“He could run and win the leadership”

An interview with Jon Cruddas

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."

Much obliged

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.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide