When Jon Cruddas looks out from the Labour conference platform in Brighton this weekend, he may have an otherworldly expression on his face. The Dagenham and Rainham MP won’t be thinking of socialist theologians or the intricacies of party policy. Instead, his mind will be miles away, hundreds of miles away, in Dublin’s Croke Park and the excitement of Gaelic football.
“I’ve been told I’ve got to speak at the Labour party conference on the Sunday afternoon, which is the day of the All-Ireland Football Final. Mayo have the chance, for the first time in 60 years, to be national champions,” he explains. “We just built a house in the West of Ireland in County Mayo. My wife is not going to the conference for the first time in 40 years because she will be out there watching the football. But I had a quiet plan to find an Irish pub in Brighton and sink a few beers and watch the football and cheer on Mayo. And now I’ve got to stand on the bloody platform!”
The son of Irish immigrants, Cruddas’s timetabling complaint perhaps sums up his approach to life and to politics: a deep pride in his roots and a sense of belonging, a passion for the ‘real world’ outside Westminster – and a desire to be away from the limelight.
Labour’s Policy Co-Ordinator, appointed 16 months ago to his first ever frontbench post, seems happiest when he’s breaking the rules and challenging orthodoxies. Ed Miliband’s philosopher-in-chief likes to shake up policy. Yet he’s also a practical, hard-headed campaigner who saw off a serious BNP threat at the last election. Liked on all sides of the House (Tory MP Charles Walker is his fishing partner), he appears equally at home in the pub or in an Oxford college seminar on the postwar consensus.
Sitting in his cramped Commons office (another planet away from the beachfront Mayo home where he most likes to think), Cruddas rejects the charge that Labour policy remains a ‘blank page’ and points to the complex policy-making structure he oversees. Some 21 different reports have been commissioned on economic and social policy and political renewal. A further 11 arms-length or independent reports have been or are ‘in the field’, he adds.
He says that some policy will be showcased at conference, but stresses “it’s always a difficult balance in terms of how much you allow to get out there. You’ve got to set out the frameworks, you’ve got to set out a sense of direction, and a few illustrative examples. We are playing around with that all the time. For me it’s the nuts and bolts and getting the wheels turning.”
Still, it’s been a difficult summer for Labour’s policy review. Backbench rumblings over a lack of action grew stronger, as a number of party figures joined calls for the party to “shout louder” about its plans for 2015. Earlier this month Alistair Darling warned the leadership time was running out to stake “some flags in the ground” ahead of the election.
The worriers can expect a few chunks of policy meat at conference, Cruddas says. But those calling for the party to set out its stall for 2015 now will be left disappointed.
The introduction of fixed-term parliaments offers the review a “glidepath”, he explains, allowing Labour the chance to build a deeper, more durable process. This autumn marks the end of “phase one” of the policy review, with phase two leading up to conference 2014, and phase three distilling into a manifesto in the six months before the election.
Cruddas says he understands his colleagues’ frustrations over the lack of concrete, “retail” policies for them to sell on the doorstep. But the party must be under no illusions about the scale of the task it faces, he adds.
“I think we have to acknowledge where we are. Firstly, Labour historically has not been very good in opposition. There’s three major victories that have triggered periods of majoritarian Labour government – 1945, 1964 and 1997. The first one came after 14 years in opposition, the second one came after 13 years in opposition and the third one came after 18 years in opposition. So there’s a fair amount of evidence that suggests it takes Labour quite a while to get back into office.
“The second point I’d make is, 2010 is arguably our worst defeat for 100 years. It’s probably worse than 1983. Empirically it’s worse than 1931, in terms of the proportion of the vote. So we’re not very good at opposition, and we’ve just come off the back of one of our worst election defeats. This was never going to be easy. There’s no on/off switch, in terms of political renewal. It’s a long, hard process that we have to approach systematically.
“I know that creates concerns about the immediacy of the retail offer. But, to me, it’s about building a durable process that can deliver integrated policy, built out of a sense of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Another criticism levelled at the policy review is that it’s too abstract, and too intellectual at the expense of a concrete plan. But Cruddas makes “no apologies” for going down this route, insisting policy must be grounded in, and feed in to, a wider political idea.
Above all, Cruddas is determined that his review is more than simply a series of mechanistic Whitehall prescriptions which fail to chime with ordinary voters. Without this framing of a deeper political story, he warns, policy will simply become “white noise”.
As a party apparatchik during the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, Cruddas had a front row seat for the party’s modernisation project, from the ‘New Labour’ rebrand to the fight over Clause 4. And while he became disillusioned with New Labour in its later years, he retains respect for the project’s achievements in opposition.
“Tony Blair was never awash with policy details, but the policies told stories, because they were grounded in a deeper sentiment around the building of a new political party,” he explains.
“With Tony Blair there were three basic elements. There was the organisational strategy – Clause 4, The Road to the Manifesto, reform of the party’s head office. There was the ideological, or intellectual project, around the development of the Third Way. And then there was the political delivery – basically the delivery of New Labour, through the month by month grid, the message discipline, the language.
“Where are we now? I think the organisational strategy is going well. We’ve done an awful lot to change our method of organising on the ground, moving away from a centralised command and control model of voter organisation, towards more community organisation. And in terms of the intellectual work, that’s really what One Nation is about. It’s a work-in-progress. A lot more needs to be done. But the idea behind it was to re-establish that sentiment about who we are. Reconnecting, almost in a visceral way, with the country.
“We were 13 years in power. That creates a sort of compound exhaustion, in terms of our policy, our clarity, our political purpose. We should confront that full-on, and use our time to really drill into that. The policies will come. But there is no easy route through this. It’s a tough political act of rehabilitation in one term, arguably something we’ve never achieved in our history.”
Spend a few minutes in the presence of Cruddas and it’s clear this deep awareness of Labour’s history is key to his political philosophy. A keen scholar of the party – he once taught a class in the subject at University College, Oxford – every decision is grounded in a sense of the party’s past.
And for Cruddas, Labour’s story is one of national renewal. From Atlee to Wilson to Blair, Labour has historically been the party of progress and revival in the face of Conservative reaction, he explains.
“1945 was successful because it was winning the peace against the Tories being the party of appeasement and mass unemployment in the 1930s. So it was forwards versus back. The national story in the 1960s was about meeting the scientific and technological challenges facing the country, versus Alec Douglas Home standing out on the grouse moor. In 1997 it was about Blair’s economic and social modernisation of the country versus drift, decay, sleaze. So it’s forward not back, national renewal versus decline, and that’s what the One Nation thing will develop into, that story of national renewal.
“The policy review has to be the sort of delivery of that, setting in place those key nuggets that tell that deep story. There is a role for policies – but they signal that deeper story, that sentiment, that identity, we’re trying to establish.”
Cruddas is determined that few subjects should be off-limits when considering policy ideas. “To my view we’ve got to open the whole thing up and we have to search for innovative ideas wherever we can, however uncomfortable and difficult they can be in terms of the orthodoxies of the party. Because that’s how you short circuit the question of renewal.”
Ed Miliband’s decision to radically reform the party’s links to the unions is a clear example of a leader unafraid to challenge the status quo, he says. “This is a hugely important discussion in terms of the character of the party itself, reflected through its constitution and whether Ed Miliband can redefine what the Labour party is. And that goes back to this question of how do you short-circuit opposition, and one of them ways is you redefine what the party is. As Blair did, and John Smith did, and Neil Kinnock did. It gets totally to the nub of who we are.”
As Tony Blair’s former union liaison man, and a member of both Unite and the GMB, Cruddas says the loss of finance was “always going to be” an issue, but adds the reform is much bigger than that. “Anyone who didn’t think this was huge when it was announced, doesn’t know much about the Labour party. And I think Paul Kenny knows how big it is and his executive know how big it is. But this is just one move and there will be whole series of them.”
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the unions, like Labour itself, were famously eurosceptic before the word was even invented, fearing the ‘Common Market’ had real dangers for the workforce. Although the Labour movement changed to embrace the EU for the protections it later offered, Cruddas is clear that more has to be done to reassure voters and trade union members on Europe.
He has in the past voted for an EU referendum. What is his position on one now? “I can’t disinvent what I voted and I don’t actually think you should either.” He smiles: “I used to think, before I was a member of the Shadow Cabinet, that there was a political logic to us embracing a referendum as early as possible, that it was actually with the grain of us reinvigorating politics, etcetera.
“But I actually abide by and actually agree with the pooled responsibility of the Shadow Cabinet. I take the point about it not being ruled out, it being conditional on clarifying the shape of the eurozone in terms of the immediate shockwaves that are moving through, us being slightly more cautious in gaming out the implications and the politics of it. And I abide by that.
“Now, as I say, I can’t disinvent my views on this. Nor suddenly do they get rewired the first time you join this thing [the Shadow Cabinet]. I can’t pretend that’s not been a fairly consistent view of mine and I’ve put it on the record enough that it would be rather foolish of me to do so. I quite like the idea that in the Shadow Cabinet you have different contributions, you have ideas that fizz around. We are not a series of identikit nodding dogs.”
Ed Balls has said it would be ‘stupid’ to rule out before 2015. “Nor have we. And Ed is not an insignificant contributor in these discussions. But others have different views and quite rightly and that’s the nature of it. The position we have of not ruling it out, keeping it under scrutiny, getting through the immediate crisis in terms of seeing the context in which it would take place, all of that seems to me totally sensible.”
With the Conservatives keen to make a referendum a key dividing line at the next election, could the offer of one be a way of recapturing what he calls the politics of patriotism?
“It could be. I don’t want to say further than that. Because it obviously is in our work programme and we will work through it. I’m just a guy who is the secretary [of the policy review].” He then laughs: “Comrade Secretary…”
UKIP are contesting hard in key Metropolitan council seats in 2014, as well as the European elections. “Yeah, they are not going away. Just look at the chronology between now and the election and there sits another series of elections with which they will not be insignificant contributors.” And as for Nigel Farage: “He has an élan, that sort of interesting character to him which means he has a sort of seductive quality to him with the people. I think no one in Labour underestimates the significance of what’s happening.
“The UKIP thing is not some sort of shooting star. You look across western market economies, there’s that sort of populist, right wing search to contest that patriotic story based on closure or withdrawing from the world and it’s not going away and its specific form in the UK is UKIP. I actually like Nigel Farage. I’ve got mates of mine in UKIP and they have energy around them. I disagree with it, but I like them.”
So, do UKIP tap into something deeper than just a scepticism about Brussels? “They do. A lot of people, a lot of my constituents are concerned about the sheer pace of change in the world that they inhabit. And it’s changing in extraordinary ways that no one anticipated. Our settled ways of life are suddenly, through different forms, becoming hugely turbulent and unpredictable. We’d come off a period where we had 15 years, 60 quarters of growth. And the music stops.”
Some Tories believe Ed Miliband’s failure to back the Government’s motion on military action in Syria was proof of his reluctance to engage overseas. But Cruddas disagrees. “I don’t see Labour’s position as in any way isolationist. There was an interventionist element to it but it was also borne out of recent experience as well,” he says.
“Labour is a deeply patriotic party. Arguably the most patriotic act that Labour ever delivered was in early 1940 when it went into the wartime coalition to support Churchill against Chamberlain and many in his own party who wanted to sue for peace with the Fascists. Labour has deeply patriotic traditions.
“Some in the party recoil from nationhood and patriotism because they see it as essentially racially absolute. There’s a long history in the Labour party of seeing patriotism as pathology, so that it’s not seen as a rational characteristic. I tend to shy away from rationalist politics anyway, but it’s always a tension. It has been for 100 years in the party. My answer to that is Labour can only win if it is a patriotic party that contests the national story. That’s what it did in ’45, ’64 and ’97. All were redefining nationhood.”
Of course, Tony Blair’s shadow loomed large over the Syria vote, but Cruddas insists his former boss should not be trashed. “This is an interesting question: how does a party re-appropriate its recent history? Because when you get Blair – who I disagreed with a load of times, we had fall-outs – booed at a party conference, having won three on the bounce…. how do you dissect and own the good and the less good elements to it without this rejectionism? It’s very important for us…we’ve got to find a way of working that through.”
With the party’s role of election co-ordinator still unfilled at time of The House going to press, some have suggested Cruddas’s policy husbanding makes him an outside bet to fill the vacancy left by Tom Watson’s departure. Cruddas is swift to kill the idea:
“I didn’t realise things were that bad! That ain’t gonna happen.”
But what will he do if Labour does get elected in 2015? He turned down a job offer from Gordon Brown after he contested the deputy leadership back in 2007.
“That was because I stood for deputy leadership a few years earlier under the specific programme of ‘this is not a trading-up exercise to achieve a job in government’. So therefore when it was all over you can’t go ‘I didn’t really mean it, because I fancy that one’. I was too critical of the government and I just thought it would have been a bit two-faced.”
Cruddas’s reluctance to take centre stage is still palpable. “I didn’t want this. To tell you the truth, it blindsided me a bit to be honest when he [Ed Miliband] very generously offered me the job of being in charge of policy in opposition. It wasn’t something that was on my radar. But it’s a fascinating job. And I just see it as an obligation as a party member. The stakes are so high for the country and everyone’s got to step up and get stuck in.”
So on the same logic, would it be his duty to accept a ministerial post if one was offered? “Maybe. It doesn’t get me going. I don’t game all these things out. It’s a total accident I’m in it. It’s fantastic being an MP, a fantastic job. But I don’t want anything out of it.
“If it all stopped tomorrow I would just think ‘well that was great’ and I’ll go and do something else. I don’t mean that in the sense of false understatement. It’s a fantastic job. Paradoxically, it doesn’t work out this way, but it’s the only job where you get paid to say what you think.”
Another paradox could well be that Miliband gives a ministerial post to the very man in Parliament who least wants one. Dr Jonathan Cruddas, the man with what seems a PhD in Labour’s years in Opposition, could yet end up in Government. That’s if he can resist the pull of the pub, and of Mayo.
CRUDDAS ON… DAVID CAMERON’S ‘BIG SOCIETY’ IDEA
“I’m probably one of the last people standing who believes in this Big Society thing. I think it was very interesting what David Cameron was trying to do around language and sentiment and the realignment of his party, and the signifiers of hugging a hoodie and all of that. They were big messages.
CRUDDAS ON…SEPARATING OUT BLAIR’S ‘BRILLIANCE’
“This is an interesting question: how does a party re-appropriate its recent history? Because when you get Blair – who I disagreed with a load of times, we had fall-outs – booed at a party conference, having won three on the bounce. How do you own, how do you dissect and own the good and the less good elements to it, without this rejectionism? It’s very important for us. We’ve got to find a way of working that through. It’s the Miles Davis thing, you’ve got to separate out the brilliance and the less good bits.”
CRUDDAS ON…REPLACING TOM WATSON
“I didn’t realise things were that bad. That ain’t gonna happen.”
“There’s a lot of different stuff circling around. For example I’ve always been very interested in some of these debates around globalisation and how do you protect people as well as embrace change. And what does that mean in terms of the traditions of the party and how can you do that whilst also not becoming closed or withdrawn, be that on the international stage or be that in terms of migration or Europe or whatever. There are huge, difficult issues here.
CRUDDAS ON… THE RESHUFFLE
“I’m quite fortunate that I don’t have to be part of any of that conjecture and I’ve got a specific job around the policy review. The great thing about my job is I can absolve myself from all that Westminster tittle-tattle, who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down. Unless I get the sack of course! And then I’ll get very irritated about who’s up and who’s down!”
CRUDDAS ON… HIS POLITICAL HEROES
“The biggest thing in our house was who had a mass card for John Kennedy’s funeral. Our political heroes weren’t Labour movement heroes. They were Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy actually, partly cos they were Irish and part of the diaspora and that sort of thing.”