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How Ed Lost His Red

Tom Cutterham

TangledRowenna Davis
Tangled up in Blue
Ruskin Publishing, 2011
241 Pages



When “Red Ed” Miliband was elected to the Labour leadership, it was as a left-winger who was slightly more moderate and, shall we say, “plausible” than Diane Abbot. At this point, the 2010 election campaign and its defining moment, the Gordon Brown-Gillian Duffy incident, seemed like part of an old story. Driving away from a meet-and-greet in which Mrs Duffy had told him how worried she was about the “flocking Eastern Europeans,” Brown had accidentally left his microphone on while he said she was “just a bigoted woman.” But that was about the fall of Gordon Brown. Miliband’s leadership campaign had been supposed to be a new chapter.

The story of Blue Labour is the story of how Duffy’s fears returned to Labour’s agenda: how Ed lost his ‘Red’, and attached himself to a dubious coterie of cranks who have since generated a steady stream of ‘incidents’ of their own. Tangled up in Blue tells this story with an eye for the engaging foibles of its characters. A bit like how the five-foot ceilings in a Tudor cottage give it “character,” or how Boris Johnson’s amusing hairdo and sub-Stephen Fry wit cover for a noxious mixture of wet patriarchal and dry neoliberal Toryism, Tangled up in Blue is a study in how politics is packaged in personality.

Tangled’s hero is not Boris but Maurice Glasman, the Milliband adviser elevated to the peerage as Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington & Stamford Hill (not, as he apparently requested, ‘of the City of London’) in the 2010 New Year’s honours list. Most of the real substance of Tangled up in Blue is a thick spread of interview transcripts, mainly from Glasman but also from characters he encounters on his journey, including Miliband himself. Of course, by now many have already heard the kinds of things Glasman is apt to say. In April, he suggested that Labour should try to “involve” supporters of the English Defence League; in July, he said that immigration to the UK should be temporarily halted. So it won’t be much surprise to read that “as the state continued to expand,” according to Glasman, “it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves.”

It isn’t a coincidence that this sounds more like what we would expect from David Cameron’s Conservatives than from Labour. Glasman was actually beaten to the clever colour-reversal punch by Philip Blond and his “Red Tory” chimera, out of which the Big Society—if nothing else—lurched forth. Blue Labour is literally the same thing, coming from the other side. But because Labour is out of power, and afraid of staying that way for a while, Blue Labour has been given rather more influence than Blond ever had. Indeed, Blond comes across here as a slightly pathetic character. Glasman would have him round to dinner (“he never has a cooked meal, he only has takeaways”) and let him play with the kids (“it turns out he’s brilliant with children, he gives them quizzes”).

Glasman, we feel, is supposed to be slightly rougher-edged than Blond. He’s a chain-smoking academic from London Met, a disciple of Saul Alinsky (the alleged guru of Obama’s Chicago base) who’ll get stuck in with a bit of community organising alongside his speaking engagements as part of “the struggle for Labour’s soul.” Davis’ book, although it comes from an insider’s perspective (she is a Labour councillor in Southwark), treats its subject with judicious reserve. She points out the importance, on one hand, of the community networks Blue Labour emphasises, and on the other, of its explicit critique of capitalism and City finance. Those are valuable contributions. It’s all very well if “whatever chord Blue Labour has struck” is “still ringing.” Just as long as equally important traditions like rationalism, cosmopolitanism, and progressivism aren’t drowned out in the din.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in American History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Tom is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.