David Russell talks to newly created peer Maurice Glasman about the ‘Blue Labour’ ideas he derived from Jewish tradition
Maurice Glasman, now Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, intrigued me from our first meetings. These were in 2006. We had both been invited to the Faith and Citizenship Training programme at the St. Ethelburga’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre in the City of London, I as a member of the local Jewish community, along with local Muslim and Christian leaders; Maurice to lead a series of sessions on community organising – identifying and acting together with others to pursue mutual self-interest.
Erudite and enthused, Maurice Glasman would roll up cigarettes from the tobacco pouch which would emerge regularly from the side pocket of his corduroy jacket. During the breaks, we would talk about the history of the Jewish community of the East End, as I was then based in Bethnal Green and Maurice was living in Stoke Newington and working in Aldgate.
Campaigns that we worked on together with TELCO (The East London Communities Organisation) focused on calling for a cap on exploitative interest rates amongst financial lenders (as laws on usury exist in all three Abrahamic faiths) as well as agitating for a living wage, the minimum income that is required by a worker to meet their basic needs – also a value that is shared across all three faiths.
This extracurricular practice blended seamlessly with Maurice’s academic interests at the time, as Director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) and Senior Lecturer in Political Theory. As an acolyte and international authority on Karl Polanyi, the Jewish Hungarian-Canadian political economist who authored The Great Transformation, which documents the evolution of today’s market society and the incumbent dangers of capitalism, Maurice has always propounded a leftfield view on the politics of the day.
The perspectives that he advocated then never made front page news – and he didn’t expect they would ever do so: “I have never had any ambition. I have never had a conventional career path. I have always done what I felt was right at the time.” His elevation to the House of Lords in 2010 came as a complete shock.
Born in 1961 In Walthamstow, and brought up in Palmers Green, Maurice Glasman won an exhibition to study Modern History at Cambridge, and after several years as a jazz trumpeter, moved to Florence where he wrote his PhD on Polanyi and then became a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s European centre in Bologna. On his father’s death in 1995 he returned to the UK, where he took up teaching at LMU.
He became involved in community organising through a friendship with the Chaplain at LMU, William Taylor, reinforced by his involvement in the Labour Party, of which he is a lifelong member. It was through this work that he began to develop his theory on how faith and citizenship can check the free market.
“You need a wall of moral traditions, such that you can find in faith and citizenship, to resist the domination of the market. If we are to not live in a world of walled rich people, we must have a democratic commons of association.”
It is this concern with association, with power, with resistance to the market, which led him from Polanyi to organising, to Labour strategist. “Labour has become very statist, very policy-based, quite technocratic and elitist in lots of ways. The idea of giving power to people to make their own mistakes, to build their own lives together, is being a bit awkward but resonates”. What he means, is that politicians today are more averse to mass democracy than ever before, including Labour, which was traditional the party of the people.
It is this position, which has led Maurice to conclude “that Labour can be a transformative party but it has to redistribute power and not be exclusively concerned with the redistribution of wealth.”
It was the provocation of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’, a call to the Conservative Party to reclaim its community values, which sparked Maurice into developing a counter-manifesto that called on the Labour Party to rediscover and re-engage with its core values of “reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity”, some of which had been hijacked by the Conservative Party – most notably in its conception of the Big Society.
It was this manifesto that brought Maurice’s thinking to the attention of the newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Miliband saw this political philosophy, which Maurice coined as ‘Blue Labour’, as no less than a foundation upon which to rebuild the Labour Party. It was for this reason that he was elevated to the House of Lords.
Maurice has left his fellow Lords in no doubt about his Jewishness, a trait that is unusual amongst the Jewish peers. Yet one aspect that Maurice did not publicise until he talked at the South London Day Limmud this May is the inspiration he has found in Jewish thinking. He cites the concept of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, of Torah im derech ertz, which emphasises the importance of worldly involvement to realise the values of Torah.
Also key to his ideas is the philosophy of the Bund (Secular Jewish Socialist Party) in pre-war Russia and Eastern Europe. “The Bund was concerned with the beautiful things that we do together – music, literature, art – and fostered solidarity with the poor of the world. Hirsch represents the conservative side and community, such as the honouring of parents and children and a moral concern to build genuine relationships, as Jeremiah teaches: ‘seek the peace of the city for in its peace shall you have peace’.”
“Blue Labour is equally Hirsch and the Bund. The Bund adds a focus on building relationships with others, building a common life with strangers, and of creative exploration.”
Out of this evolves the foundational campaigns of community organisers, as well as Blue Labour.
“The Living Wage is core to the menschlichikeit (integrity) that unites Samson Raphael Hirsch with the Bundists; that you should pay people enough for them to live. It used to be called a Family Wage, which was a core demand of the Jewish trade unions in the East End.”
“Just because Jews are on the whole no longer poor – in that we are no longer cleaners, cooks, dustmen – and that we have found our way up the housing ladder, does not mean we no longer have interests in people being paid properly or in the good of the city.”
It is this conviction that has driven Maurice to work to engage Jewish institutions in community organising in the UK, to play a more active role in working alongside Christians and Muslims in developing broad-based campaigns for a living wage and affordable housing.
It is clear that Saul Alinsky, the Jewish academic cum activist who developed the practices of community organising in 1930s Chicago, is very much an inspiration for Maurice too. “I realised that many of the great community organisers were Jewish, but Jews were not organised. But what I see all the time is that there is a deep longing in Jews for a good meaningful life and for a better life, which will be never-ending and will never end.”
It is this that he believes the Jewish community, particularly in the UK, has managed to get so right over the years. “Society as the association, as the kehilla (congregation), needs leaders and leadership and practices, such as the minyan (quorum of men at synagogue). This is the meaningful conception of the community – self-organised institutions. And the impulse to lead a good life and to lead others in that good life that is a very distinctive Jewish trait that I do not think is going to go away.”
