What Jon Cruddas's speech told us about Labour's policy review

The head of Labour's policy review hints that a mass programme of housebuilding will be a priority for the party.

Jon Cruddas's speech to the Resolution Foundation last night on "earning and belonging" was, in common with all of his addresses, thoughtful, intellectually rich and imbued with a rare sense of history. But anyone hoping for specifics from the head of Labour's policy review would have left disappointed. Cruddas described the review as being in its "first phase" and promised that over the next 12 months major pieces of work would be completed on "childhood, the Condition of Britain [Cruddas will deliver an IPPR lecture on this subject next Thursday], a British Investment Bank, infrastructure and voctional education". After the 2013 conference, he added, the review would enter a "second phase" before the policies "distil into a manifesto and pledge cards" after the 2014 conference.

There were, however, several important hints of Labour's priorities. In one of the most memorable passages, Cruddas lamented that while the government spends £1.2bn on housebuilding, it spends twenty times that amount on "rental payments to landlords". Not only was this a good example of how Labour is seeking to reframe the debate around welfare policy (Cruddas referred to "rent payments", rather than housing benefit), it also suggested that one of the party's key pledges will be a mass programme of housebuilding. 

In another intriguing section of the speech, Cruddas spoke of how Labour was exploring new ways of holding "our public institutions" to account and generating "a sense of ownership and responsibility". He cited the BBC, the police, Parliament and the City of London. Tessa Jowell's recent piece for the Telegraph calling for the BBC to be turned into "the country’s biggest mutual, with 26.8 million licence-fee payers as its shareholders", is a good example of the form this could take in practice. 

The line that has attracted the most attention is Cruddas's warning that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good." (He added: "It fails to offer reasonable hope. The stakes are high because when hope is not reasonable despair becomes real.") 

On one level this is a statement of the obvious. But it also points to a significant divide in Labour between those who believe there is nothing wrong with the economy that a bit of Keynesian stimulus won't fix and those who believe that capitalism needs to be fundamentally remade (Raf has neatly characterised this as a battle between Brown Labour and Blue). Cruddas's words made it clear that he intends to position Labour on the latter half of this divide. 

Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and the head of Labour's policy review. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.