Reclaiming the territory

BARRY WINTER interviews Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, deputy leadership hopeful, and co-author of a new pamphlet on the democratic renewal of the Labour Party

You wish to stand for deputy leader of the Labour party, but not deputy PM. Also, you’ve recently co-authored a very interesting pamphlet on renewal of the party. Are these activities linked, and what is the main thrust of your argument?

Jon Cruddas: They are absolutely linked. I’m not interested in government jobs. I’m interested in and concerned about the hollowing out of the Labour Party. I’m interested in debates about the future of the Labour Party, not as an end in itself but to re-introduce traditions of thought, bodies of ideas, and patterns of thinking, to rebuild a more durable, radical government.

The party itself is a key site for that debate because there is another discussion taking place on whether, using new technologies, Labour should become a virtual party. Concentrating on party supporters rather than members, this approach swerves around the issue of representative democracy and accountability. It is authoritarian and seeks to reproduce the government’s policy framework, which I oppose as a centre-left MP.

So the party itself is absolutely centre stage in terms of this debate. We wrote this pamphlet as a very pragmatic attempt to reintroduce the idea that the party is a federal, pluralist democracy. That’s not an outlandish suggestion but, given some of the ideas around, that notion was being brought into question and it needs to be defended.

The deputy leadership campaign (forget the deputy premiership which does not interest me) is about whether we can reintroduce these ideas; whether we can regain or rebalance some of the terms of reference around the post as a way into the debates about Labour’s politics.

I was impressed with your pamphlet, Fit for Purpose. It is not a rehash of old debates but seeks both to democratise the party and make it outward looking. However, it left me wondering whether the forces exist – or can be created and mobilised – to reform the party in these ways. Do you have a strategic vision about how this might be achieved and what steps need to be taken?

JC: It’s a very simple attempt to establish a base camp for discussion – that’s the objective. And what I find really interesting when I’m going round the country is how keen the party is to discuss these issues – not in an oppositional, factional sense but in a deliberative sense. People are saying: ‘Look, let’s think about where we’re going and what’s wrong; how the party’s being hollowed out; how we can rebuild it; and how members can participate in a pluralist way?’

‘Pluralist’ is the key category because that allows for checks and balances, different ideas, different frameworks, to discuss and analyse and think about the future. I think the party’s up for it. This pamphlet is not a blueprint, it’s a series of discussion points, a set of ideas to ricochet around the movement and see what comes back. We’re saying, let’s discuss democratic renewal because we don’t discuss these things.

Are you hoping to change the culture of the party, so that there is a movement and mood that recognises the need for reform, before talking about specific proposals?

JC: Absolutely, culture is the right word. We talk about culture a lot in the pamphlet. What really interests me – and this is a London thing – is that the big social movements in London around the living wage, supporting migrant groups, or anti-fascist work, are not led by the Labour Party in the way that they would have been, traditionally. Now the question is how we can get Labour, as part of a broader social, popular front, to stake out territory in our communities again? That gets you right back to whether the leadership want us to do that. Or whether they have a very different model for the party, more as an authoritarian, monolithic thing that does not seek to mobilise people in real communities and in real campaigns?

You described yourself as being on the party’s centre-left. What label would you use for your political perspectives?

JC: I’m a pragmatic, democratic socialist, always have been. I was never seduced by different factional solutions to complex phenomena. I quite like the notion of complexity! I don’t look for definitive solutions; instead I’m pretty pluralistic in my mind set.

I find myself getting more angry, though, partly being a local MP trying to deal with issues that ricochet around my community – like race, class, poverty, inequality and immobility. These issues take you back to first principles, to the reasons why you get into politics in the first place.

Paradoxically, I’ve got more energy now than I’ve had for many years. This is because the stakes are very high for us, in terms of building a more progressive agenda, with substantive policy development. This goes with the grain of where I’m coming from – as someone seeking incremental, emancipatory, social and economic change. The Labour Party has always been a vehicle for that.

