Interview: Jon Cruddas

Tony Blair's former aide is standing as the people's choice and has little time for his cabinet riva

Jon Cruddas is not a household name, but he may yet become one. The MP for Dagenham has a strategy for reviving the Labour Party and, heaven knows, it needs one. At the same time, he is making himself noticed. The man who worked for years behind the scenes in Tony Blair's office is poised to become an important figure in the new world of Gordon Brown.

The outsider in the deputy leader contest does Jeremiah politics to good effect. A month or so ago, just as his campaign was getting going, he warned that if the party continued to haemorrhage members at the current rate, it would have none left by the year 2013. He believes Labour must turn once more to grass-roots campaigning on issues that can fire the passions of a new generation: the rise of the British National Party, traditional causes such as inequality and poverty and, more boldly, the rights of migrants. All of these are acute problems in his area.

As we sit down with him at Westminster, he seeks to enlist our support for a nationwide campaign, Stopthebnp.org.uk, which seeks to take on the BNP ahead of the local elections in May. It will not focus necessarily on key marginals or councils where Labour is fighting for control - places where the party machine would usually direct its resources. But Cruddas does not see the rise of the BNP as a fringe issue. For him, this is a front-line struggle to win back alienated Labour voters who risk being lost to the far right.

Cruddas is an engaging but curious mix. He talks half in the language of Warwick University philosophy postgraduate: "post-party", "virtual politics", "parallel universe", "rational choice economics" and, yes, "endogenous". The other half of his conversation is political agitprop, with an accent some in his party suspect might have been estuarised in recent years. He talks credibly of the need for Labour to focus again on local parties and trade-union branches, where he believes it belongs. He argues that the government's obsession with building a meritocracy, creating opportunities for the talented or fortunate, has made society less equal. In place of this, he proposes a model of "social solidarity" where interest groups ally to improve conditions for everyone. "We don't live in a classless meritocratic new Labour nirvana, right?"

Even though he believes the entire economic underpinning of Blairite thinking is flawed, Cruddas talks warmly of his four years as trade-union linkman at No 10. "It was a fantastic privilege. There was an energy there." Whatever the ideological differences, he refuses to doubt the integrity of anybody he worked with. When we ask him about the police investigation into loans for honours, he says: "I wouldn't question the ethics of anyone involved. Everyone I met, irrespective of whether I agreed with them politically, was in it for the right reasons." Like many, he has little experience of the world outside politics: he joined Labour as a political officer in his twenties and worked for successive party general secretaries. His decision to become an MP was almost inevitable and he was duly elected as the member for Dagenham at the 2001 election.

Cruddas says he was prompted to join the race by a conversation with a cabinet minister who told him that grass-roots politics was dead. Perhaps his close relationship with the party explains his distress at how the Labour movement has lost its way. He describes the decision to introduce tuition fees as "the most regressive piece of economic and social policy any Labour government has ever introduced".

Cruddas is the son of a sailor, and made his way to university along with his working-class siblings from a Catholic comprehensive near Portsmouth. He was a tuition-fee rebel, despite years of loyalism, because he believed the government was selling a false promise of future affluence to children from working-class families. He believed the prospect of years of debt would dissuade people like his parents from allowing their children to apply to university.

Cruddas talks passionately about the need for Labour to reform its structures and become, once more, a genuinely federal party that can re-enfranchise its members. It is more difficult to pin him down on specific policies. After some prompting, he outlines six ideas. He would reverse immigration legislation that clamps down on employers using illegal migrants and instead regularise their status in the UK, to help prevent them being exploited on starvation wages. In health, he would publicise per-capita health inequality in every primary care trust and make it the duty of each trust to close the gap. In what amounts to a direct challenge to Gordon Brown he says: "You cannot construct a choice-based agenda in health where you have no base camp of equality of provision in terms of primary care." On education, he would not turn back the clock on city academies and independent trust schools, but he would end the present system whereby local authorities are penalised for not embracing these institutions by having funding for building new schools removed.

He goes on. He would institute what he calls "a real-time demographic picture of the country". Cruddas claims that the current census does not account for between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in urban areas, which makes it difficult for local authorities to plan services. His most challenging proposal is perhaps his most simple. "Build council houses," he says. "This is so obvious." Cruddas argues that in and around London especially, the large influx of people, coupled with vast tracts of brownfield land should free councils to build new social housing.

As the lone backbencher in a field of five, Cruddas enjoys a freedom to speak out that is harder for the rest (not that our previous two interviewees seemed bothered). Until now, the campaign has been a civilised affair, but Cruddas decides to take the gloves off. He suggests his rivals are looking for any excuse - wait till Blair has left, or till the local elections are over, or don't rock the boat - to avoid a public debate with him.

Indeed, it was this very accusation, made in the NS in December by a Cruddas ally, which drew such an angry response from the other candidates that they all volunteered to be interviewed by us. But Cruddas is not satisfied: "We're going to lose this opportunity to renew the party. The remedy is to use the deputy leadership to get them all to resign." He says: "They should all walk out and we should all have a genuine debate, rather than all this briefing, leaking and playing both sides: in the cabinet and simultaneously out of the cabinet."

He is scathing about the others' apparent conversion. "They're playing smoke and mirrors to find themselves. After ten years of doing the nodding-dog routine, they try to reinvent themselves as more radical."

Like his opponents, Cruddas is reinventing himself as a radical, but perhaps he has less of a journey to travel. Even though he is given little chance of winning the contest, he has already changed the terms of debate. And he is not prepared to let matters rest there. The transformation of Labour into a more open, democratic and progressive party, he believes, begins, not ends, with Brown's accession. He claims he has yet to decide whether even to vote for him. "I want to hear what John McDonnell has to say, or anyone else who comes in, like Michael Meacher."

He says that unlike his cabinet rivals, he has no desire to ingratiate himself with the new master. "It's slightly unedifying that all the other candidates seem to be in a bidding war to proclaim who's said the nicest things to Gordon Brown. I think he's an outstanding politician, but I want to contest some of the terms of the debate."

Jon Cruddas: the CV
Born 7 April 1962, Helston, Cornwall
1989 Begins work for Labour as policy officer
1990 Gains philosophy PhD from Warwick University
1992 Marries a Labour official, Anna Healy
1994 Chief assistant to Labour general secretary Larry Whitty, then Tom Sawyer
1997 Becomes deputy political secretary to the Prime Minister, acting as link with the trade unions
June 2001 Elected MP for Dagenham. Quickly gains reputation for fight against BNP in his constituency
January 2004 Rebels against tuition fees
September 2006 Announces candidacy for Labour's deputy leadership
November 2006 Appointed chair of the London group of Labour MPs
Research by Lucy Knight

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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