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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser