Interview: Maurice Glasman

My vision for Labour - and it's all down to mum

By Michael Freedland, June 30, 2011
Maurice Glasman in his ermine. He says sitting in the Lords is "like being in shul"

Maurice Glasman in his ermine. He says sitting in the Lords is "like being in shul"

Maurice Glasman is a happy man. Here he is, the boy who used to live over a London shop, ordering tea on the terrace of the House of Lords, smoking his roll-ups and revelling in the fact that the waitress knows who he is and has shown him to his regular spot by the low wall overlooking the Thames.

"This is my office," he says. The office, that is, of Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill.

This is still the honeymoon period for the JFS old boy who is enjoying the novelty of having been in Ed Miliband's first list of peerages. Until the letter came in the post on his 50th birthday, offering him the chance of sitting on the red benches - and inviting guests for tea on the terrace - he was just a Metropolitan University "Reader in Political Theory" who was taking "a kind of sabbatical to work on a book". Oh yes, and he was also the vice-chair of governors of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School in Stamford Hil and was busy working on establishing a Masorti synagogue in his home area.

But now he is hobnobbing on equal terms with people like Lord Sugar of Clapton - which strikes him as quite the obvious thing to do since Clapton is just up the road from Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, and he loves the geographic connection. Of course, Sugar hasn't been in the Lords for long himself either, but it is Glasman who is very much the apprentice.

"It's wonderful and hilarious. I was stunned," he says of his ennoblement. But what has also surprised him is the huge political impact he has made in so short a time. "Remarkable, isn't it?" he says.

We were talking before he was due to make his maiden speech today, but he is already far more in the public eye than most new peers. There have been interviews on radio and television and countless newspaper columns. No doubt to please me, he says: "I've fantasised all my life about being interviewed by the Jewish Chronicle".

The reason for the media enthusiasm has been his invention of a successor philosophy to Tony Blair's New Labour. He calls it "Blue Labour".

"In many ways, it is a love poem to my mother," he says, explaining the inspiration for his vision. "Like my mother, I'm passionate about the Labour Party and passionate about my country. She was fanatical about Labour and Yiddishkeit and very Orthodox. You could also say I'm very conservative." But with a small "c".

Blue Labour is an attempt to steer the party, which he joined when he was 15, in a new direction. "Labour had become too pragmatic. There was not enough concern about the family, about responsibility , about how people should be treated," he says.

He gets on well both with Ed Miliband and his brother David, did not know Tony Blair, but did not like Gordon Brown, even though he wrote what is recognised as probably the then PM's most effective speech, at the end of last year's General Election campaign: "Let me tell you who I am. I am the son of a Church of Scotland Minister."

As Glasman notes: "Not bad for a Jewish boy living above a shop in Hackney."

He says that Brown's way of thinking was not how Britain was or how he saw the "real" Labour Party, although he wrote the speech out of "loyalty".

"Britain is a wonderful country. We owe our lives as Jews to the fact that fascism didn't take over, that communism didn't take root here."

And the Labour Party has played a role in showing Britain that it "could resist the domination of the rich".

On the other hand, he says: "We have to recognise our conservative side. I believe we understand the world through the inherited language we have and our institutions. We need to reinstate our democracy."

That is one of the reasons he involves himself in the Living Wage campaign and the controversial London Citizens organisation, much criticised by some for its Islamic influences. "Muslims have been very kind to me," he says.

The connection between Blue or "real" Labour and Judaism is obvious, he says. After all, he points out, so many Labour organisations, like the burial societies of the Co-operative Movement, owe a great deal to the Jewish tradition.

"It's a question of menshlichkeit," he says, adding: "It is a similar to the philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch, who talked about 'Torah im derech eretz' -
combining Torah with the real world."

And sitting in the Lords? "It's like being in shul. People talk while others are speaking and when they get up to make a speech it's like having an aliyah."

Practically everything he does these days, he says, emphasises his Judaism - and probably always has since his teacher at JFS, Jo Wagerman, advised what was then a wayward youth to try for the Cambridge entrance exam. He got an exhibition and wound up with a PhD. "I can never thank her enough for having faith in me when no one else had," he says.

There have been times, he admits, when he strayed from the path. He married out, but now his wife Catherine is "very much engaged with Judaism".

All four of their children have gone to Simon Marks - "a wonderful example of the modern Orthodox tradition that is so important.". He keeps kosher. "We have Shabbos ever week. My wife has learnt the beauties of Jewish life." Three weeks in four, he'll go to a synagogue on Shabbat.

These days, he says, he is "very close" to both Rabbi Abraham Pinter, the Charedi principal of the Yesodey Hatorah schools, and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagogue, who has backed his efforts and those of friends to start a Masorti shul in the Stoke Newington area.

On Israel, he is more ambivalent. "I hate the power of the settler movement. They are jihadists," he says. But he gladly accepted the visiting professorship he was offered by Haifa University. "If people I know say they want to boycott Israel, I say they should start by boycotting me."

And with that, he takes another drag on his roll-up and gazes out across the Thames, smiling happily.

Last updated: 11:11am, July 22 2011