Maurice Glasman – the peer plotting Labour’s new strategy from his flat
Toby Helm and Julian Coman, The Observer
Labour insiders think Glasman could provide the intellectual basis for an assault on David Cameron’s ‘big society’
Maurice Glasman still seems surprised as he sits in his cosy, ramshackle apartment perched above a clothes store in bohemian north London. The Jewish academic-cum-community organiser was astounded when he was offered a peerage, out of the blue, by Ed Miliband in the new year honours list.
"I was completely shocked," he reflects. "I was out having coffee with a friend when I had the call, so I immediately rang my wife, who took some convincing that I wasn’t just making it up for a laugh." He adds: "Ed told me: ‘I just really like what you’re doing and want you to keep doing it.’" The unlikely ennoblement of this university lecturer, 49, passed largely unnoticed in the press. A peerage for Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, and a damehood for Lady Antonia Fraser made more headlines. But a few weeks on, Glasman’s admission to the upper house is beginning to excite interest among leading figures at Westminster, who believe it may prove to be a significant development in British political life in 2011.
Glasman was moderately well known in Labour circles in the capital thanks to his ground-breaking work with London Citizens – an alliance of faith institutions, universities, schools and trade unions that he brought together to run community projects. Suddenly, his political philosophy of local activism is being touted by some as Labour’s answer – its possible trump card – to David Cameron’s "big society". Others in Labour go further, saying it could even offer the kernel of the "big idea" that Miliband is desperately seeking to define his leadership.
The Glasman creed is that Labour – real, traditional, pre-1945 Labour, as he would put it – is the only party with the values and beliefs that can make the "big society" work. Unlike the Tories, whose vision relies on a volunteer spirit rising up when institutions get off people’s backs, he has a different idea – one he says is in some respects "more conservative than the Conservatives". He wants to foster a "Labour big society" based on ideas of "family, faith and the flag" and nurtured through cherished local institutions – everything from churches to post offices, banks, hospitals, schools and football clubs.
"At the moment the Conservatives have got an idea of a society built on volunteers," he says. "It has got to be much more than that." He cites football clubs as a key example of where local loyalties and spirit can be reinforced – and local banks as institutions that can inspire economic activity – if their governance is reformed. "Football clubs are a form of magic and a form of belonging, of hope, of glory, but fans are just being exploited by venture capitalists from a thousand miles away. It offends against the sacred sense of belonging. Ideally I would like to see the Labour party taking very strong support for mutual ownership of football clubs. I would like to see the endowment of local banks so there is regional capital and regional economies."
He reels off long lists of academics and political thinkers, from Aristotle to the lesser-known Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi, as influences. The latter, he says, taught him that capitalism, though a force for good if controlled, could also be a menace if not. Labour now had to "rediscover" the need to tame the markets as part of its mission to make individuals feel valuable again.
"The logic of capitalism is to turn human beings and their natural environment into commodities," he says. "The logic of democracy, and particularly the Labour movement, is to protect the human status of the person."
But the biggest influence was his mother, Rivi, who died two years ago, leaving him struck with grief and in despair about his life. "She was very conservative Labour with a very strong commitment to work, faith, country, very patriotic. England for her was the country that saved the Jews from the Nazis; alone in Europe we survived. She was a monarchist. She was very religious, very radical. She thought the country was very unfair. She was very tied to Labour. Labour was the great hope of working people. I didn’t know what to do with my grief when she died." A close friend told him to honour her with what he did. "So I began to re-engage with Labour."
There cannot be many community activists with such an impressive intellectual hinterland. Glasman directs the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University and his shelves are stacked with analyses of the Enclosure Acts to discussions of the Torah. An alumnus of the European University Institute in Florence, he spent the year the Berlin Wall fell studying the crisis of state socialism and its aftermath. The book that came out of that thesis is entitled Unnecessary Suffering: Managing Market Utopia.
Glasman believes that before Labour can move on it has to learn the lessons about the failures of state socialism. He is for localism and "bottom-up politics", as opposed to top-down Whitehall diktat – and if that sounds a bit like David Cameron it is meant to. Affronted by the coalition’s evocation of a smaller, cheaper public sector, Glasman wants to outdo compassionate conservatism with a Labour vision of "the common good". He likes to talk of "Blue Labour" – a small-c conservative version of socialism bound together by strong ethical glue.
He objects to the idea that it was New Labour that was the problem – arguing that the party started leaving people like his mother behind after 1945, when the National Health Service and the welfare state were created. It gradually became elitist, managerial, bureaucratic in its style and thinking. Socialism became statism. Labour became "nasty".
"It became cynical because it was about a certain view of what was realistic; it was moralistic in the sense that if you did not agree with their discourse you were opposing progress. It was disempowering because of its administrative form. It was hostile to human association because it was about every individual entitlement, not people doing things together."
The nadir came in the ghastly encounter between Gordon Brown and Labour supporter Gillian Duffy on the campaign trail in Rochdale last May, when the prime minister angrily dismissed Duffy’s views on immigration as "bigoted". Glasman believes Brown’s dismissal of Duffy summed up Labour’s internal crisis. "Labour had reached a situation under Brown where most of the people in the party hated one another and they hated people outside the party too."
To re-emerge as a viable political force, Glasman believes Labour has to get the Gillian Duffys back onside and re-engender the idea that people enjoy working together for the public good. It will do so, he says, not by promising to deliver a more just, equal society from the commanding heights of Westminster, but by standing with people in their local struggles.
What kinds of struggles does he have in mind? He cites the fight to keep the port of Dover and its historic surroundings from being privatised, and the fate of Billingsgate market. "The Billingsgate porters are one of the most ancient workforces in the country and the Corporation of London wants to make them redundant. So the City of London – all the privileges, all the political status, belongs to the rich and to capital – and the workforce have no protection." National treasures such as the Forest of Dean, Sherwood Forest and the White Cliffs of Dover must be preserved. "I would like to see Ed on the white cliffs saying: ‘This is forever England.’"
He says Cameron’s "big society" is in thrall to a free-market philosophy that leaves communities and individuals at the mercy of forces that respect profit far more than tradition, custom and a sense of place. The "blue" in "Blue Labour" comes from a conservative conviction that market forces, unconstrained, play havoc with the fabric of people’s lives. It is the Labour party’s task and vocation to provide a "countervailing force" protecting communities against wealthy, powerful interests.
It is innovative stuff, a long way from Blairite themes of competition and market reform of the public sector, and Brown’s Treasury-based redistribution of the proceeds of growth by tax credit. New Labour defined itself by an accommodation to the market (and in Peter Mandelson’s case, the filthy rich), and engaged in modest redistribution of the proceeds of growth. Blue Labour, in the name of "the common good", attacks such laissez-faire economics from both left and right.
The Glasman "project" will undoubtedly ruffle feathers inside and outside Labour. As well as high-flown theory, he has mischief and humour. Once he had decided to accept a peerage, Glasman’s next step was to contact the relevant authorities to request that his title be Lord Glasman of the City of London. He wanted to make a political point that an under-regulated City of London should be more accountable to parliament – only to be told that his request was "unprecedented" and "unacceptable".
Instead he is likely to plump for the humbler, simpler title of Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. It was, perhaps, the first hard lesson on his unexpected journey from academia to life at Westminster.
GLASMAN IN HIS OWN WORDS…
On Brown and Blair
"Brown ended up defending the state, Blair ended up defending the market, and there was no concept of society"
On Tory "big society" rhetoric
"Power to the people. They are claiming all that stuff that Labour has abandoned as absolutely pivotal. We have to reclaim the land."
On standing with the people
"Labour should stand with fans and not the bosses of [football clubs such as] Manchester United and Liverpool."
On David Cameron
"I think that David Cameron is genuinely a One Nation Tory… It is Clegg and Osborne who are in the deep alliance on the neo-liberal Thatcherite economics."
On Miliband and the PM
"What Ed should do is invite Cameron to join Labour, which is really about the big society and won’t be closing post offices and libraries."