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