Labour's policy review head Jon Cruddas. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jon Cruddas: The Gramsci of Westminster

Labour's policy review head on Ed Miliband’s difficulties, his vision for the party and why he’s more interested in sport than politics.

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.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era