A few weeks ago I interviewed Jon Cruddas. Usually when you meet an MP in Parliament they send one of their staff down to meet you. Cruddas by contrast is a refreshing change – he came himself. And when we got to his office, there was no SpAd or researcher with a dictaphone at the ready to make sure he said “the right thing”. In fact there was no-one else in his office. Just Jon Cruddas, leaning back in a computer chair swigging from a bottle of water, and me, sitting in another computer chair.
What better place to discuss the future of the Labour Party. No faux glamour like some MPs offices. Only a large photo on one wall, but we’ll come to that later.
I was visiting Cruddas to speak to him about the policy review which he’s recently taken on. But considering he’s avoided taking on ministerial and shadow ministerial roles before, why now? Why the policy review?
“I turned down other invitations because it seemed to me if you disagree with what’s going on then you can’t just sort of trade that off to trade up. So I was never interested in it.”
That certainly chimes with media coverage at the time. Brown was seemingly determined to install Cruddas as Housing Minister, but he evidently wasn’t keen. There was speculation that he wasn’t interested because he had been told he would not be able to introduce a large council housebuilding programme that had become a signature issue of his deputy leadership campaign:
“When we did the Deputy Leadership thing, that was precisely not to use it as a platform to try and ingratiate yourself and trade up…that can’t be the platform and then the first sign of an offer you go ‘I didn’t really mean it’”.
This idea of “trading up” is something that Cruddas comes back to time and time again. The idea is anathema to him. You sense it’s what annoys him about modern politics – trading up sounds an awful lot like selling out. So why is this different?
“This time round…the policy review interests me, the sort of shape of the party – where it’s going? – interests me. I think Ed Miliband is being extraordinarily inventive, and interesting. It was something you can’t turn down. My sense is now that it’s an obligation to get involved to get involved, right? It’s not actually a choice. It is something where it’s all hands to the pump, not least because of the shape of the country and what the coalition’s doing. It’s literally a duty of all of the party members to get together and try and contest the national story. The stakes are very high. It’s not a choice really.”
Duty, obligation – those aren’t words you hear often in the party these days, but Jon uses them comfortably, fluently and easily. Duty to him doesn’t seem arduous. Or maybe it is? Maybe he’s just good at hiding it?
But if the membership has an obligation to get involved and help fulfil Miliband’s vision, then the party needs to have a better relationship with those same members. You might call it rights and responsibilities, I suppose:
“If you’re going to respect the membership you’ve got to open [the party] up and give it more rights. We are literally – in real time – discussing how we do that.”
And where better to start, when it comes to the broken nature of Labour Party democracy, than policy making:
“I went to the National policy Forum a couple of weeks ago and it was really interesting, but we’re looking at – myself and Angela Eagle – ways of re-democratising the process – as well as bringing clarity to the Shadow Cabinet policy making processes. And basically I went to the joint policy committee yesterday and it was the same structure to the National policy Forum as when we set it up 14/15 years ago. Literally the same titles. So there is a question about whether that’s good enough for a contemporary party in a different epoch to 15 years ago. I think Angela’s very keen. There’s a broad sense across the party – Ed’s very keen too – to reform the architecture to make it breathe more and to re-invite all of the different sites of representation across the party to get involved and participate in policy making. And participate in a new democratic settlement in the party. And I think that’s much more interesting than it was four or five years ago, when part of our platform was about the lockdown in the party.”
The policy making structures of the party, Cruddas argues “became an exercise in political control”. That’s the kind of hyperbole that Labour activists are used to throwing around at GCs, so it’s both heartening and surprising to hear a senior party figure speak in such terms. But can the party really change. Five years ago, Cruddas argues, “it was total, top down, control not respect for the membership” – for the avoidance of doubt, his tone of voice doesn’t suggest that he thinks that was a good thing.
He also says that one of the country’s biggest issues – housing – links back to party democracy. If the leadership had listened to the party more, they might have realised that the party have been talking about housing for years.
He seems far more confident about the party’s ability to change now than he was back then. Of party General Secretary Iain McNicol, he says:
“I listen to Iain McNicol, and he does remind me of Larry Whitty. He could be as good a General Secretary as Larry Whitty in terms of the way he’s progressing. In terms of the the democracy of the party. In terms of how he sees it. And that’s looking good. Culturally that means the party’s changing. Or is in the process of confronting some of that legacy. And there has to be a reckoning about what it becomes.”
Despite only having been a member of the Shadow Cabinet for a few months, he’s similarly complimentary about many of the others sat around the party’s top table – and one person in particular has caught his eye:
“I sit up when he says anything…Vernon Coaker. When he talks about Labour, the language he uses…he’s literally an Oracle.”
Coaker is literally – if the Wikipedia definition of Oracle is correct – a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods. Now that, right there, is praise. If anyone sees him ask him what the lottery numbers are going to be.
Being able to pontificate about the future is one of the benefits of being an MP, although it’s often easier on the backbenches. Jon Cruddas has spent a decade on the backbenches and much of that tim e was spent pontificating. Of course now that Cruddas is in charge of the policy review many within the media have started looking back over some of his previous writings and pronouncements and wondered how many of his views might find their way into a future Labour manifesto.
Does he, for example, still favour an EU referendum?
“That was my view”.
He laughs a big hearty throaty laugh and rocks back in his chair. I sense this isn’t the first time this has come up.
“Lets be pretty blunt about this. I come to this job – a generous invite from our leader to participate in the shadow cabinet – with a fair degree of baggage. I fervently believe in a lot of things, right? And I still do. But, my job is more of a secretarial job across the party. It would be wrong to see it simply as an exercise in ensuring that the party says what I think. Because I actually think – I’ll be completely honest about this – I don’t want the party to think what I think, because I don’t think it would win if it did, right? This is not an indulgent exercise to try and make sure the Shadow Cabinet takes my views on things, because I don’t think that’s necessarily the most successful route to victory.”
“Where the leader of the Labour Party should be, is not necessarily where I would be. That’s just an objective fact…that’s just about having a mature approach to your party.”
He says that he’s not going to disinvent what he’s said before. That’s a good to hear, in a world where politicians are constantly reinventing what they’ve said before to mean something else. That doesn’t mean Cruddas is going to stop being strident though. I ask him about another subject he’s been outspoken on – welfare. He speaks about “the culture war around the demonisation of the welfare recipient” and says that “We cannot lose our compassion in this process, or we’re dead, as a political party.”
Jon Cruddas doesn’t tend to mince his words, which he sees as part of the priviledge of being an MP
“I think if there’s one job where you should be able to say what you think, it’s being an MP, right? And I say what I think. And it’s a fantastic privilege.”
I like that he says “Right?” at the end of most of his numerous rhetorical questions. I have no idea if he does it on purpose or if it’s some kind of verbal tick. Either way, it makes it feel, amongst the jargon (or “waffle” as he calls it) as if he’s making sure that you’re still part of the conversation. It’s part of his charm – one part blokey and one part academic rambling (he is Dr Cruddas after all).
So if Jon Cruddas isn’t the right person to lead the Labour Party, according to Jon Cruddas, what does he think of the man in the hotseat right now?
“Ed Miliband I find intriguing. His resilience surprises me, and I probably underrated that, or didn’t detect it. And I think he’s moved from strength to strength and he’s looking a strong leader. And he’s come a long way quite quickly…He has a capacity to shift the tempo of the mainstream conversation…I like his manner as well. He genuinely is inclusive, and he believes in party democracy as well. These things are interesting characteristics in the party.”
Crucially, for someone who is dead against the idea of “trading up” or selling out on principles in order to succeed, Cruddas says that Miliband is “not compromising in the way I thought he might do.” From Jon, I think that’s fairly firm praise, considering how he seems to think other leaders have compromised.
At the start of the interview I mentioned a photo on Jon’s wall. It stands out in an office with few such adornments. At the recent Fabian Society Conference, Jon described Tony Blair as “Labour’s Miles Davis”. The photo on his wall is of Miles Davis, so I have to ask, what did he mean by that analogy?
“I love Miles Davis, don’t get me wrong, he made the best sounds. He made the best tunes. But it was sort of 52-56 rather than 70-76. But when he was on he was just the best.”
“I worked with Tony Blair for a few years and he was extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary as a charismatic contemporary Labour leader, and I always saw Blair as entrenched within certain traditions in Labour’s history. It wasn’t actually new, it was deeply, historically embedded. And the story to me was what was lost within Blairism. Because when Tony Blair is shouted down, or howled at at conference, or where it’s seen as a term of abuse in the party, that is a totally one dimensional view of what it was and could have been.”
“Miles Davis is absolutely the perfect description because I love Miles Davis but he irritates the hell out of me as well. All of that later fusion stuff was just…you know…”
I’ve heard many people speak fondly of the early Blair years but critically of the later Blair years (which, incidentally, seems to be the complete opposite of how Blair views his time in office), but I’ve never heard anyone use their musical hero to make the point. “He won’t like that…” says Jon, who knows fairly well what Blair will and won’t like, having worked with him in the nineties.
And now of course the two men will be working together again, albeit in somewhat different capacities. Cruddas seems to relish the idea of working alongside Blair on the Olympic legacy “As long as it’s the Blair of 52…”, he says, grinning again. When we spoke the Olympics hadn’t even started and the country was still mired in G4S inspired doom and gloom. Which may or may not have put Cruddas in a mischevious mood:
“If the Tories try a land grab around a successful Olympics, I think we should be very clear that it was actually Gareth Thomas that brought the Olympics to London. It was Gareth Thomas who convinced Tony Blair to make the Olympic bid. So if it goes wrong we blame Gareth… Put that in, because he’ll go mad.”
I think with the benefit of hindsight, we can now safely say it didn’t go wrong (thanks Gareth).
So what does Jon Cruddas do after 2015 when the policy review is complete, the election is over and Ed Miliband is (hopefully) in Number 10. Does he fish in Ireland?
“I might do”
That’s not a committal answer, and neither is this one:
“It’s a fantastic privilege. I don’t want anything. From no-one. And I’m not trading up and I haven’t got a dog in the race, you know? I do actually feel the Labour Party has given me everything, so I do feel obliged to give a hand. But we’ve all got a shelf life. There are other things to do.”
But not yet Jon. There’s plenty to do yet. And despite one MP jokingly telling me that he’s “nearly finished” the policy review, anyone who has ever tried to make any sort of change in the Labour Party knows the process will take Jon quite some time yet. The fishing might have to wait.