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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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.