This love of self-organised institutions, as vehicles for association, has been fostered since his childhood.
“I was brought up in the bowels of the Jewish community. I grew up in Palmers Green. I attended Clapton Jewish Day School (now Simon Marks) and JFS (Jews’ Free School). I was involved in the Jewish scouts, a Jewish Jazz Big Band. My family comes from a tradition of Orthodoxy and Labour, which once was a lot more common. My father was a Labour Zionist. And there were three institutions when growing up, that every Jew I knew supported: the United Synagogue, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and the Labour Party.”
It is a renewal of such institutions that he wants to see in the Jewish community today. This, he believes, will renew the Jewish tradition of genuine civic engagement.
“The concept of the kehilla (congregation) is very dear to me. Jews should make the effort to go to shul on Shabbos; make the effort to meet other Jews and to talk to them, and to do things with Jews that Jews do together, which is politics, make music, make friends, and argue all the time – and to keep Jewish life strong. It will flow from that. The stronger our Jewish institutions and practices, the stronger our civic engagement will be.”
Maurice leads by example, attending regularly different minyanim, including the new Stoke Newington Masorti Synagogue that he helped establish, as well as being actively involved locally, particularly in Jewish education – as Vice-Chair of the Governors of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, which all four of his children have attended.
“Pirke Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) calls on us to make ourselves a teacher; which I always understood to have three meanings: to be a teacher; to find yourself a teacher; and, to build educational systems and be a teaching people. In that Jews have always excelled. And for that I love the Jewish educational system, not only because of the care of the child but because of the love of learning, and we must value Jewish schools as real treasure troves of that tradition.”
What then is he teaching his children?
“To be menschlich, which means being nice to your mum. Be as horrible as you like to me, but be nice to your mum. I share that as a general maxim of life. And just do the thing that feels right. Be with the person that you love. And, don’t get bullied, and don’t get defeated, as life is surprising.”
It was as much a surprise to receive the call informing him of his nomination to the Lords, as it was when an interview that he gave a few months later to the Fabian Society magazine became front page national news. In the interview, Maurice noted that the Labour Party should seek to engage with disaffected communities such as those that were voting for the English Defence League (EDL).
“Unfortunately, the comments were misconstrued. I was saying that we needed to speak to the supporters of the EDL, not, as some people made out, that we should speak to the EDL itself. The idea that we should speak to upset, angry and dispossessed people, to try build a better life together, must be addressed and historically the Labour movement has been the vehicle to do this. It is a broad-based approach. Where there are mass outpourings of discontent, you have two choices, either you demonise them or you break them.”
“My view is the latter, in that we have to create divisions within the EDL.” By creating divisions between the leadership and membership of EDL, the hope is that it will be possible to bring back into the traditional Labour fold the predominantly working classes that have become disillusioned and excluded from mainstream politics leading them to the radical fringe.
It is this call for engagement with the radical fringe, which has led Maurice into trouble not only with the Labour leadership, but also the Jewish establishment too. In the same manner, the Jewish Chronicle has criticised him and London Citizens for engaging with Muslim communities that also have a radical fringe.
“The people I call the liberal elite have a big difficulty in engaging in democratic politics. We have to find a way to engage poor people, which is both locals and immigrants, in a democratic discussion in which they can speak. But a bit like the Jewish Chronicle on the State of Israel, they want everybody to sign up to a politically correct ideological position before they can say anything.”
But ultimately, it is this building of relationships, bridge building, which is at the heart of his politics.
“I love my country and I want to build and broker a politics of the common good, which can bring together immigrants and locals, working class and middle class, north and south, faith and secular, a common good which upholds the dignity of the human being and the power of association against the overwhelmingly powerful markets. I love that, and that is my politics. And what is amazing is that I am in a position to fashion such a thing.
So what has he learnt then over this whirlwind couple of years. “That it is impossible to engage in serious politics without being misunderstood. The misunderstanding is an important part of politics. And, you shouldn’t let your position get ahead of your relationships. Relationships precede action, so I take a great deal of time just meeting people, talking to them.”
This is the advice that he is giving to his four children, who are beginning to follow their father’s lead by being politically active, his son considering his father’s politics to be “bourgeois outrage”. However, they are drifting into internet activism, of which he continues to be sceptical. “I am like the grumpy old dad telling them to go out and to meet some people.”
What other advice does he give to them?
“Before you get angry, have a conversation with the person. Meeting people, doing things together, is the best thing in the world and is transformative. Foster a love of England, a love of Yiddishkeit, and a love of the Labour movement. If I could do that, I will be happy.”
About his time in the House of Lords, he notes that “out of 700 or so lords, about 120 are Jews. A third of High Court judges are Jews. This is the golden age of Anglo-Jewry and sometimes we should take pause and recognise that the country is completely open to us and what we do – which is get into trouble, be busy, have arguments, do our jobs properly, and to be a blessing to the country.”
There is still much work ahead for Baron Glasman in doing his new job properly, as he advises the Labour Party on its strategy for victory in the next general election, likely in 2015, “which is not a straightforward task”. And if Labour is to win, then it will need to secure the support of the Jewish community the ‘bellweather’ for the country.
“Jews are very independently-minded people and if Labour represents liberty and compassion, Labour will get the support of the Jewish community, but if we represent State spending and an administrative view of politics we won’t. Labour has not yet articulated any vision that can generate any enthusiasm, which is what we need to do. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
As we part ways, Maurice comments finally: “I never expected to be in this position. I never planned to be in this position. But I trust the story.” How that story will unfold, and how he will be a blessing to the country he loves, only time will tell.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2012 Issue.
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