issues like immigration. Equally clearly, the membership will not accept a socially conservative response--rightly, given the possible consequences for the vulnerable. What, then, is to be done? How do we square the circle of party and country? The answer may lie in following the path pointed toward by Smith: a partial appropriation of Blue Labour ideas. We ought, I suggest, to jettison Blue Labour's social conservatism and instead take up just its republican aspect (an approach I call, for want of a better term 'republican socialism'). In addition to its attractive political economy, from this perspective we can also tackle contentious issues with a view to the common good.

Take immigration. The 2015 manifesto contained good specific policies: introducing a migrant impact fund, increasing English language proficiency in public sector jobs, and tackling employers who use migrant labour to undercut wages. The problem was we failed to situate them in a broader, principled narrative (unless one includes the crude 'Controls on Immigration' mug). Labour should instead argue that such policies benefit both immigrants and locals, neither ignoring the public's legitimate concerns nor capitulating to their ungrounded fears--achieving a common good.

Or consider national identity, an issue of increasing salience. The New Labour government led the way on devolution of power before reverting to remote centralisation. Labour should pick up where it left off and argue for a federal United Kingdom: power and decision-making being devolved where possible to the national and local level, thereby responding to justified demands for a less London-centric domestic politics. Crucially this does not contravene a collective foreign policy commitment to fulfilling our international obligations. A republican socialist response to national identity would not, therefore, collapse into an insular withdrawal from the world, but seek to balance patriotic and internationalist instincts.

The exception is welfare, the republican socialist approach to which is similar to the much maligned post-1945 safety net. To be sure, a social security policy inspired by the common good would encourage people into employment where possible, but through positive help rather than the humiliating and punitive measures of recent years. It therefore remains to some degree at odds with increasingly harsh public sentiment.

Nevertheless, the republican socialist approach--gestured at by Smith and emerging from Blue Labour, shorn of its social conservatism--in many respects promises intellectual and political renewal. Two clear obstacles stand in the way, however. The first and easiest to address are the labels: 'Blue Labour', originally chosen by Glasman as a reference to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, is now tainted by association with the socially conservative credo of 'family, faith, and flag'. It also goes without saying that any mention of 'republicanism' is likely to bring Donald Trump and George Bush to mind before Montesquieu or Cicero.

Secondly, and most pressingly, there is the need to advance republican socialist ideas within the party. Sympathisers within think-tanks, the PLP, and the membership must build a body of support, as part of Smith's trouble with embracing Blue Labour themes was that there was no pre-existing base within the party on which he could draw. Working with established groups like Labour First, the Fabian Society, Progress, and Open Labour could be a way to address this problem.

The challenge, then, is to develop a republican socialist programme--under a catchier label--which addresses crucial issues like immigration and identity. This can only be achieved on the basis of the above objectives, generating a wave of support within the party on which a potential leader can ride. At present we are possibly decades away from returning to government, but taking inspiration from ideas briefly floated in Smith's campaign we can begin to map out the road ahead.

Lewis Coyne is writing a PhD on Hans Jonas' theory of responsibility at the University of Exeter.


(1) Newsnight, 25/07/2016,; 'Owen Jones meets Owen Smith', 03/08/2016,

(2) A. Painter, 'Obama, the Future and Conservative Values', The RSA, 9.3.15,

(3) P. Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford, 1997. See in particular chapter five.

(4) J. Cruddas, N. Pecorelli and J. Rutherford, Labour's Future: Why Labour Lost in 2015 and How It Can Win Again, 19.05.2016,
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Author:Coyne, Lewis
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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