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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.