Exclusive: Labour must make “wider argument” about economy, Cruddas says

Elliot Chappell

“It seemed quite a good time to think about moving on and handing over to someone else,” Jon Cruddas tells me. Earlier this week, the Labour MP for Rainham and Dagenham revealed that he would be standing down at the next general election. With Labour ahead in the polls and the Tory Party ripping itself to pieces trying to replace Boris Johnson, Cruddas explains that his decision was not borne out of any ill-will towards the party – but out of a sense of optimism.

“It’s partly Boris Johnson going, actually, because it seems to me that the Tories have made a terrible decision in my mind to get rid of him – they panicked,” he says. “The reach he has in seats like mine won’t be replicated by the likes of Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, so basically the Tories are in crisis nationally and locally.”

Cruddas has been the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham (and its predecessor seat) since the 2001 election. It has traditionally been considered a Labour seat but following boundary changes, and hit by what Cruddas describes as the “one-two punch” of deindustrialisation and Right to Buy, it has been a key marginal in the last four elections. UKIP and the BNP have received sizeable vote share in the past and Labour’s majority at its largest since 2010 was 4,980; the party only narrowly defended the challenge from the Tory candidate by 293 votes in 2019.

The Labour backbencher explains that he thought of stepping down in 2019, but decided not to: “I didn’t want to leave when it looked liked we might lose.” And he tells me that the party needs to do more to “inspire traditional Labour supporters” – but with Johnson on the way out, Brexit behind us and the Tories in disarray he is feeling positive: “This time I’m much more confident. Strangely enough, I’m more confident of winning so I think it’s a good time to leave.”

I ask him about his relationship with Keir Starmer. “I’m sort of very supportive,” he says. “My view is that it’s always very difficult for Labour to win, you know, so you have to support the leader, whoever it is. That’s why I was always supportive of Blair, Brown, Kinnock, Smith, Corbyn – I was never involved in the vote of no confidence against him – and Starmer because I think if you don’t respect the office of the leader of the party, then how do you expect the electorate to?”

One hot topic of discussion among Labour circles at the moment is, of course, the industrial disputes across the country. Whether Labour frontbenchers should be showing solidarity by joining the picket lines or not has been a keen tension in recent days. “You cannot expect people to accept and suck up 8% contraction of their income after a decade of austerity,” he tells me. “We have to support those who are fighting back. That’s my basic position.”

Labour’s line on the strikes has, as Cruddas says, “evolved” since frontbenchers were told not to join picket lines in June – indeed, since Sam Tarry was sacked last week. Cruddas tells me he can “see the frustration with people seen to be making pay policy proposals for public sector workers down the track” but he was pleased to see Lisa Nandy out “talking [to] and supporting” striking workers.

The “tactical” question of frontbenchers joining picket lines is, however, of “second order” – Cruddas is clear that the point is not whether Labour frontbenchers are on the picket lines, but whether the party is making the “bigger argument” around the strikes. “It’s not just about posing on picket lines – although, obviously I think MPs should be doing that,” he argues. “It’s about making a wider argument about defending those who are defending their living standards.” He explains that Labour must make a “much bigger argument about the character of the economy, who it’s working for, whose picking up the bill and how we want to change it”.

“There’s a bigger argument about what’s going on. Why is it that we’re in this situation?” he puts to me. “Austerity is replaying itself through these battles around living standards, and arguably we misplayed it after the 2008 financial crisis in terms of how we managed the politics of austerity and we can’t be trapped again. And that’s the danger, I think, out of which grows support for those who are defending living standards. So, it’s not just a question of the tactics of getting it right, supporting frontbenchers who are signalling their support – it’s going upstream, developing a bigger argument about what this is all about.”

He warns that Labour needs to be “doing an awful lot about preparing the ground in terms of how we’re going to make changes”. He cites Labour’s commitment to introducing ‘fair pay agreements’ as an example, which describing it as a “really good” and “radical” idea. But, likening it to when he entered Downing Street as deputy political secretary to Tony Blair and the work to push through minimum wage legislation, he stresses that making that change alone will require significant groundwork before entering government: “We have to be prepared to develop, in opposition, all the legislation we want to implement very quickly. Because we had a 170 majority in ’97, it still took two years.”

“It’s going to be very tough to change the architect of the economy in the context of a const-of-living crisis after a decade of austerity,” he tells me. “So we should be using this period to really develop our agenda.”

Keir Starmer ran to be Labour leader on a set of ten pledges, which arguably laid much of the framework for a broader argument about the nature of the economy and how Labour would make significant changes to it. But he has been criticised by some recently for moving away from those commitments. Cruddas has a word of warning for Starmer: “There is a problem, right, in getting elected on ten pledges and then subsequently being seen to be ripping them up – because there is a charge of inauthenticity that goes along with it.”

Cruddas compares Starmer to Blair. “Blair was never anything other than very clear about who he was and what he stood for and what his agenda was throughout,” he tells me. “He didn’t face the charge of being elected as one thing and then trying to win the election as another. There is this massive pivot that has occurred here that Blair never did.” The Dagenham and Rainham MP stresses the move could leave Starmer in a difficult position and says the Labour leader needs to “go through in more detail why you’re sort of transitioning from those positions”. “You could argue things have moved on, or whatever,” he argues. “Simply saying you’re getting rid of them without putting in place your alternative vision is a dangerous place to be.” As he sees it, Starmer risks being “hit from all sides” – both by those who feel he is “not coming up with enough policy” to those saying he is being “inauthentic”.

But Cruddas feels that Starmer’s speech on the economy last Monday showed the beginnings of an alternative, and was optimistic about the tone set by the Labour leader. “There was the beginning of something quite significant in terms of his economic framework, which was noticeably different from what’s gone before. It was almost a return to a sort of post-war corporatism,” he says. “If that’s where he’s going that’s really welcome because that could get away from these charges of simply jettisoning those ten pledges.”

Labour is at critical juncture. Starmer has said that he will not be able to implement the pledges he ran on, and he has “put to one side” the 2019 manifesto. Now, the task for the Labour leader is to set out what he would do instead. “The Labour Party nationally has done a lot about deciding what it isn’t – but it has to spend the next year or two deciding what it is,” Cruddas says. And he is hopeful about that alternative. He tells me, more than once, that he thinks Starmer will be the next Prime Minister. For the longstanding Labour MP, who has seen many different iterations of the Labour Party, there is a lot of work to be done – but the narrative beginning to take shape is one that could be “robust and very radical”.

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