Last summer, not long after his resignation from the government, I met James Purnell for coffee in Soho, where he lives. It was a warm and sunny morning. He was wearing jeans and flip-flops and seemed extraordinarily at ease, less like the career politician he is than, say, a working actor between jobs, at large in his own hood.
I was surprised at his transformation; at our previous meeting he'd been watchful in the way of senior ministers, haunted even, unable as he was then to speak quite as he wished or mean what he said. "I feel I've been released from prison," he told me. The metaphor would resonate for anyone still feeling incarcerated in the Brown cabinet, with its rivalries, unease and paranoia: since leaving government, Purnell, in his role at Demos, has been liberated into becoming one of the left's smartest and least predictable thinkers, determined as he is to help effect a realignment of progressive politics.
It's an indication of what has gone wrong for Labour since 2001 that some of its best people prefer to operate outside the government. One thinks in particular of Jon Cruddas, a friend of Purnell's, who has resisted all entreaties to become a minister. In person, hair cropped military-short at the sides and back, in rumpled, open-necked shirt and sleeveless sweater, Cruddas resembles what he could have been had he not become MP for Dagenham: a tenured university professor, with the freedom to read and write and think without being compromised by the pragmatism of power.
In a way, by remaining on the back benches, he is operating rather like a freelance academic, or free radical. He may not have the security of tenure, but he has his office at Portcullis House, his stipend, a small flat in Westminster as well as a family house on an estate in his constituency, and time and space enough in which to develop a coherent critique of our failing politics.
As leader of the Compass group inside the Commons, he also has a community of support around him, if not in the parliamentary party, and various networks through which to disseminate his work. What he has, too, is an urgent sense of economic and social crisis - a sense of what has gone wrong in social democracy as well as in wider society (he talks not of a broken society but of a "social recession") - and the desire to do something about it.
"My view is that this is the most interesting period since I've been in politics, even though it's also quite dispiriting. There are historic turning points: '29 to '31, when you had a major economic rupture. Then major political realignment. Then the second Labour government was destroyed. Then '79: the next major economic rupture, in terms of patterns of production and consumption. Thatcherism. And another major realignment, with the SDP
“If you go back to '29 and '79, to these periods of profound change, there's an associated crisis of identity for Labour. Does it create a social-democratic response? Or does it collapse into orthodoxies? We're in the early foothills of what will be the reckoning within Labour. It just so happens that we are dominated by a tribal game - the Blair/Brown thing."
Cruddas is a pluralist, in the best sense. He believes, as I do, that the role of progressive politics is "to disperse power and opportunity". He feels the solution is "not to repeat this Blair/ Brown thing in an ever more inwardly focused battle, but to crack it open [so that] Labour becomes the primary element in a broader coalition of economic and cultural interests. We've got to move away inside the party from this culture of briefings, of monstering your opponent. It's deadly."
There has been a sense, in recent weeks, of an attempt by Compass to take on and discredit Ed Balls, who will certainly run for the Labour leadership. The journalist John Harris, one of Compass's intellectual outriders, has been especially scathing about the Children's Secretary. Why is this, I ask Cruddas. "Well, Compass is a pretty fluid place, which I like. A lot of people see political reform as being absolutely crucial to what we want to do, and some see Ed - and I don't know if this is true or not - as the roadblock to reform.
“It's not the case that he's being undermined as a leadership candidate [but] the key is not to repeat the Blair/Brown thing generationally. I don't mean that as a disservice to Ed [Balls] or David [Miliband], but this tribal game is symptomatic of our insularity, of our hollowing out as a vibrant political force."
Cruddas's conversation is an engaging mix of the common room and the pub, of the professorial and the vernacular. He would not be out of place on the terraces at Fratton Park or at an All Souls dinner. What he is not, in any way, is populist or prescriptive; his views and positions are informed not by absolutism and cold certainty, but by deep reading, a desire to know more and a profound religious and ethical sensibility.
He is prepared to build coalitions within but also outside the Labour Party. He reaches out to Greens and Liberal Democrats, to civil society groups. He listens without prejudice to the analysis emerging from some of the more thoughtful Conservatives. Of some of David Cameron's early positioning, he says: "I rather liked hug a hoodie. I liked the return to a more compassionate, softer Conservatism, away from Thatcherism. The danger now is that they are wrestling with compassionate conservatism within a zero-sum economic framework. You see that in the tensions around marriage and financial priorities, around growth and cuts.
“And Brown is beginning to find his range. He's seen off the last coup - the Hoon-Hewitt effort, which was so degenerate and vacuous, a case of 'Brown's lot got our boy, so we'll get him'. Now he's beginning to make too many compromises with New Labour economic orthodoxy. He's compromising the clarity around this investment versus cuts strategy, which is working and has got the Tories rowing back. We should have an election around why the little guy is going to pick up the tab for the crisis."
Cruddas is religious, a Catholic, from a large Irish family. He is troubled by what he calls "lifestyle liberalism", by how the convulsions and libertarian excesses of the late Sixties countercultural revolution as well as Thatcherism conspired to destroy the conventional family.
Some on the secular left are alarmed by what is sometimes mistaken as his social conservatism. "I'm interested in reciprocity, in duty, in a sense of obligation to others," Cruddas counters. "Labour, because it was captured by the focus group, has lost that ethic of community, responsibility, obligation. This is difficult language for the liberal."
He admires the work being done by Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice. "Iain has done the fieldwork," he says. "What the language of compassionate conservatism does is to reintroduce the notion of fraternity for the right.
“There's no doubt that over the last ten years we have witnessed the disintegration of the family. Empirically, this is happening. The Conservatives are at least attempting to talk about this. I admire a lot of what Duncan Smith does in terms of the story he tells. Asylum, race, poverty, housing, migration: he's addressing the issues. I admire the work and the analysis and the preparedness to venture back on to that terrain. But the remedies tend to be punitive, to involve sanctions and suchlike. The solution is not voluntarism and small platoons; it's not about dismantling the state."
So what are the solutions, if we are not to repeat the mistakes of Thatcherism or New Labour's obsession with command and control, with the centralised state, top-down prescriptions and a dessicated language of targets?
“When I say the state," he says, "I don't mean the prescriptive, secular state. Labour used not to be statist; it was once civic and religious. The ethical socialist tradition was localised. It emphasised duty, fraternity, solidarity. By talking about fraternity you rediscover a language which is kinder, gentler and more emotionally robust compared to the shrill, empty words of the focus group.
"Cameron speaks this kind of language. It enables him to come across as a more rounded, open, plural figure. Blair was that type of figure, once, before 2001. But now, literally, Labour has lost its language."
One word certainly missing from Labour's lexicon until just recently was equality. A leading cabinet minister said to me this past week that "we, the New Labour generation, made our peace with capitalism but never offered a critique of it. That was a serious mistake."
During the years of the long, unregulated boom, with its too-cheap credit and debt and housing bubbles, and as Brown sought to redistribute by stealth, Labour neglected its founding principles. The New Labour elite became less concerned with issues of equality of outcome than with reducing inequalities of opportunity.
Cruddas wants the party once again to address the issue of equality of outcome, not because he believes it is possible in a globalised economy, at least in the abstract, but because he thinks it a desirable aspiration. "To me, the search for equality was a crusade, it was something you searched for. It was and still is an ethic rather than a prescriptive series of outcomes."
Born in 1962, the son of an Irish sailor ("my dad", he says, "put a uniform on for this country"), Cruddas grew up in Portsmouth, a tough maritime town that has something of an island mentality, of a sense of separation and difference from the rest of England. He left school at 17 and emigrated to Australia, "where I got involved in trade union politics", only to return a few years later to full-time study at Warwick University.
He lives in Dagenham, Essex, a new town that was once a source of hope and renewal for the aspirant urban poor who left the East End in the immediate postwar years. Today, Dagenham, where the Ford plant provided guaranteed work for a generation of men, is a site of blight and white working-class disaffection - he and others are fighting hard to stop the British National Party from capturing Barking and Dagenham Council at the local elections on 6 May.
Does Cruddas, who ran for the deputy leadership of the party in 2007, want to be leader? "Jon doesn't wake up every morning thinking he wants to be Labour leader," says Neal Lawson, the increasingly impressive chair of Compass. "But I know there are circumstances in which he would run for the leadership and could win. It all depends on the nature of the defeat and what happens afterwards. But our campaigning ability is unrivalled and is getting stronger. The important thing is that he is thinking big; it's not about tweaks and trims."
Cruddas himself is more cautious, though his voice quickens and his shrewd eyes shine when I ask him directly if he wants to be leader. "The current way this stuff is covered in Westminster is that the leadership is like a game of top trumps." He pauses. "Listen, no one knows what's going to happen. Actually, I thought it was wrong how one gang tried to get rid of Blair and then how the other gang tried to get rid of Brown. It puts so much poison in the system.
“What matters is the real issues - of political economy, the future of social democracy, what's happening on the right . . . It's fair to say that Compass, myself and a few others will make sure that we have a contribution to make when the time comes."
To translate: he's in the race.