Jon Cruddas talks to Michael Harris about the BNP, how to revive the Labour party and the wine that focus groups drink
This article was originally published by Total:Spec Magazine in 2008.
“Actually, I feel more energetic and radical now than I have done for 20 years”
Symbols and the Left
Symbols are very important to the Left. Many of the ‘modernizers’ who according to your opinion either a) captured, or b) revitalised the Labour party in the mid-90s, had little truck with the symbolism of the past: the banners, the marches; even the party’s colour, red, was replaced by blushing crimson or the incongruously regal purple. Blair’s metropolitan fetish for modernity has meant he is rarely pictured with the lumpenproletariat, to avoid antagonising the chattering classes. So out went photos of the Prime Minister in greasy spoon cafes, and in came the now de rigour holiday snaps of Blair and family at some celeb’s home au gratis. I met some Iraqi trade unionists a few weeks back and they were keen to tell me about their visit with Labour MPs to the Durham Miner’s Gala, a working-class festival of banners, brass bands, and booze. These Iraqi trade unionists understood the important symbolism of this now museum-piece relic of working-class culture in a manner Blair does not: needless to say, Tony Blair has never attended as Labour party leader, and is the only leader never to have done so (his parliamentary seat is 10 miles away). Subtly, symbols and Labour’s history are part of Jon Cruddas’ message: he understands and feels comfortable with these symbols, and perhaps doesn’t really care if they do frighten the middle-classes.
In 2000, Peter Mandelson banned the singing of the anthem the ‘Red Flag’ from the Labour party conference, a song which opens immodesty, “The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead”, not quite in keeping with the parvenus’ view of what new Labour represented. To Cruddas, the dropping of the Red Flag was akin to blasphemy: “We’re made far too much of a rupture with the past and we should be proud of what is, after all, a rich history.” It is this very history, the history of a movement which emerged from an act of defiance by the Tolpuddle Martyrs into fully fledged trade unions and an onwards march into the mass membership Labour party that Cruddas understands and wants to bring into the modern era.
Jon Cruddas’ stated aim is to be the next John Prescott, that is the deputy leader of the Labour party. We know that Gordon Brown – except only for an act of God – is to be crowned leader of the Labour party after his relatively patient wait since a pact in Islington between the soup and the sorbet, so the attention of the press has turned to who will replace the venerable Prescott. Cruddas is one of 7 declared and expected-to-declare candidates including Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, and Jack Straw: he is the only candidate who is not a member of the Cabinet.
Cruddas is a union man. Whilst working as the PM’s deputy political secretary, he was seen as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the trade union movement inDowning Street. When he left to contest a safe Labour seat in 2001, the Prime Minister was left without a conduit to the trade unions and his relationship with them rapidly deteriorated.
Cruddas’ opponents are all too quick to accuse him of being a union placeman, digging up the mumbles of some at the time of his selection as a parliamentary candidate, which (even by the standards of politics) got rather dirty. At the time, Cruddas was one of three trade union activists along with Tom Watson and John Mann, who went from the upper echelons of the trade union movement straight to rock-solid safe Labour seats. Many of ‘Blair’s babes’ (the horrific media epithet given to newly elected women in parliament) were appalled at the seemingly old Labour trick of securing unbeatable Labour seats for working-class, white males. One senior woman politician said of his selection, “Jon Cruddas was eased into place with TGWU funds to back him”. A union official blasted back: “Some of these middle-class women are not really bothered about getting more women into Parliament… they just want more places for female lawyers and other professional women from wealthy backgrounds. They do not want to see working [class] people in Parliament full stop.” It was a moment of class war that was no longer supposed to exist in the modern sanitised new Labour party.
There is certainly no doubt that Cruddas is close to the T&G trade union, which as one of the ‘big four’ unions now provides most of Labour’s funding (since Lord ‘cashpoint’ Levy has found donors less willing to cough up), and a not inconsiderable number of the ‘bright young things’ who staff parliament wear T&G ribbons around their neck to support their passes, and in turn Mr. Cruddas.
In fact, I got to speak to Jon Cruddas through a trade union colleague, which was lucky as Mr. Cruddas is rather the media darling at the moment. I was assured however, ‘you’ll get the same amount of time as The Times did last week’, ah, being a union member comrades!
Jon Cruddas was born in 1962 in Cornwall to devout Roman Catholic parents. A lot of media attention has focused on his links with the unions, but none on his religious upbringing. I asked him about the link between his politics and his Catholic upbringing: “[my] social and community interaction was mostly through the Catholic Church, so it was driven by ethics of service, homelessness and poverty based around quite radical Catholic activity”. Catholicism provides an important, but overlooked backdrop to his politics; one of his political heroes is the assassinated Catholic Archbishop ofSan Salvador, Óscar Romero (who the last Pope attempted to make a saint), and his middle brother became a Catholic priest. At the recent ‘Defend Freedom of Religion Rally’ he attacked Jack Straw’s comments on the veil, “I am a Catholic and I come from an Irish Catholic tradition. I talked to members of my family about their feelings about the debate about the veil and religious symbols, they said if that debate had been … [about] Catholicity, they would have felt hunted”.
After a spell inAustraliain which he became “heavily involved” in the trade unions there, he returned to theUKto take a Doctorate in Philosophy atWarwickUniversity. Whilst the cozy atmosphere of student politics didn’t suit, “the student union didn’t interest me at all”, he became politically active as a result of the Miner’s Strike; “it was a profound seismic political event”, and the imposing and controversial figure of veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, “I voted Benn in 1981. I saw that as the route [for radical change]. I was very disappointed with the whole right-wing drift of the government, at the back end of the 70s. The Labour party was very factionalised, and I was drawn to the Left, not in a factional way, but because I saw Benn as quite a refreshing figure. I went with a lot of it, it chimed with my experience of youth unemployment, the bomb, and the Miner’s Strike.” In a sense, Cruddas hasn’t entirely left the legacy of his flirtation with Bennite politics in the 80s, his calls to rebuild the Labour party into a mass membership party are uncannily familiar to those of Mr. Benn, as is his belief that the style of leadership that Blair espouses and the structure of the party is about to change. “The page is turning now on a specific period of the Labour government, people have left the party for a whole series of reasons not less a lack of involvement in the democratic procedures of the party, policy failures that a lot of people have concerns with such as the War [in Iraq], top-up fees, the perceived authoritarianism of the government, Blair himself”, he breaks, not quite content to put the boot into his old boss at No. 10, “… where I sit as the local MP in one of the most challenging environments in the country the need for a Labour government, a radical Labour government, is as acute now as it has ever been and arguably even more so.”
THE BNP AND DAGENHAM
Dagenham is a troubled place. In the early-1920s, the world’s largest social housing development was built – at a time when the Soviets were having a real go at building mass housing projects – the vast Becontree Estate turned Dagenham from a village to a vast town overnight and is still home to 100,000 people. Many of those who came to Dagenham were a first wave of ‘white flight’ migrants, who fled from the increasing Jewish population of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Bow, to a homogenous white existence in Dagenham. The decline of the famous Ford car plant, which in the 1960s employed 40,000 and gave much of the area its employment, turned an old fashioned suspicion of the multiculturalism that lay down the road inLondon, to pure bigotry. In the eighties, neo-Nazi thugs cut out the kidney of a North African man on the District Line near Dagenham; Tony Lecomber the ‘BNP bomber’ grew up here, and the nail bomber David Copeland, a psychopathic ‘National Socialist’ lived next door in Barking. At the last election for Barking and Dagenham council, of the 13 council seats the BNP contested, they won 12. Jon Cruddas as the local MP, faces the serious possibility at the next election of being ousted forBritain’s first BNP MP, it is worrying indeed.
I ask Jon why people vote BNP: “It’s a really complicated phenomenon which takes different forms in different parts of the country… So you need a certain understanding of forces which combine in one particular area, in our area it is about massive demographic changes colliding with a long-term legacy of poverty and real concerns about access to public services like housing and healthcare.” Housing and healthcare really are the BNP’s two recruiting sergeants. As immigrants and Black Britons have moved from the centre of the capital to Dagenham in search of cheaper housing, the BNP has attempted to capitalise through clever mistruths. Recent campaigns include giving NHS Somali language leaflets to vulnerable pensioners and claiming they told foreign Muslims how to skip waiting lists, printing a leaflet called “Africa in Dagenham” which said the council were paying Nigerian families living in Tottenham £50,000 to move to Dagenham, and naming a local tower block “Kosovo Towers” – it was soon daubed with swastikas and racist graffiti by local neo-Nazis. The pace of change is certainly fast, a commonplace amongst locals is: “I can walk from my house to the shops, 1,500 yards, and never hear an English voice.” Jon concurs, “I think we have the fastest changing community in the country”, but he doesn’t let his government off the hook, “overriding this change is a sense of disenfranchisement by the Labour party, a sense that the party has moved away from them. A sense that all of the political parties becoming increasingly interchangeable and articulating an agenda that is relevant to a different place and community than ours.”
