Jon Cruddas’ speech to Compass conference

Alex Smith

By Alex Smith / @alexsmith1982

Below is the speech given by Jon Cruddas in the final session of the Compass Conference yesterday.

It’s been a cracking day.

Vibrant. Open. Optimistic.

In contrast to a sour right wing noise around Labour since the election.

It goes something like this:

We lost the vote of those working class people.

So let’s prioritise the ‘indigenous folk’, hit those newly arrived and get stuck into the welfare mothers swinging the lead, hoovering up benefits.

Raymond Williams once said that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’.

We should remember that.

For sure, Labour was the biggest loser on May 6th.

Yet the result reflected a wider failure of the political class to present a convincing vision of post-crisis Britain.

For all the hype the “liberal moment” failed to materialise.

The Conservatives enjoyed an unpopular government, a partisan Tory press, a huge funding advantage and a tax revolt by the business elite.

Yet Cameron got just 36% of the vote.

In an election without winners, as people were looking for a choice that wasn’t there.

But our failure was all the greater because we should have known better.

Labour at its best is the party of radical hope.

Yet were too implicated in the crisis to seize the moment.

We were told to be “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”.

Indeed, we became so relaxed that we slipped into a moral and intellectual coma.

We cannot understand the resounding defeat unless we accept it as a verdict on ourselves.

Yet even now there are many who refuse to face up to what has happened; people who feel that the result wasn’t so bad. That not much needs to change; we wait for the coalition to implode and sweep back into office.

The politics of safety first, one more heave and business as usual.

It is a route map into the wilderness.

This New Orthodoxy appears willing to camp out on the right flank of the coalition- witness the hits on the vulnerable.

An ex minister wrote last week of how we needed to ‘crack down on the welfare underclass’.

Others argue for us to become the ‘anti immigration party’.

A new kiss up, kick down politics that blames the victim.

There lies political death for labour.

No language, no warmth no kindness; no generosity, vitality nor optimism. No compassion.

If you seek to outflank the coalition from the right, you will turn Labour into a byword for intolerance.

But worse, you will fly in the face of what the public well knows – about who needs to pick up the tab for the crisis.

There’s something absurd – there’s no other word – about coming out of the crash and picking not on Bob Diamond, or Fred The Shred, or Philip Green, but people on welfare and struggling migrants.

If Labour becomes the voice for this sour, shrill hopeless politics it will die.

And it will deserve to.

Think for a moment of this quote:

‘Yes, we’ve made progress, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government. There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, You know what some people call us: the nasty party”.

Now I am no great fan of Theresa May but today this sounds strangely appropriate.

Sure, the four ex-Cabinet Ministers now running for the Labour leadership all agree that it’s time to bury New Labour.

Yet none has so far made a profound break with the assumptions and practices that defined it at the end.

Far be it from me to compare modern politicians to Soviet apparatchiks.

But we will not recover by adopting the mentality of Soviet Politburo in the late 1950s for whom reform meant little more than denouncing Stalin while keeping the policies and structures of Stalinism intact.

The Soviet Union endured thirty years of stagnation before the arrival of glasnost.

Let’s try and speed it up a bit.

The deep renewal Labour now needs to undertake should include three interlocking elements.

The first is a root and branch policy review.

Nothing should be considered sacrosanct.

That was the approach we took after the 1987 general election.

If anything, the scale of our defeat and the task ahead is even greater now than then.

But in reality- and lets be honest- it is not really about individual policies.

It is not just about housing, agency workers, immigration, the 10p tax level- these were the debates and arguments of 3 or 4 years ago.

Today the task is more profound.

The policy errors were the result of a corruption in an underlying value system.

As a party, we seemed to have lost our way.

So side by side with a policy review, Labour needs to undergo a profound Cultural Reformation.

We need to re-examine our entire way of doing things.

We do not do that by denying our past, but by drawing inspiration from it. That is what a reformation means.

Many are deeply alienated by the culture of Labourism in both its old and new variants.

If we are to be part of a new progressive alliance, we have to earn that right, not merely assert it.

We must reach out by showing that we can change to become more open, democratic and pluralistic.

And this cultural reformation is the root into rebuilding a new Labour Covenant with the electorate.

And this is the third and most critical element of real renewal.

It begins in England as an exercise in self discovery.

We lost the election in England, badly.

It is in England that our future will be determined.

Let us begin by reminding ourselves who we are.

We are Labour and we are not new.

Our roots are centuries deep in the struggle for democracy and justice.

We are the light shining in Buckinghamshire.

With Rainsborough at Putney.

The Levellers Charter was ours.

Standing with the crowd at Peterloo.

Standing with the Irishman Bronterre O’Brien and William Cuffay.

The People’s Charter was ours.

John Ruskin’s rallying cry is our creed – ‘there is no wealth but life’.

Standing alongside match girls; dockers; miners

With railway workers at Taff Vale.

With the Men’s Political Union and the Suffragettes.

This is Labour’s gift to us all today.

And in turn Labour’s future is our obligation.

Make it once more the defender of society against the power of the state and the market.

Organise the powerless.

Give voice to the voiceless.

A new covenant with the people of England and with the nations of Britain.

Built on identity and nationhood; neighbourliness and belonging; kindness and solidarity; duty and obligation.

Critically it is a politics located in and respectful of the ordinary.

At its best this is precisely what New Labour sought and achieved.

Tony Blair argued in 1994 for a new nationalism:

‘A new spirit in the nation based on working together, unity, solidarity, partnership. This is the patriotism of the future. Where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation’.

So what went wrong?

Well we broke this covenant with the people.

Contrast the Blair of 1994 with that at the 2005 Labour Party Conference.

Here he described how, quote ‘the character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice.’

I say this is nonsense.

Rather than view this world as destructive and dehumanising, he celebrated those who are quote ‘swift to adapt’ and, ‘open, willing and able to change’.

He celebrates a set of attributes available to an elite.

It gives no voice to the voiceless.

The distance between these two speeches reflects the emptying of Labour government.

By 2005 what worked, for him, is quote a ‘liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive.’

It is a dystopian ‘winner takes all’ vision of capitalist modernity in which the human values of commitment, fidelity and loyalty are subordinated to anonymous and unpredictable market forces.

It’s ‘creative destruction’ destroys ethical values, social cohesion, and cultural identity.

This worldview is a major factor in the collapse of Labour’s support.

Our loss of language. Our lost our soul.

Something relished by the sour secularist.

In a way that mirrors Hayek’s liberalism, New Labour’s utilitarianism cultivated an acquisitive, selfish individualism cut loose from social obligations.

We kiss up and we kick down. Where is the compassion?

The door was then opened for David Cameron’s Compassionate Conservatism as Labour lost its language, its hope and optimism.

Carry this on to today and it is logical that we blame the victim- the migrant or welfare recipient.

Richard Rorty once wrote that ‘the best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless’.

This is what many feel when thinking of the journey from 94 to 2005.

Real pain and loss – because the very optimism of progressive politics appears to have been lost from a party, that, at its best, was a byword for it.

Labour has to win back this political terrain.

It is a language not a branding exercise.

It incorporates all the things that Blair’s later speech dismisses as anachronistic: tradition, the valuing of settled ways of life; an identification and pleasure in local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.

It is in short the quest of building a new Covenant with the people.

First, it is a covenant of reciprocity: ‘of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

People give to others – as good citizens, workers, neighbours and parents.

In return they are given a fair and just tax system, universal social protection, a minimum income entitlement.

A living wage, secure employment and pensions.

Homes for people to live in.

Second, the covenant is for an ethical economy, organised for human well being and equality.

That means reform of the banks.

Securing capital and employment in localities.

Reform of corporate governance to make business accountable.

Third, the covenant is for liberty.

Strong democratic cultures for active participation and deliberative decision-making.

Freedom of information, and a plural media ownership.

Civil liberties cherished, not given away cheaply.

Now a new covenant will not work top-down.

An undemocratic party unreformed will destroy it.

Tribalism will wither it.

What is victory in the next election if it is only power that we seek?

So let’s give heart to future generations.

Let them look back on our time and wish that they too had been here.

That they had played a part in the great revival of Labour and in the struggle for a good society.

Because the next few years will see profound economic rupture and social upheaval.

We must resist the Lib Cons, defend services and communities.

This will possibly the most challenging period for at least a generation.

The fundamental political terrain will divide between hope and despair; optimism and cynicism.

We know where Compass will stand – but where will Labour end up?

For Labour to be part of the solution it must rediscover a rich English tradition of volatile, inspirational cultures of non-conformity, rebelliousness and creativity.

The task at hand is quite simple: to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.

Literally by rediscovering a sense of purpose for a nation.

Thank you.

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