How Labour kingmaker Jon Cruddas held off the BNPby David Edmonds / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
There are not many MPs who can quote political philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, RH Tawney and TH Green. But Jon Cruddas is an exotic political creature, with a reputation for being able to connect with people from all walks of life, equally at ease discussing fuel bills with senior citizens or Antonio Gramsci in senior common rooms. His face is unmemorable, a bit like his Dagenham constituency: flat and featureless. He has neither the looks of a character actor, nor a leading man. Colleagues note that his accent changes depending to whom he is speaking. He is a working-class Catholic boy from Portsmouth, whose father was a sailor. He is also an intellectual with a PhD in political theory and fans in the media and academia. Some people saw him as a future Labour leader. While he announced in mid-May that he wouldn’t stand for the leadership, his ideas on how to reconnect with the traditional working class will remain influential in the coming contest. Cruddas was the big surprise of Labour’s 2007 deputy leadership race: he scored the most votes in the first round, and ultimately came third, demonstrating support beyond the party’s leftist fringes. He is close to David Miliband, who has already launched his bid for Labour’s crown, and shares some similarities. Both worked for Tony Blair—Miliband as head of policy, Cruddas as deputy political secretary. Both went on to become MPs for de-industrialised areas. Both are animated by ideas. But while Miliband easily held his seat on 6th May, Cruddas came close to being dethroned. Cruddas hung on in Dagenham and Rainham by 2,630 votes. His race, along with that of Labour MP Margaret Hodge in the neighbouring constituency of Barking, gained huge media prominence because of the involvement of the British National party. BNP leader Nick Griffin attempted to unseat Hodge, but said the real prize was the council. Yet while the BNP’s challenge fell spectacularly short—coming third against both Hodge and Cruddas and losing all its councils seat in Barking—this deprived corner of east London still carries great symbolic significance. It is here that Labour lost touch with its core vote, where it struggled to provide jobs to replace the manufacturing industries of old, and where once unified white communities found themselves suddenly mixing with waves of immigrants. The BNP may have been trounced, but its challenge to Labour—in an area traditionally seen by the other parties as impenetrable—tells us much about the coming struggle for the soul of the Labour party. To find out more, a few weeks ago I visited the Roundhouse, a large, ugly, dilapidated Dagenham pub, on the corner of the busy A1153. The pub is divided into four sections around the central bar. One section has two pool tables: there are televisions to watch sport, and jukeboxes and fruit machines. The carpet is badly frayed and the toilets are a bit scuzzy. There are several signs warning the patrons to behave, or face being barred. Inside, I didn’t hear a single racist term of abuse. This, however, is a BNP pub: not a pub owned or run by the party, not a pub that trumpets its support for it, but a pub in which BNP sympathisers feel at home. Everyone I met (bar one cantankerous Tory) said they would vote BNP. It is also a welcoming place—of a sort. People know each other. Backs are slapped. A couple had brought their seven-year-old boy with them and the grown-ups joshed with him. Two elderly men pored over the newspaper, working out which horses to bet on. The barmaids actually say “’ello darlin’.” The day before my visit, West Ham lost again; postmortems were under way. One man in his fifties said: “I’m a Millwall supporter—that’s like being a bloody alien in here—but I never get no trouble—people are unbelievably friendly.” I asked one woman, a mother of six, what would happen if a black person walked in. “Well, we’d all just stare at him,” she said. The woman calls non-white people, “multiculturals.” Her kids go to a school in which more than half the pupils are multiculturals. The buses are crammed with multiculturals. The multiculturals “get all the good houses, and take all the good jobs.” The staring seems deterrent enough. There were no multiculturals in this pub. It was February, three months before the election. The BNP was hoping for an electoral breakthrough. In 2006 the party took 12 of the 51 council seats: in 2010 it was expecting to become the largest bloc in the council; a Westminster seat didn’t seem inconceivable. Here I should declare a family interest, requiring a detour to north Africa, via west Europe: Margaret Hodge is my aunt. My grandfather, Hans Oppenheimer, was born in Stuttgart, into a middle-class Jewish family, so assimilated into German culture that almost every vestige of religious ritual had been sloughed-off. Street-smart, but not academic, Hans spurned university in favour of a job with an uncle in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. There he met and married Lizbeth, a Jewish Viennese woman. When the Nazis took power Hans and Lizbeth were left stranded and stateless. They would have stayed in Egypt had it not been for the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: a brick through the window was the warning that antisemitism had migrated to the middle east. The family moved to Britain and bought a house in Orpington, a genteel, very English neighbourhood in London’s commuter belt. Lizbeth succumbed to stomach cancer, leaving Hans to bring up his five children alone. The middle child, Margaret, took her mother’s death worst and was packed off to boarding school. A lovable but fearsome chain-smoking patriarch with a heavy accent, Hans set up a steel trading company, and became moderately wealthy. “Anything an Oppenheimer wants to do, an Oppenheimer can do,” he told his grandkids. It was a lesson Margaret took to heart. After graduating from the LSE, she worked in market research before being elected a councillor in Islington. She became council leader in 1982, a post she held for a decade, providing regular fodder for the Evening Standard. The tabloids called her a member of the loony left and Islington “the Bananas republic.” The Mail referred to it as “The mad mad mad mad world of Islington.” Many of those stories were fabricated, but some were true, like the raising of the red flag over the town hall. After that my aunt embarked on what commentators like to describe as “a political journey”: a move to the centre that saw her enter parliament in a 1994 by-election and become a loyal Blairite minister. But Barking 2010, she said, was the most moral fight of her political life. It was also the ugliest. The BNP denied using antisemitism in the campaign, but its supporters liked to point out that Hodge was not born in Britain and to refer to her mittel-European maiden name. The BNP, though often incompetent and prone to internecine flare-ups, put up candidates in 200 seats nationwide, but much of its campaigning energy was focused on Barking. Cruddas and Hodge came from different wings of the party, but they now shared a common foe. People who have never been canvassing naively assume that the point is to talk to voters and win them over with charm and policy. It’s not—the aim is to identify partisans, opponents and waverers, and pass on to the next house as quickly as possible. This information is required for election day, when activists swarm through the constituency, pleading and cajoling supporters to the ballot box. During the campaign, Labour held regular “days of action.” This wasn’t exactly the Spanish civil war, but in an era of grey, consensual politics, it was seen as a Manichean ideological cause. In the morning, teams fanned out in groups of five or six, each tasked with covering a couple of streets. “What happens if people tell you to fuck off?” one novice asked. “Most people are polite, but if they tell you to fuck off, then it’s probably best to fuck off,” said Rod, the platoon leader. It was a bitterly cold day in March and our fingers were frozen. We were handed a bag stuffed with leaflets and a petition—it called for the saving of the local hospital, but was really a gambit to probe voting intentions. The first occupant we disturbed slammed the door in our faces. Stickers on doors were off-putting: “beware of dogs,” “cold callers not welcome,” and most disconcerting, a bright red one announcing “I am covered with the blood of Jesus.” But most people were civil, with the same complaints: the area has gone to the dogs, kids have lost respect for their elders, foreigners are sponging. “I’ve voted Labour all my life: but not this time…” That afternoon, a group of Labour canvassers were walking down a deserted street when a number of BNP canvassers appeared from the other direction. Their pasty-faced, pock-skinned appearance conformed to liberal stereotype. With a few leaves and bits of paper swirling in the wind, this confrontation between enemies felt momentarily like a showdown. The BNP men were distributing leaflets with cartoon caricatures and slogans: one had a picture of the MP, and the words: “Hodge School of multi-language culture and ethnicity: lessons in Albanian and Somali.” The speech bubble asked, “Anyone here speak English?” But both sides passed quietly, the Labour lot grunting a swallowed “howdee.” London in general is an ethnic hotchpotch. But, as one local government worker explained to me, the scale of transformation in Barking and Dagenham is unusual. A process that has taken three decades elsewhere has churned in Barking in just a decade. In 1991, only 6.8 per cent of the population was non-white. By the time Jon Cruddas took his seat in 2005, the area had been transformed. The last census was in 2001, but a council insider told me that around a quarter of the population is now non-white. Among schoolchildren it may approach 50 per cent. Three decades ago, people in the borough could take two things for granted: a well-paid blue-collar job, often at the giant Ford factory, and a nice council house with a garden. Neither is guaranteed any more: the blue collar utopia is dead. Ford now employs just a few thousand workers, while Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy saw a sharp decline in the stock of public housing, and in turn an influx of non-locals seeking cheap, good quality homes. A small semi-detached house costs around £170,000, a third of what you might pay in other parts of London. Today the borough is poor, with above average unemployment, low skill levels and many elderly people. Polling by YouGov identified insecurity, rather than hostility to immigration, as the most common characteristic that BNP voters share. The Labour party was woefully slow—it concedes the point—at sensing this mood-swing. For more than a generation the borough of Barking and Dagenham was a one-party state, with Labour presiding over it for almost as long as the communists ruled Russia. Allegiance to the party was tribal. When local resident was asked why he was voting BNP he was flummoxed, “Well, I can hardly vote Tory, can I?” Jon Cruddas has tried to win back such voters. He refers, repeatedly, to an encounter with an 86-year-old woman in Dagenham. She pointed across her street to an old mattress, dumped by the house’s occupant in his front garden. “This mattress was a proxy for disenchantment and abandonment,” he told me, for the decline in neighbourliness, for things that “ruptured a tacit covenant between the traditional working class and Labour.” Cruddas’s response was to back a scheme to get rid of eyesore gardens: people could tell the council about gardens full of rubbish, and the council would ask residents to clear it up. If they didn’t, the council did it for them, but made them pay. “So the front yard became a political space in which we could re-establish a sense of community.” In the ethereal world of political theory, communitarians—like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who Cruddas admires—have long pointed out that much of our meaning in life comes from the values, relationships and networks within communities. They argue that governments should have a role in keeping the fabric of communities together. The architects of the Becontree estate clearly aimed to create such a sense of community and neighbourliness among future residents. Built after the first world war as part of the “homes for heroes” programme, the estate is vast, still the largest of its kind in Europe: 24,000 houses are laid out in neat little tree-lined streets, with neat little privet hedges. Many of the houses need money spent on them, but it’s easy to see how this was once a desirable place to live. I pass one old man weeding and pruning: some of the flowers are in bloom, and it’s clear that the effect has been carefully planned. I compliment him on what must be the finest garden in Becontree. He complains about eyesore gardens elsewhere in the street. Working out how to deal with that abandoned mattress may seem a trifling affair, but it matters: it delineates the line between liberal and communitarian values, and it’s pretty clear on which side of the privet hedge Cruddas sits.“It’s a really interesting question and it is cropping up in other local policies,” he said. “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 the liberal-communitarian debate.” He talks approvingly of a council plan to prohibit rowdy revellers from public drinking. It will undoubtedly prove popular: the unruliness of young people is an issue that is often raised on the doorstep. Nonetheless, it’s a philosophy that contains dangers. That mattress was on private property. Residents might object to it, but what if the majority of residents were equally offended by neighbours wearing a niqab? Cruddas says these topics are “issue specific” but what’s required is a principle (or a set of rational criteria) to justify when communitarian values can be imposed on citizens, and when they cannot—and that principle Cruddas has yet to supply. Another area to be fought over by the Labour party, reflecting in part this deeper liberal-communitarian split, is housing. Cruddas is critical of how little public housing has been built under Labour, pointing out that “two months ago I dug the footings for the first new council property to be built in this borough for 25 years.” Waiting lists are long. To qualify, you must have been resident in the borough for two years. In 2007 Margaret Hodge went further, proposing a points system in which a person’s length of residence in the community would also be taken into account—somebody who had been in the borough for 30 years would, other things being equal, take precedence over someone who had moved in two years ago. For this she was pilloried by some in the Labour party, with Alan Johnson accusing her of pandering to the BNP. Liberal values are typically abstract, universal and temporal. “Need” for housing might exemplify such values. If one family “needs” a housing transfer more than another (because of its size, say, or because its circumstances are more desperate), then length of residency hardly seems relevant. But you can see why a communitarian, who believes values are grounded in particular communities, cultures and traditions, might wish to grant priority to locals. While stressing that the important issue is boosting the supply of housing, Cruddas admits that a points system for housing allocation “has its place in a broader portfolio of remedies.” Labour’s values are rooted in various traditions: Cruddas highlights the party’s original emphasis on local self-organisation as well as its historic links with religious movements. His Catholicism is never far beneath the political surface, though Aristotle is also an influence: he talks a lot about “the fulfilled life” grounded in values like reciprocity and the attainment of knowledge and wisdom. Compares the speeches of religious leaders like Rowan Williams with those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Cruddas says “they’re poles apart and it’s not left-right, it’s about forms of living, forms of neighbourliness, it’s about your role and duties.” For Cruddas, the market tends to commodify and debase relationships—and fulfilment is not found in buying a flat-screen television. He is critical of Labour politicians who see politics as a type of consumerism: “I was brought up in a big working-class family. We aspired to have a form of self-fulfilment through learning things our parents never had a chance to, and through supporting one another in times of crisis.” He quotes Blairite Alan Milburn saying Labour’s purpose was “to help people earn and own,” adding: “Well, it isn’t to me.” His political philosophy still feels like a work in progress. But he relishes the problem of meshing theory with practice: his face seems to shift as he grapples with intellectual dilemmas. In Goresbrook ward the BNP had two of the three seats, and back in March, I pounded the streets with a Labour man, Graham Letchford. He’s retired and not in the best of health. As he puffed on cigarettes he genially told voters he knew nothing about politics. It seemed unlikely that he had sought advice from any new Labour stylist at any rate: he wore plimsolls and owns 32 African shirts. The Barking equivalent of kissing babies is patting dogs, and he would make sympathetic noises when people complained, stroke the nearest four-legged creature and move on. Letchford is not well-versed in Labour ideology, but he does what previous Labour councillors were accused of not doing: he listens. Bigotgate was a pivotal moment in the election. A 65-year-old widow, Gillian Duffy, confronted the prime minister about immigration: “all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” Had Brown spent time in Barking, her sentiments would have seemed restrained. His grumpy dismissal of an attitude so commonplace in so many parts of the country seemed to signal to Labour’s core supporters that, in the quest for the votes of middle England, they and new Labour had become estranged. In their own way, Cruddas and Hodge have been developing a critique of the new Labour orthodoxy, one which will be important in the leadership election. Both began as Blair loyalists: Hodge as a minister, Cruddas as a Downing Street fixer, charged with smoothing over feuds with union barons. Hodge’s proposal for housing waiting lists marked a break with the new Labour thinking that wished away the tension between supporting local communities and newcomers; between universal and communitarian values. Cruddas’s criticisms of his party were motivated by the practicalities of a “white working class” flirting with the BNP, but were also part of a deeper narrative about new Labour’s inability to grasp the downsides of globalisation—shared by the Labour pressure group Compass. He thinks that Labour has let down the traditional working class in two areas in particular: public housing and the workplace (over both pay and job security). Cruddas draws on an impressive range of ideas, from psychoanalysts to neuroscientists to sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman, who has analysed the way capitalism undermines social bonds. He has been enthused by continental philosophy and post-Marxist theories through a friendship with Jonathan Rutherford, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University. “Global forces have ripped through this community,” Cruddas said, and “eroded people’s sense of duty and obligation.” When pressed, he admits that immigration, in particular, has been too much, too quickly: “Immigration has been so significant 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.” For local people, he said, immigration has seemed like “a zero sum game.” Looking out from the Roundhouse pub, you can see the signs of change. In the parade of shops opposite there are two Indian restaurants, a Chinese takeaway, and a shop front advertising hair products for black people. Inside, there is a spectrum of views about race and immigration that distinguishes BNP support from that of its precursor, the National Front. Take the use of language. That the words nigger or Paki are taboo even here reveals a degree of self-awareness. In the Roundhouse many propositions begin, “I’m not a racist but…” Several men in their twenties say they don’t blame minorities who move to Barking, but the system instead. Even the person I speak to with the most noxious views—the mother of six who won’t allow “multiculturals” into her house and who’s cut off a family friend because she cohabits with a black man—has nuanced attitudes. Her son plays with multiculturals in the playground because “it’s better he has friends than no friends.” She verges on the apologetic about the eyeballing of black people who deign to walk into the bar, oblivious of the unofficial apartheid. “I know it’s not right, it’s not friendly like, but that’s the way it is.” What’s happened in Barking and Dagenham is that a community has been ripped apart, sharply and dramatically—as mining communities were ruptured in the 1980s. The establishment parties were blind to that fact: the BNP was quick to grasp it. On the night of 6th May I wait for the results in the Goresbrook leisure centre in Barking. Besides Margaret Hodge and Nick Griffin there is an impassioned, blunt-speaking Jewish Conservative, Simon Marcus; a black evangelical, the Reverend George Hargreaves (leader of the Christian party) and a Liberal Democrat, Dominic Carman, who wrote an unauthorised (but never published) biography of Griffin and is the son of the late libel lawyer George Carman. There’s also the Ukip candidate, Frank Maloney, a dyslexic boxing promoter who managed the heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis. His campaign hit an orthographical low with posters proclaiming he was “fighting for Barking and fighting for Britian.” Given the verbal violence in this campaign, the pugilistic theme is fitting: Griffin was a Cambridge boxing blue, and Simon Marcus runs a boxing academy that takes in kids excluded from school. The night is incredibly tense, in a way the television cameras—and there are many—can’t capture. Activists had spent the day knocking on doors, frogmarching and ferrying voters to the polls. Darren Rodwell, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator, is entirely hoarse and still sprinting between houses at 9.30pm, pleading with citizens to do their civic duty, to say no to the BNP. The archaic counting system keeps the BNP and Labour supporters corralled together for hours. Just after 6am, the vote is declared. Hodge wins and Griffin is humiliated—in third place, with little more than 6,000 votes. At the count the next day all Labour candidates for the council were elected, including the African-shirt wearing Letchford—and every single BNP councillor was defeated. The scale of the wipeout was unanticipated. Rodwell led the exhausted but adrenaline-propelled Labour team in a rendition of “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Griffin…?” Hodge said in her speech that it was time for the BNP to pack its bags, get out and stay out. A week later she told me this was a victory for the most local of local politics: for coffee mornings with residents, talking and listening, promising to sort out litter. Her campaign, she said, made personal contact with over two thirds of the electorate: “There had been a complete breakdown in trust with politicians. The election was the culmination of a four-year campaign to restore it.” Meanwhile, Cruddas scraped through, with the Tories a close second. He gave a more emollient speech. The BNP had delivered a slapping to Labour, but been seen off. Cruddas said that when historians look back on this election, they may conclude that it took the BNP to shake the Labour party awake. If he takes a key role in shaping his party’s agenda, it will be one informed by places such as Barking and Dagenham—poor, working-class communities, buffeted by global economic forces, whose fate was not a priority for the Labour leadership because their support seemed guaranteed.