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

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit