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A day with Jon Cruddas

After a strong showing in Labour's deputy leadership race, a ministerial role beckoned for Jon Crudd

On the doorstep of a neat, pebble-dash house on Dagenham's First Avenue, Phil Waker, pudgy, good-natured local Labour councillor, is getting an earful. The diatribe - "I work in construction, and you're lucky if there's one other English worker on the site" - is clearly familiar to the small band of canvassers standing across the street, swathed in scarves and padded coats, fingers frozen around clipboards. Among them is Jon Cruddas, the local MP, who raises his eyebrows in mock despair. "Well, Phil's hit the jackpot," he says with a grin. "Shall we put that one down as a 'Don't know'?"

Come rain, shine or - on this occasion - subzero temperatures, Cruddas and his hardiest supporters can be found every Friday, trudging Dagenham's quiet, identikit streets, doing what he calls the "meat and potatoes of politics". They knock on doors, smile and introduce themselves, and listen patiently to a litany of complaints: lost jobs, housing waiting lists, immigration problems, bingo hall closures. Local elections are still months away, but Labour needs to make its presence felt; this area was once always a safe seat, but no longer is. The British National Party won 12 of the 14 council seats here it contested at the last election in May 2006. It will be trying to stand for all 51 seats available next time round. And, according to Cruddas, the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, is considering standing against him.

While Britain was supposedly booming, Dagenham faced factory closures, huge influxes of immigrants and housing shortages, and all the while Labour was looking the other way, tailoring its agenda to win votes from Volvo-scrubbing homeowners in the marginal constituencies of Middle England.

"There is huge frustration with the government here," Cruddas says briskly as he marches on to the next house, which is festooned with St George flags. "The BNP has a story to tell about globalisation, about Europe and about working-class identity which resonates with many former Labour voters." A middle-aged lady with an immaculate beehive opens the door and he flashes her a smile. "Hello, madam, I'm Jon Cruddas, your MP, and I just wanted to check everything is OK with you. Any problems?"

She ushers us through a cramped hallway to the back door, where she points out a concrete bunker in the neighbouring garden, explaining that the landlord next door is renting out his garden shed to migrant workers as accommodation. Cruddas takes down the details in his notebook and promises to look into it. "That is a very good illustration of how we're not simply talking about racism," he says once we leave. "It's about economic forces, the housing shortage and a community struggling with mass immigration. What is that lady supposed to make of people practically moving into her backyard? And that kind of thing is common."

Dagenham may present him with challenges, but it has also been the making of Cruddas. After eight years as the constituency MP, it has become his natural habitat; on the doorstep, he exudes an easy, down-to-earth charm, and he is greeted like an old friend by the local barber and street sweeper. During the course of the day I spent with him, I learned that this was just one of his personas. When we'd met that morning at Dagenham Heathway Tube station, he had been gruff and taciturn, giving me a muttered, downbeat tour of the constituency and prickling at questions he felt were invasive. (Why doesn't he live in Dagenham? "My wife works in central London, so I do half and half. Works all right.") His features were fixed in a scowl until we arrived at Dagenham and Redbridge Football Club, where suddenly, on entering the bar, he became one of the lads, joshing with members of the management as he did a few self-conscious kick-ups for the photographer.

Yet another Jon Cruddas emerges when he sits down and puts his spectacles on: an eager-to-please, if slightly harassed, university don who is looking forward to spending Saturday night watching "the last part in Ingmar Berg man's trilogy about death". Whenever he says something like that he follows it quickly with, "Sorry if that sounds pretentious - it's not meant to." His background is working class - his father was a sailor - but Cruddas has a PhD in philo sophy from Warwick University and recoils at John Prescott-style identity politics. "His programme [on the working class for BBC2] was so trite, I couldn't watch. Politicians now have such a reductive view of white working-class culture. It's much more multilayered than they think."

Politically, too, Cruddas has been something of a chameleon. He was elected as an MP in 2001 after ten years of working closely with the architects of new Labour, serving between 1997 and 2001 as deputy political secretary to Tony Blair, acting as the prime minister's link to the unions. A former colleague recalled that he and Blair had a close relationship: "Jon was always seen as relatively left-wing, but Blair really liked him and trusted his judgement. Looking back on it now, perhaps religion was a bond - Jon's Catholicism is important to him, and there were very few religious people in new Labour."

Cruddas has supported some of the government's most controversial policies: he voted for the Iraq War, though he has since said he regrets the decision, and he more recently supported proposals for extending detention without charge for terror suspects. He has been, in many ways, a loyal member of the new Labour regime.

His experiences in his constituency, however, allowed him to see earlier than most where and why new Labour was failing. Neal Lawson, chair of the pressure group Compass, with which Cruddas has worked closely, says he was "radicalised by his constituency", coming to the conclusion that "there are two problems with new Labour: it's not new enough, and it's not Labour enough". There are many Labour backbenchers who would agree, but Cruddas provided these long-disenfranchised sections of the party with a figurehead when he stood in the 2007 deputy leadership contest. Entering as a virtually unknown backbencher, he was pitted against five cabinet members, but polled the most votes in the first round and finished a respectable third. More importantly, he used the opportunity to articulate arguments - in favour of higher taxation, more council housing and rebuilding the party from the grass roots - that had not been made in such a high-profile context for a generation.

Matthew McGregor, now a consultant at the political internet company Blue State Digital, worked full-time on the Cruddas campaign and remembers it as “exhilarating to hear someone actually saying what they thought. Jon has a lack of ambiguity that totally disarms people used to doubletalk.” He gathered a team around him that was young, idealistic and determined to build an alternative to the Third Way consensus that had prevailed for as long as many of them had been in politics. They employed innovative online campaigning techniques, some of which were later used by Barack Obama’s team.

"We weren't the 'in' campaign - it absolutely wasn't for careerists," says Chuka Umunna, Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham and a former Cruddas campaign aide. "He wasn't motivated by self-advancement, but he wanted to ensure that a particular set of views was aired. Jon is about politics, not about Jon."

If Cruddas's star has been in the ascendant since 2007, his rise has been boosted by the economic downturn: suddenly, Labour is turning to all kinds of policies that he has been promoting for years. Even Blairites now grudgingly admit that Cruddas has proved to be remarkably far-sighted. "He is obviously a very clever guy whose analysis of the problems is very good. He can come up with plausible-sounding policies," says one. He is increasingly talked about as one of the most likely future leaders of the Labour Party: in a recent in-depth polling exercise by the Times, he and James Purnell emerged as the most popular potential successors to Gordon Brown.

One supporter remarks that "he will face great pressure to stand if and when there is a leadership contest". Doubt remains in some quarters, however, about the breadth of his appeal and the extent of his own ambitions. As one Labour insider puts it: "Most politicians are pretty mad and narcissistic. Jon is more ordinary, more human. He might be in two minds himself about how far he wants to go."

After a couple more teeth-chatteringly cold hours on the doorsteps, we head back to Cruddas HQ, a former tropical fish shop set in a desolate row of greasy spoons and launderettes. The entrance to the office is through a door topped with barbed wire, which leads off down an alleyway filled with rubbish. The only comfortable place to chat is downstairs in the draughty reception area, where a couple of red sofas are piled high with empty cardboard boxes. Black-and-white photographs of olde Dagenham hang wonkily on the walls and a phone trills away unanswered in the corner. Cruddas made a point of saying during the deputy leadership race that he was not interested in the "trappings and baubles" of politics, but still, I wonder whether this is quite what he had in mind.

"When you ask me about running for the leadership, for me that's just a sterile debate," he says, gripping his mug of tea. "What we are doing in Dagenham is the front line of politics. We are building a new coalition at the grass roots - churches, the voluntary sector, civil society, anti-racist pressure groups. We are trying to put together a progressive campaign capable of taking on the BNP without retreating to the right.

"British politics has been based for so long on the idea that this is fundamentally a conservative country. I don't believe that's true, and I want to prove it." In other words, perhaps Cruddas is more ambitious than he is given credit for: his objective is not simply to change the person at the top of the Labour Party but to forge a new kind of party from the bottom up, based on a very different political consensus. "Labour is going to have to become much more pluralistic. In 2009 there can be no more command and control."

"I look at some of my colleagues in government and they seem almost physically contorted, thinking about their position and their career trajectory. Some of them don't seem to know what they are doing any more. They should really just chill out. I've always thought that politics should be one profession where you are able to say what you think. So I've decided to do it this way, and it's actually very liberating."

Once the tea has been downed, the day continues: a meeting with union representatives who present him with a cheque; lunch at the greasy spoon down the road; surgery at Dagenham's imposing civic centre from 4pm until late into the evening. Cruddas peers over his spectacles as constituents shuffle in laden with Tesco bags, piles of Home Office paperwork, photographs of neglected council properties. One man drops by to thank him for helping to sort out an immigration problem, and presents him with a bottle of wine. "I've stopped drinking!" laughs the MP, clearly delighted. Such small triumphs make the grind of local politics worthwhile; it remains to be seen how long Cruddas's cheerleaders will allow him to enjoy them.

1989 Begins work for the Labour Party as a policy officer

1990 Warwick University awards him a PhD in philosophy

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 trade unions

June 2001 Elected MP for Dagenham. Quickly gains reputation for fight against British National Party 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

June 2007 Comes third in race for deputy leader of Labour Party (despite gaining most of the first-round votes)

October 2008 Turns down ministerial job offers to stay on back benches

November 2008 Floats idea of 45 per cent tax rate for incomes of £175,000 and over, which government later adopts at £150,000

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...