To what extent do you diverge politically from the present party leadership?

JC: From 1997-99, I worked for the government representing the trade union movement on things like the minimum wage, Trade Union Start. There was a radicalism there, although people will contest that. I find that radicalism diminishing. We’ve become sluggish. We are not doing what we did in 1997, which was to articulate the concerns, frustrations and vulnerabilities of the people. There is a rupture between us and where most people are. That leads me into a more critical position.

I am, by definition, not oppositional but I’m more critical and angry because the government is not dealing with the material issues that are really at the centre of political life in my community and are increasingly generic the more I travel round the country.

One of the problems, as I see it, is that by cutting itself off from the membership, the leadership has cut itself off from an important learning process. It has become more isolated, as governments tend to become the longer they are in office. It has devalued the very voices it needs to hear.

JC: Right. That’s why I’ve agreed to stand for the deputy leadership: to open up space, to try and reclaim some territory because, if we don’t do this over the next six months, we could be heading for some real trouble.

What are your main expectations and concerns with regards to a Brown premiership?

JC: I think it’s pretty much up for grabs. One strand will be more of the same but that is not sustainable. More of the same is not an option for me, the status quo cannot prevail. Basically, I like the idea of getting in and contesting the issues, to try moving the centre of gravity within the party. This, in turn, could inform a new leadership.

Everyone in the party realises that we face problems refreshing the policy agenda, what they call renewal. We need organisational renewal – and the party is not awash with ideas. So we’ve got to generate ideas around labour markets, health, education, public services, class, and the environment – all the big, big challenges. Policy remedies will come, if we can develop this rolling, learning conversation within the party and the broader movement. That, in itself, will forge new solutions and help us to rebuild.

Does that mean you see reasons for optimism around the Brown leadership?

JC: Yes, I do. There are possibilities and we have to exhaust them. That’s exactly where I’m at. I’m not in denial that it might not work but we have to contest the terrain. That’s what we are trying to do in generating political space for ideas, to see if we can restore a sense of energy and urgency? I think we can. Strangely enough, I’m slightly schizophrenic about it. On the one hand, I’m very upset with the showing of the government; on the other hand, I’m very optimistic about our possibilities, if we can get it right.

It could be argued that the Blair/Brown leadership has resonated with global capitalism and the demands of a free market economy – opening up all economies and social life to market forces and profitability. In short, they have not bucked the system but embraced it.

In so doing, they have argued that it’s possible to marry public welfare and social responsibility with market economics, and thereby to get the best of both worlds. Do you think that’s a reasonable summary?

JC: That’s quite a precise analysis of the leadership’s thinking. I have a more malign take on the consequences of that form of politics, with its successive commodification of the public sector. This comes from looking at issues I deal with at a local level: massive population movement; migration being used to further deregulate labour markets; real pressures in terms of the consumption of public services; the privatisation of some of those services and, empirically, the failure to deliver what people need.

I have real interest in environmentalism, not just around recycling, but about house-building, special economic development, infrastructure, and the decontamination of land. Alongside the environment, the housing market is another classic example of chronic market failure. All the big outstanding issues, in terms of labour markets, housing, public service failure, environment, are symptomatic of market failure.
So the solutions are not the further commodification of those spheres. They are robustly interventionist, not just in terms of some sort of alternative programme, like 1981, but with a more creative use of the state, especially a devolved one.

As the MP for Dagenham, understandably you have been concerned about the emergence of the BNP. Indeed, not only have you written about them but you have campaigned to combat their influence. What can and should be done to meet the challenge of the far right?

JC: There are two elements, which go back to your first question. First, there’s the organisational challenge and that’s about mobilisation. At the end of March, beginning of April, we are going to organise an anti-fascist fortnight across the whole country. We want to mobilise against the key 450 BNP wards, with people from the churches, trades union groups, civil society, and the labour movement at its traditional best – as an emancipatory vehicle.