According to Cruddas, the reason the BNP are so strong is because Labour are now weak. Cruddas thinks that the structures of the party have become too closed and that “opening them up democratising them and handing them back to the membership is a proxy of re-enfranchising people back into the political process”, and that doing this will enfranchise people in Dagenham at the expense of the 45 marginal seats the political parties chase after (or ‘super-turbo marginals’ as Jon mockingly refers to them). “So the debates about the structures of the Labour party are key debates about re-democratising society, [to create] a more radical policy agenda that goes with the grain with communities like mine, rather than people who drink…”, there is a pause, I like to think here that internally Jon spent this time thinking which drink was typical of new Labour focus groups, ‘Claret, no, too mid-nineties’, but he continues, “the focus group member, you know what I mean?” Cruddas has spent a lot of time working on his local Labour party, getting back the old membership and bringing in new members: “Interestingly enough, in my experience at local level membership has gone up, activity has gone up, the age profile has gone down [and] the membership is coming from a whole series of different communities as well”. Part of his local party’s revival, against a background of moribund Labour party that has lost 200,000 members since 1997 (half its membership), is the threat the BNP pose, but I imagine another part is the role of Jon himself as a charming salesman for a politics we thought had disappeared.
“I think you have to give people reasons why they should want to join the Labour party and you have to give them a notion of a different society, a world that you want to create. I joined the party to change the world – I literally did!”
Cruddas is not convinced that we no longer need to change to the world, a la Fukuyama, “I mean there is this notion that this is an age of contentment compared to the previous era of the Cold War, the bomb, class war, Thatcher, I would argue those insecurities are more acute now actually. They take very different forms but it means that the case for political activity and radical political activity is even more acute now than it was 25 years ago when I got involved”. I begin to play out a standard argument you hear a lot at the moment, that people are interested in the big issues that Cruddas refers to (the environment and Third World poverty especially), but not in monolithic political parties. People will sign up to single issue campaigns, but as consumers we are not prepared to sign up in totality to a political party’s programme. Mr. Cruddas does not agree, “I think that’s a bit lazy. The usual argument is political parties are inevitably in decline, they belong to a previous era, its all single issues, blah, blah, blah”, I fear I oughtn’t to have mentioned this, “I think this is really lazy thinking, it sells the past on organised politics and it hands [power] over to cartels of power in terms of the press, industrial capital and authoritarian groups in the centre of political parties… saying that this is inevitable offers a very simple alternative to actually getting involved to change [things].” There is for Cruddas no alternative to getting stuck in and getting your hands dirty, moreover the current ‘authoritarian groups at the centre of political parties’ (the spin doctors and Special Advisors) are according to Cruddas about to be banished along with the “focus groups, key seat organisation, the middle-England agenda, the interchangability of politics, because that is creating chasms and vacuums that will be filled by a more radical politics on the left, and actually on the right as well… it will have to or else more extremist forms will come in and fill those vacuums.”
The Cruddas agenda is one where politics reaches out beyond the 45 ‘turbo-marginal’ seat scrap of electoral territory the main parties entrench their armies on, and instead reach out to places like Dagenham where the proto-fascist BNP are active. That means more local activists and so more members, and perhaps exorcising the ghosts of Labour’s past: “there’s a view in some quarters that if we become a more democratic party, then some mystical band of Trots will take over. I think the biggest problem we face now is not being infiltrated by a latter-day Militant Tendency but no-one joining at all.” Yet, the question key Labour figures such as the Immigration Minister Liam Byrne are asking of Cruddas is whether his agenda will do the one thing that any political position needs to deliver – another election victory. Whilst the tried and trusted Blair strategy of appealing to the middle-England of marginals has given Labour a historic third term, Cruddas’ Bennite strategy of big ideas and a big party is as of yet untested. Whether it will be given a chance is up to the 200,000 Labour party activists Cruddas wishes to empower.