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

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition