Jon Cruddas is sitting in his office reflecting on the state of Labour when he recalls the advice that the American poet Robert Frost gave to John F Kennedy two days after his presidential inauguration in 1961. “Frost visited Kennedy in the White House and, as he left, he said: ‘You have to be more Irish than Harvard.’ By which he meant there is always this tension at the heart of social democracy, of centre-left thinking, about the technical construction of policy and that emotional, romantic, visionary element that has to trump that in order to create traction.”
One can easily imagine the head of Labour’s policy review offering similar advice to Ed Miliband, a former Harvard lecturer who is frequently thought too detached and professorial in manner. It is Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham, more than anyone else, who has spoken of the need for the party to tell a “national story” that transcends technocratic prescriptions.
I meet Cruddas, relaxed in a rumpled, open-necked shirt, on the day of the publication of IPPR’s The Condition of Britain report and in the middle of what he calls “the most important period in the whole parliament”. Two years after he was appointed by Miliband to lead the party’s policy review, the work that he believes will define Labour’s election offer is reaching completion. The Condition of Britain will be followed on 2 July by Andrew Adonis’s growth review (“He’s our Heseltine,” says Cruddas admiringly) and then by a deceptively dull-sounding report from the Local Government Innovation Taskforce ("Modern forms of statecraft, citizenship, democracy and agency"). “It’s getting more and more exciting because you’re beginning to see the colour of the money,” he tells me. “Not that there’s a lot of money there.”
It is this insight that underlies Cruddas’s project. In an age of fiscal famine, social democrats will need to achieve progressive change through big reforms, not big spending. This will require vastly devolving power from Whitehall, reorienting public services around prevention rather than cure and reviving the civic virtues of contribution and reciprocity.
Interviewing Cruddas is an absorbing experience. He is a compelling speaker, shifting between the argot of the pub landlord and that of the philosophy don. He describes himself as having been “pretty pissed off” with the last Labour government before he reflects on the “anomie and alienation” driving the rise of Ukip. It is as if Antonio Gramsci had been transplanted on to the set of EastEnders.
His aim, he says, is to “short-circuit” Labour history by returning to government after one term in opposition. Usually, he says, “Labour loses and then it goes walkabout, smacks each other up for a bit, discovers that, funnily enough, the electorate doesn’t like that and then there’s this long march back into the ring.”
Cruddas is not certain that his vision will survive contact with Labour’s political machine, speaking of “tripwires”, “cross-currents” and “tensions”. He identifies the “essential conservatism” of organisations and the party’s “centralised” and even “authoritarian” tendencies as the main obstacles to change. “Have we got the political agility and the game to mainline it into our formal policy offer and the architecture of the party? The jury’s out on that but I’m pretty confident.”
Ed Miliband’s poor personal ratings have become a subject of increasing concern among Labour MPs, with a growing number doubting his ability to connect with the wider electorate. But Cruddas, who endorsed David Miliband for the leadership, offers a sincere defence of Ed’s approach and style.
“I see him at close quarters. He has a different form of leadership, which I quite like, actually – it’s more inclusive, it’s quite plural,” he tells me. “We have to expose that in terms of the country. We’re laying down the stuff to make sure that he will have an agenda to articulate.”
He delivers a stern rebuke to those who suggest that somebody else would perform better than Miliband in the role. “This is a journey of self-discovery; it’s not a question of leadership. It’s a deeper question about what the party is. This won’t be resolved by throwing someone else in front of the train.
“You ain’t going to do it by having a game of top trumps across the leadership. It’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper],” he says, becoming the first shadow cabinet member publicly to name some of those regarded by Labour MPs as positioning themselves for a future leadership contest. “If people think the solution to this is X rather than Y, they are deluding themselves.”
What of Cruddas’s future? Having refused to join the last Labour government (“I thought it was going in the wrong way”), would he accept the offer of a ministerial post? “That stuff don’t interest me,” he says. “I was asked to do this and I feel a duty to the party to do it as best I can. I never thought I’d be an MP, so I’m not trading up anywhere.” The bottom line, the keen fisherman and golfer says, is that he is “more interested in sports than politics, really”.
His ambition is to complete a successful policy review that he believes will have “real resilience” for Labour: “I’ll walk off happy then, because that will be job done.”
And, with admirable modesty, the doctor of philosophy adds, “It’s up to the clever people to work out the campaign.”