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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses