Laurie Penny: Why seek power if you have to turn on your own to get it?

Rather than challenging the status quo, Blue Labour responds with a paranoid hankering for a time when women didn't leave the kitchen
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The battle for the soul of the Labour Party has begun in earnest. Until this week, "Blue Labour" was supposed to be Ed Miliband's equivalent of David Cameron's Big Society – a spanking new idea with a catchy title to detoxify the New Labour brand and secure his party's re-election. But the project, dreamt up in 2009 by a group of academics and MPs close to Miliband, is disarmingly similar to the Big Society, in that it recommends rolling back the welfare state in favour of things you can't really legislate for, like faith, family and "tradition". It is either a form of "radical conservatism" or a "deeply conservative socialism", in the words of Blue Labour's chief architect, Baron Maurice Glasman, who appears to have creatively misunderstood what socialism actually means.

Now, however, Blue Labour is in jeopardy, after Glasman gave a series of erratic interviews and appearances in which he seemed to toss out policy suggestions that would have the most cynical Tory spin-doctor chewing his shirt in a panic. Among these ideas was a wholesale freeze on immigration. As its founding members, like the MP Jon Cruddas, scramble for the lifeboats, it is worth asking why this leaky vessel of "radical conservatism" was ever entertained as a plausible way to steer the left to a brave new world.

Glasman is perhaps the personification of George Orwell's warning about "the neo-reactionary" school of liberal intellectual, whose "criticisms of the left are much more damaging than anything that issues from the Conservative Central Office". However maddening it may be when a right-wing ideologue couches a politics of fear in the language of tradition, it is infinitely more chilling to hear a professed liberal follow a thread of benign condescension until it tugs at a hard knot of bigotry.

The founding principles of Blue Labour tend towards a frightening rhetoric of benevolent sexism and xenophobia – rather than actively seeking to confiscate the rights of women and minorities, the project simply fetishises a fantasy Great Labour Past in which the absence of those rights was a cultural given.

There is an extraordinary passage in the opening essay of the Blue Labour launch document, "The Politics of Paradox", in which Glasman describes New Labour as an "abusive marriage" between a "good", traditional, working-class "dad" and an out-of-touch, bourgeois intellectual "mum", a formulation to make any Freudian scholar reach frantically for their penis – sorry, pen.

In the rest of the tract, Glasman and a fraternity of Blue Labour thinkers throw their support behind Labour's recent dedication to rolling back the welfare state while preaching a politics of "tradition".

This notion of "tradition" romanticises a cartoonish working-class past that is, as the Middlesex academic Jonathan Rutherford puts it, largely "about men". Rutherford, who has this week distanced himself from Glasman's anti-immigration comments, makes explicit that the lost glories of this "patriarchal social order" were disrupted by "the growing independence of women". As the MP Helen Goodman asked in a retort, whatever can he mean? She points out that for most working mothers, the welfare state is not an optional indulgence, but a vital lifeline.

In an article for another newspaper this week, Glasman spoke cryptically of "partnership" as the Blue Labour option for women who wish to "live with children". Meanwhile, the Conservative Party in government is pursuing a peculiar mania for rearranging the welfare state to remove single parenthood as a viable life choice for women earning under £50,000. Can you spot the difference? I can't.

The self-styled "radical conservatism" of Blue Labour is radical only in the strictest definition of the word, in that it gets to the root – from the Latin "radix" – of contemporary social conservatism. At its heart, social conservatism responds to the problems of modernity with a frantic nostalgia for the comforts of the past, even if that past was less than pleasant for those who were obliged actually to live there.

The one aspect in which Blue Labour truly differs from the Big Society is that it does, in fact, contain a critique of some of the most pressing discontents of contemporary capitalism, namely the fact that the globalisation of labour has allowed businesses to hold down wages and decimate workers' rights, and the fact that the free market relies on women's unpaid labour to the extent that many are obliged to carry a double burden of childcare and paid employment.

Rather than actually challenging the status quo, however, Blue Labour responds with a paranoid hankering for a time when workers didn't leave their countries of origin and womendidn't leave the kitchen. Where an alternative vision of modernity is desperately needed, Blue Labour offers little more than chocolate-box traditionalism – and the problem with a box of chocolates is that you invariably pick the one with the unpleasant centre.

Blue Labour, with its patronising, "family, faith and flag" understanding of what it means to be working class – was always designed to appeal to the right-wing tabloids, which have long championed the assumed prejudices of the poor in order to manufacture consent for the economic agenda of the wealthy. The News of the World, however, no longer exists, so the need to pander to its prejudices is rather less urgent.

With Blue Labour, the Labour Party has demonstrated that it is quite willing to play on a knee-jerk politics of reaction, and to do so openly, on the assumption that its own re-election is the greatest possible social good.

This is a dangerous assumption to make. If centre-left parties can only achieve power by trading away their support for women and minorities, they need to ask themselves why they want that power, and whether they deserve to have it. It is far too easy to mouth the mantra of "tradition", and far harder to offer a positive, inspiring vision of modernity, but that, if it is still a party of principle, is what the Labour Party needs to do.