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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle