The MP for Dagenham and former Blair aide says Labour has broken its covenant with the working class
Jon Cruddas is set to play a key role in the post-election Labour debate about the future direction of the party and who should lead it.
The 48-year-old MP for Dagenham—re-elected with a reduced majority of 2,630—has in recent years become a political spokesman for Labour’s disaffected core working class vote in de-industrialised areas like his own constituency.
The BNP, which has also been feeding on that disaffection, has for now been beaten back in places like Barking and Dagenham. But what should be the longer-term policy response to win back the traditional working class to Labour?
Raised in Portsmouth, a Roman Catholic from a working-class background, Cruddas spent several years as an academic before going to work for Labour as a policy officer in 1989. In 1997 he joined Number 10, serving as the link between Blair and the trade unions, and was elected MP for Dagenham in 2001. He unsuccessfully ran for deputy leader in 2007.
Two weeks before the election, David Edmonds, writer and philosopher, and David Goodhart, Prospect editor, interviewed Cruddas in the appropriately de-industrialised setting of a gloomy trade union office perched on the edge of the once giant Ford plant in Dagenham. In its heyday in the 1950s the plant employed about 40,000 people—it is now about 4,000.
Jon Cruddas: The issue of immigration has been so significant in Barking and Dagenham because it is seen to have ruptured a tacit covenant between the traditional working class and Labour—a covenant about housing, work, employment, a sense of neighbourliness and community. Perhaps especially the latter. I’ll give you an example: we were out canvassing with the leader of the council, a guy called William Smith, and there was an 86-year-old woman. We bang on her door and say “We’re from the Labour party, how are you, what’s up?” And she just pointed across the street and there was a mattress in the front yard, just dropped there, and she said, “that’s what’s up.” This notion of someone just depositing a mattress in their front garden was a proxy for a sense of abandonment. Now, partly as a result of that encounter, the council leader introduced a programme called Eyesore Gardens—if you look after your front garden, fine, if you don’t we’ll sort it out and bill you. Under the right to buy scheme in the 1980s, a lot of the houses were bought by local people and then sold on to landlords, often with very short term tenancies. So you’ve got this velocity of change not just in terms of migration but also in terms of housing tenure. So people come in, drop builders’ rubble or whatever in the front yard and move on. Now we are reintroducing norms of neighbourliness a sort of obligation not to disfigure your front yard.
David Goodhart: I guess one of the things about this place is that it was a kind of blue-collar utopia in the postwar decades: decent public housing, mainly in the form of semi-detached houses with gardens, one big employer (Ford) providing good wages and full employment, and a strong relatively homogeneous community. That means it had further to fall than many other places hit by de-industrialisation. But if you were a liberal conservative, or just a liberal, you might say that today’s problems stem from a kind of big state/big employer dependency culture. A blue-collar elite were provided with all those goodies by the social democratic dispensation and when those things were no longer available the place did not have the resilience to pick itself up.
JC: Yes, the argument about dependency is a legitimate one, it’s a contested argument. I think you can have both a social democratic state and local initiative. And you can change peoples’ behaviour, but not necessarily through pulling a lever in Whtehall.
David Edmonds: In the old days it would have been done through a sense of shame.
JC: But the interesting thing is, going back to this garden example, 95 per cent of people changed their behaviour voluntarily.
DE: Why had behaviour slipped in the first place?
JC: I think it’s partly because of those things that we’ve been talking about—the massive changes to the community eroded people’s sense of duty and obligation. More specifically in relation to housing there was a sense that no one was keeping an eye on things as they had done when everything was council owned.
DG: What about this idea, proposed by Margaret Hodge, of rewarding length of tenure in the area when it comes to qualifying for public housing? Does that help to answer one of the local grievances about people being locked out of the best public housing by large immigrant families in greater need?
JC: I think it has its place on a broader portfolio of remedies. I’ve got 11,000 people on the council allocation and transfer list here. Yet after 13 years of a Labour government I dug the footings for the first new council property to be built in this borough for 25 years two months ago. So there’s a structural problem in terms of the supply side—we bet the ranch on the private oligopoly of house builders but it’s in their interests to bank land and ration housing so that house prices continue to rocket. So you have a structural undersupply, at the same time as we live longer and decouple earlier. Back in the 1950s you had about 250,000 private units and 300,000 public units a year—now we have about 170,000 private units and negligible public units. Why it’s disproportionately significant here is because this is the cheapest housing in London and it’s had a magnetic pull in terms of immigration. And to make matters even worse the demographic changes in communities like these are not captured by any of the relevant data so we are not getting compensated for the extra pressures.
DE: But there’s already a two-year residence qualification for public housing why should there be an extra residence criterion?
JC: I think there is an argument there but I emphasise the supply issues first. You’ve got to get your base camp sorted out in terms of housing supply before you can go into that residency territory because it is a second, third order issue…
DG: But it sends a signal about neighbourliness and stability—something that that most people place a very high value on…
JC: It’s a really interesting question and it is cropping up in other local policies—whether you can walk around with a can of Special Brew; how people look after their dogs; and what about if you burgle a home and get caught, should your wife and child get chucked out of public housing while you are in prison, has a covenant been broken? These things are right on the frontline of this liberal-communitarian debate.
DE: Let’s say you sign up to the Special Brew ban, but what if a majority of people object to wearing the burka or something like that? How do you draw the boundaries?
JC: I don’t think you can have the clean lines about what is in and out, this is the contested site of politics…
DE: But you have to offer some reason why Special Brew is fine and the niqab isn’t. Or vice versa. We’re allowed to wander around pissed but we’re not allowed to wander around wearing a niqab…
JC: But go back to the fundamental questions here, which is what is this immigration debate about? Obviously, a lot of it is driven by the velocity of change and a sense of bewilderment and the loss and hopelessness that goes with it. And this is part of a deeper breach of a tacit covenant with the community here with Labour. How do we rebuild it?
DG: Well one way might be that residence qualification for public housing…You may say that’s not a priority and reordering the housing market comes first but surely that is a case of analysis getting in the way of politics. You just send a signal, you blare it from the rooftops—local people come first, whatever their religion or skin colour.
DE: I’m not sure I like the signal…
DG: How else are you going to deal with the disaffection? Or do you just say it’s bad luck, you happen to live in this place that has been subject to this radical change, go live somewhere else if you don’t like it…
DE: I want more neutral rules, I don’t want rules that give special privileges to those who’ve been here longer.
DG: You might argue that one of the problems with the policy is that it has come as a result of BNP pressure. But you could also say that the BNP has a legitimate role as a protest party, OK it’s associated with all sorts of horrible things, but we have protest parties to wake up the big parties.
JC: There’s an extraordinary and worrying political demographic movement right across Europe with white working class support switching from social democratic parties to more pernicious, virulent populist right-wing ones, why should Britain be removed from those trends…
DG: First past the post has disguised it.
JC: First past the post has hidden it here but we are not immune from that European trend. What we have to do is understand what’s going on in terms of the broader patterns of what’s called globalization. What is going on here and what needs to be done? That’s why I think this mattress thing is a signifier to me of the future of politics
DE: David’s point—has the BNP been useful in identifying this?
JC: Well I find it hard to see it that way because I see the violence, the thuggery, the criminality. Now, if in a few years’ time you said, “hold on, you wouldn’t have rebuilt Labour without this catalyst,” that might be a legitimate argument and it might be the case that we’re doing all this stuff because they’ve put a sort of bushfire through the community…
DG: You wouldn’t have such a big place on the national stage in the Labour party if not for the BNP.
JC: Yes, that’s true. But ultimately it’s not really about the BNP; it’s about the covenant between Labour and elements of the working class. That is what it’s about, the BNP are a sort of morbid symptom.
DG: For many years you’ve argued that Labour has concentrated too much on middle England, you’ve assumed a big break between the interests of middle England and left behind areas, old declining blue-collar areas. But is that really true? Surely, with the possible exception of public housing, there isn’t a huge divide in interests here—people want a strong economy, well run public services and so on. What other policy areas are more relevant here?
JC: Pay. If you’re on £9 an hour and because of patterns of migration you’re now on £6.50, you’re going to have something to say about it, right? Immigration has been used as a 21st-century incomes policy. And protections in terms of the labour market have not been substantial enough.
DG: But Labour brought in the minimum wage—full employment, tax credits and the minimum wage meant that actually at least up until 2004 incomes rose quite sharply even at the bottom.
JC: Maurice Glasman and others have been saying interesting things about a living wage not just about the minimum wage, indeed the living wage is in the manifesto. So I would say that labour market reform and housing reform—they’re the two big issues, which we haven’t done enough on.
DE: The impact of mass immigration has been very bad for a lot of people in this constituency, but it’s been very good for people who’ve come into this country. So I’m interested in why we might have more obligations to the people here already than the people who come in.
DG: Do we owe anything special to our fellow citizens? Surely any national politician has to believe that
JC: I do believe that…
DG: And if that means that mass immigration is damaging the interests of large groups of existing citizens then we should have less of it—or like the Rawlsian difference principle, immigration is only justified to the extent it can be shown to improve the lot of those at the bottom of the pile.
JC: Whatever you do—a cap, a points system—you can’t have mass immigration and then blame the migrants for the results of your 21st-century incomes policy
DG: But what you can do is say sorry we got it wrong, we had too many people coming too fast—would you say that?
JC: Um, yes, I would actually.
DG: It was a combination of cultural liberalism and treasury, free market liberalism.
JC: That’s absolutely right. And at the same time what they never did is cater for the microclimates that it creates. The macroeconomic aggregates were all positive as Gordon Brown sat in the treasury. Well, they’re not positive here and there was little response in terms of resource allocation. People have experienced it as a zero sum game— if you’re living in a two bed mid-terrace council place, three generations and your grandkid can’t get a house 13 years into a Labour government, you will think that this is at your expense.
DE: So there’s going to be those material effects but there’s also going to be an effect on values.
JC: Well, here’s the thing about values, you can create a new glue with your politics. See just through that window to that wasteland out there—they was going to build a 1,500-inmate prison there. That made us feel even more of a dumping ground. So we had this massive campaign, and got it stopped three weeks ago. It really brought everyone together, the African churches, the Muslims, the old working class
DE: You can create shared values…
JC: You don’t create them necessarily, they are latently there. Take an example, when people have a go at me about how many African families are moving into this borough with young children, I say they are following the exact migration of 50 years, 60 years before as white working class families moved out of inner East London the only difference is colour. They have a strong belief in education, advancement and aspiration. I don’t get anti-social behaviour problems with those families or neighbourhood nuisance problems. They bring strong faith traditions with them, exactly the same ways that people nostalgically remember their own migration here 50 years ago.
DE: So if there is some set of common values, we don’t have to worry about different values coming from outside?
JC: But you need intermediary institutions to forge those things together within the community—that is what the localised stuff is all about, I’m not interested in Westminster and all that, I’m interested in the local
DG: But the little old lady is still going to feel disrupted by the arrival of people from outside her community, people who don’t share the same cultural references as her, don’t share the same history too—surely they’re not the same as the people who came here 50 or 60 years ago.
JC: I agree and I’m not naively saying they’re the same, what I’m saying is, can you do more to emphasise the things that draw people together in terms of a core humanity and forms of family …
DG: We don’t all watch the Morecambe and Wise show any more—the shared cultural conversation has withered, the Nigerians are probably watching Nigerian telly…
JC: True but all I’m saying as a local representative is that it’s my job to reintroduce a series of footings in the ground to allow the community to navigate through these extraordinary storms, and they are storms…
DE: What do you do when you have real value conflicts over say womens rights… what do you then do?
JC: Well, that is a very relevant question because if you look across the road there is the Christian party HQ and they have a very specific ethics around homosexuality, around embryology, around abortion…
DE: So what do you do when you’ve got a group, and they might be an immigrant group and they’ve got a different set of values, how do you bridge those? You can use our education system, you can try to acculturate them, reculturate them…
DG: You can reinforce what we do have in common… Obviously there are differences in values within the white British community, quite extreme differences between different classes and groups…
DE: The objective is to turn them into us, to make them have our value system, that’s what we’re aiming for? Is that right?
JC: There’s no harm in acknowledging that there’s a need for a base camp of values that your institutions seek to instill and nurture. That’s why the word covenant is an interesting one because it’s more than a contract, there is a history to it that goes beyond rights, entitlements, it also captures a sense of obligation and duty as well, which Blair harnessed, early Blair was brilliant at it, when he used Macmurray—and talked about rights and responsibilities, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime… but the focus groups destroyed that because he lost that ethic, the richness, the texture of the language. Because his coalition was splintering he sought to dig even deeper into that middle ground rather than build something broader, wider, deeper. Now that’s not a criticism of Blair, Blair was a genius. It’s just to acknowledge that to me, actually it’s a sense of loss about what he could have been.
DE: I’ve been reading some of your articles. You quote Gramsci, Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor and these are all people with a religious background of a sort, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre especially. I’m assuming that’s not coincidental, you yourself come from a Catholic background.
JC: No it’s not coincidental. I also like to quote Raymond Williams.
DE: Connect that mattress, connect it to Charles Taylor… is there any link?
JC: Charles Taylor wrote a review of a book by a guy from Chicago that was called Radical Hope. It was a fantastic book, it was about the Crow Indians and how when they were confined to the reservation they literally lost any meaning in their life and he went on this exploration of how you manufacture hope … and Taylor took this thing and exported it to West Virginia mining towns or the South Wales mining towns…
DG: This isn’t just about the losers, this isn’t about just about “left behind” areas like this—it’s about our entire society. We no longer have those big structures of meaning whether its religion or the nation state, but they’re gone forever aren’t they?
JC: Well are they?
DG: We’re back into nation building then …
JC: That’s absolutely right, you have to reintroduce a floor in terms of values, and a respect for the things people feel are important. How could the bloke that dropped that mattress have done that? Taylor would say that the Crow Indian case is an extreme example of what happens through patterns of deindustrialisation, radical cultural change, patterns of migration and he argues for a thinner multiculturalism—reinstilling common forms of behaviour.
DE: It’s an argument for gradualism, isn’t it?
DG: And don’t we have to acknowledge that there’s an element of tragedy here, that so many of the good things have come out of bad things, and vice versa. Look at British social attitude surveys—we are much more tolerant and much more liberal, we’ve embraced multiple forms of family and sexuality and race and gender difference but that’s partly a function of the fact that we’ve become more abstract to each other and real community—with its binding but also excluding norms—has broken down in many places.
JC: That’s why the Phillip Blond thing is a really interesting thing. The marrying up of liberalism and social conservatism. Is there an equivalent for the left? Is there an anti-statist, values-based politics that offers Labour an opportunity for reconciliation within itself and with its core supporters? Rebuilding the covenant in terms of housing, work, and actually your vote mattering as well. But I wouldn’t fetishise specific policy remedies. It’s more of us getting into the right space where we can acknowledge the pros and cons of 13 years of a Labour administration and also reintroducing a more empathetic language. I think what we’ve really lost is a warmth, a compassion in our language—it’s partly managerialism but it’s also the consequence of a conscious political strategy and our encampment in a specific part of the electorate.
DG: This is King Canute stuff. You talk about values and community—but all the parties bang on about that. But so many of the modern social trends—including our geographical mobility or the greater freedom people have to leave marriages and relationships—work against stable communities, this is where the tragedy comes in. The modern, less constrained individual likes the idea of community but then acts in such a way as to undermine it.
JC: The world is a complex place, politics 101. All I’m saying is that the interesting things that I’ve seen over the last year are around that garden rather than something in Whitehall.
DE: Do you think that political engagement is a virtue in its self? Is it morally superior to go to a political meeting than go to a football match…
JC: Don’t know, never really thought about it. But yes I think there is such a thing as a virtuous life. I heard an interesting speech recently by the Archbishop Rowan Williams. And you take Nichols, the new Archbishop of Westminster, what interests me is to compare and contrast the speeches they make with the speeches of Blair and Brown. They’re poles apart and it’s not left-right, it’s about forms of living, it’s about forms of neighbourliness, it’s about your role and duties, what is a virtuous life? And that is what really interests me—can you appropriate some of that back into politics.
DG: There’s something very small-c conservative about a lot of this communitarianism, it can be seen as saying don’t aspire
JC: But it’s also saying, what do you aspire to? I was brought up in a big working-class family, we aspired to have a form of self-fulfilment through aspiring to learn the kinds of things our parents never had a chance to but also to have a form of support for one another in times of crisis or trouble. Alan Milburn once said, “What is the purpose of Labour? To help people earn and own.” Well, it isn’t to me.
DG: Contrary to this idea that we can all be brain surgeons or professionals of various kinds, actually the modern political economy is splitting the labour market so you have an increasing number of good jobs, you’ve also got a very large residue of not very good jobs and fewer jobs in the middle. I guess one of the questions for modern politics is how do you increase the status of these poor jobs that are always with us? Don’t you have to tone down the meritocratic and educational rhetoric and focus again on the belief that labour is dignified and worthy of esteem in its own right, even if you’re cleaning toilets. We’ve lost that idea somewhere, haven’t we?
JC: Yes, it’s about moving on from just thinking about people as consumers, having a more rounded conception of your role in society, your contribution above the cash nexus.
DG: But isn’t there a danger that you end up sending two different messages, you send one to the aspiring middle class and another message to console people who aren’t going to get into that stream—should you do that?
JC: What really winds me up is the way this question of aspiration has been used. Because my family was as aspirational as any family but it was a different kind of aspiration; we weren’t aspiring to earn and own more, it was a much more textured conception of having opportunities to do things.
DG: But your family may have been quite unusual.
JC: I’m not sure, I don’t think it was… I’ll take you to Robert Clack school, which is probably one of the best performing schools in Britain, right in the middle of this estate, it’s got a fantastic head from Liverpool. He’s running up the down escalator in terms of disintegration of families, through drugs and alcohol etc etc, but he will not countenance the notion that this is irretrievable, that you cannot reintroduce the same values that he was brought up with and a sense of aspiration that is not just about acquiring things.
DG: Does David Miliband sign up to these ideas?
JC: Maybe, I think James Purnell does… He’s getting more and more political which is why he’s left parliament! He’s reading a lot and navigating through a lot of this stuff and that’s the journey that the Labour party is going to have to go through, it seems to me anyway. And that’s not a left-right thing.
DG: Leaving politics to become a community organiser? But what is the job of an MP these days if not to be a community organiser? You’re a community organiser…
JC: That’s exactly what I am. And this notion of a virtual party that became a fashion a few years ago, that a party’s role was simply to raise money and hire someone to press the buttons on the computer to link you in with your mosaic group, that’s gone now I hope. And what is interesting now is pioneering forms of localised organisation—like getting 540 people here on a Saturday for the Hope Not Hate rally. It’s rebuilding around the streets again and trying to rebuild a sense of hope out of that.