The second challenge relates to policy. We have to try to separate out the material causes of people’s insecurities which push them towards extremist forms: to return to core issues around inequality in society, insecurity at work, access to public housing, and the failure of the public services. We have to flag up our role, our historic mission, of confronting patterns of inequality.

The problem is it collides with the gearing of the electoral system which pushes political parties to appeal to a very small slice of the electorate, ‘middle England’. Does that mean we have to disenfranchise communities like mine? I don’t think so. All of this can be resolved in the next year or so, to see if we can re-enfranchise these communities with the policy remedies needed. I am not sure we will but we have to contest the terrain.

Given what you have just outlined, how valuable is it to attack the BNP as ‘fascist’ (not to deny its history or any such elements when they appear)? Might it be more useful to challenge its policies, particularly as it moves down a right-wing populist road, something that makes it more dangerous?

JC: Absolutely. That’s why we have to mobilise against them because their strategy is very precise. It’s about being more Labour than new Labour; it’s about campaigning in a much more creative form than simply having a load of boot boys running around. The BNP is now a much more seductive political force and there is a real danger here. That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of work with Searchlight.

In the early days, the BNP used to stand in a couple of places where they knew they would do well. Now they stand and they do well, which is different. I think their messages around globalisation, race, migration, crime, offer simplistic solutions to complex phenomena. But don’t underestimate the significance of what they’re saying and the way it goes with the grain of people’s real sense of material insecurity. It speaks to them.

If you add in the issue of race and community change – to the extent that we’ve experienced it in my constituency – then we have a very dangerous, toxic mix. It’s incumbent on us to reoccupy the terrain and exclude the extremists. We can do this with pragmatic remedies, for example, by allowing councils to build houses. We have to stop the intensive rush to the bottom in the labour market, to deal with enduring health inequalities and to allow the state to help more creatively those councils that are taking the strain of this massive movement of peoples.

It terms of your aspirations, should Labour be re-elected, what do you hope its priorities will be nationally and internationally?

JC: It’s the corollary to all we’ve been discussing. I really hope that, through the renewal of the party, we can move away from this ever more precise ‘key seats’ strategy. That instead we try to rebuild the party across the whole of the country.

Secondly, we have to really try to focus on people’s insecurities around education, housing, health, and labour market pressures, not simply to refine an ever-more populist, terror agenda, or fear politics, as we have seen in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, we have to defend community cohesion and multi-culturalism because they are being seen as politically contaminated.

It’s up for grabs, very much so. If we can go back to a pragmatic, incremental form of public policy making, one that’s evidence informed, and that goes with the grain of people’s concerns, that will do for me.

Internationally, unfortunately the real hallmark of the second Blair period has been the endorsement of a uni-polar world. We have to try to dismantle that attachment, to look at what’s happening in Latin and South America, for example, and seek a more progressive Europe. We have done a lot of good in terms of aid and development and we have to deepen and widen our sense of internationalism in more creative ways.

What is very interesting is that a lot of younger people in the party are re-identifying with internationalism in ways that people like me did around ‘the bomb’ in the early ’80s. We have to tap into that enthusiasm or they will leave. We have to rediscover the internationalist ethic within the party.

Finally, what sort of Britain would you like to see, and what sort of dominant values do you want to see emerging?

JC: It is the shrillness that I don’t like about our society, that unease about identity. I don’t like the way politicians are using religious symbols to play fast and loose with these issues. Nor am I happy with the kind of muscular bidding war to see who can be toughest on some of the minorities. I come from an Irish community where there was a sense of tolerance and an ethic of public service. This may sound somewhat hackneyed, but these ideas remain pivotal. They gave us an abiding sense of social democracy. That’s all I ask. I would also like to try and rewind society’s relentless sense of celebrity and atomised economic exchange: that stuff really winds me up.

Fit for Purpose: A programme for Labour Party renewal, by Jon Cruddas and John Harris, is also reviewed in the Winter 2007 edition of Democratic Socialist. Thanks to Alex Sobel, Yorkshire organiser for Compass