Appointing Jon Cruddas was a masterstroke for Labour

Cruddas is one of the most interesting thinkers in British politics today.

Samuel Brittan famously called the distinction between left and right a “bogus dilemma”. Politics and policy is often much too complex and sophisticated to be split into this simplistic dichotomy.

This came to mind when I saw the reaction to Jon Cruddas being appointed as Head of Labour’s policy review, with some Tories eager to portray this as a leftward shift for Labour or a “lurch to the left.”

Jon Cruddas is one of the most interesting thinkers in British politics today.  He’s also somebody who isn’t easily pigeonholed. 

At Policy Exchange we’ve been emphasising that politicians need to do more to connect with and appeal to blue collar voters. This was emphasised in our recent piece of research, Northern Lights, which showed that a staggering 88 per cent of skilled manual workers (who were the backbone of Blair and Thatcher’s electoral success) thought that politicians “didn’t understand the real world at all.”

Cruddas has seen this blue collar disengagement at first hand. His Dagenham constituency, for a time,  saw the insidious BNP taking advantage of this disengagement. He helped to tackle this disengagement and see off the fascist threat in his constituency, partially by emphasising the importance of community engagement, continuity and a sense of place – elements of what he labels “conservative radicalism.”  He suggests that:

“This politics is conservative, in that it values the continuity of the social goods which shape people's lives: home, family, relationships, good work, locality and communities of belonging. Yet it also promotes social justice in its commitment to personal freedom and to the deepening and extension of equality and democracy in the economy and society at large."

Cruddas has sensed the insecurity at the heart of working class life and the subsequent disengagement from politics. He bases much of his critique of the late new Labour years on this, suggesting that it was, “its apparent indifference to ‘what really matters' that incited such rage and contempt amongst constituencies which had been traditional bastions of support.”

Regaining the blue collar vote is crucial for both parties.  This must involve understanding the blue collar mindset and the desire for economic security. Cruddas argues that, “Labour's future in England is conservative. “  If he is successful at reinserting the conservative element of the Labour tradition, Tory strategists should be very nervous indeed.

He also understands concerns about immigration and welfare, once saying that immigration had been used as a “21st Century form of incomes policy.”  We found that pledges to control welfare and cut immigration would be the two things that Labour could do to attract potential Labour voters. 

Cruddas has attacked the “new orthodoxy” that he sees as “scapegoating” welfare recipients, but he has emphasised the need for a shift towards “an ethic of reciprocity.” We have argued that this principle of reciprocity should be built into welfare to build a stronger sense of belonging, responsibility and self-ownership into the welfare system. Reciprocity is very popular amongst the general public, with 63 per cent of people backing a reciprocal idea of fairness. If he succeeds in building a sense of reciprocity into welfare and politics more generally, it could help Labour engage with blue collar voters and give the Tories a major headache.

Cruddas’s radicalism is also fundamentally patriotic. He emphasises the importance of being rooted in a “place”, a discussion that has been missing from much of politics, and most of left wing politics in recent decades.  He suggests:

“Labour is no longer sure who it represents. It champions humanity in general but no-one in  particular. It favours multiculturalism but suspects the symbols and iconography of Englishness. For all the good Labour did in government, it presided over the leaching away of the common meanings that bind the English in society... in England something more fundamental has been lost, and that is a Labour language and culture which belongs to the society it grew out of and which enables its immersion in the ordinary everyday life of the people.”

If Labour moves away from bureaucratic, middle class radicalism towards championing a more patriotic, English style of radicalism, which resonates with blue collar voters, that would be of real concern to Tories.  The challenge for him is to turn words into concrete policy, to fulfil his vision of a party that champions the “value of the ordinary, the importance of the specifically English struggles of working people - a politics of English virtue, and not simply of abstract notions of ‘progress’.”

And then there’s the issue of an EU referendum, where Labour could potentially shoot the Tory fox.  Cruddas, who was a major player in the No to the single-currency campaign, is the only person in the upper ranks of either party to have supported an ‘in-out referendum’ in the recent parliamentary vote.  He said that, “this is about democracy. This is about respecting the people. Successive generations have not had a say on the European debate. That is not right and undermines trust in the political process.”  If such arguments prove decisive in the Labour debate, that could be hugely troubling for those Tories hoping to regain momentum by promising a referendum.

The selection of Jon Cruddas as head of Labour’s policy review could be a masterstroke for Ed Miliband if he’s able to translate his impressive, but often abstract, thinking into concrete policy.  Politicians need to consider how to reengage with blue collar voters and Cruddas’s thinking about how to do this is far more advanced than most.

David Skelton is the Deputy Director of Policy Exchange

Photograph: Getty Images

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder