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 Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.