Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Cruddas is right – but is Sir Humphrey listening?

Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford have penned a powerful polemic, extolling the roots of English socialism in the ‘militant defence of common life’ and of ‘individual labour and creativity against the unaccountable power of capital and against the usurpation of the state’.

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They write of the ‘politics of belonging’ that Labour ‘needs to develop’, and have urged Labour to become the ‘organising force in the life of our country’. And they are right to do so.

Only here it gets trickier. For Labour politicians over the past few years have talked and written frequently of the ‘need to develop’ or the ‘need to reconnect with’ this or that. That’s the easy bit. The harder bit is who will do it and how.

For Labour to become the ‘organising force’ will take not just a new politics but a new system of government, in which elected politicians are empowered to ‘act’ and to ‘do’ in a way that the British system has sought to avoid for many decades. More than that, if Labour was to embrace wholeheartedly what Cruddas and Rutherford call ‘that strand of rebellious socialism’ which espouses ‘voluntary collectivism, cooperativism and mutual self-improvement’ and finds its greatest exponents in Labour’s sister party, since the electoral alliance of 1927, the Cooperative party, then Labour will need to take on the vested interests within the British state with a determination that it has never done before.

For the failure of Labour politicians to maintain sufficient link with those whom Ernie Bevin called ‘the people from whence I came’ has been not just a failure of Labour politicians as individuals. Indeed it has arguably been less a failure of politicians as of Britain’s system of governance. For decades British government has spoken its own language. Until the 1980s it was the language of Sir Humphrey – the elegant mandarin language of a self-confident and self-perpetuating clerisy, elegantly opaque and designed less to communicate as to exclude the public from the work conducted on their behalf by the men in Whitehall, who knew better. Twenty years later, the language of government has a discordant note, the constipated clanking of the management-jargon swallowed by the mandarin-class in an effort to disguise the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of British government at ‘doing’ – as opposed to simply ‘being’, at which it is rather more accomplished.

This is a particular problem for Labour politicians – elected as they usually are to ‘deliver’. For delivery is out of their hands – it is Whitehall and the quangocracy who make it happen, in the way they think best. For the men and women in Whitehall still, by and large, believe that they know best, or rather better, not just than voters, but than the politicians themselves. So when Labour ministers talk about the need to develop a ‘politics of belonging’, Whitehall quietly ignores the speech. When Labour ministers at the tail end of the Brown government, on the prompting of the Cooperative party and its MPs, started actively investigating ‘voluntary collectivism, cooperativism and mutual self-improvement’, they met incomprehension from many of their civil servants. And when they sought to give more direct control of services to the public to ordinary people, ordinary Labour voters even, they were met, by and large, with resistance. Labour’s 2010 manifesto included a plan to turn British waterways, (the quango that runs Britain’s canals), into a co-op – accountable to the people who use it. The Labour government had actually started work on this before it fell. It is no accident that under the coalition, the plan has been commuted to converting it into a charitable trust – essentially a different form of unaccountable quango. It shows the hollowness of Tory ‘big society’ rhetoric. But it also shows the ease with which the vested interests of the unaccountable quango state reassert themselves.

If that is to change the next Labour government will need greater determination than the last one, but also a clear plan for how to make it happen. Cruddas and Rutherford will have their work cut out.


Photo: Justin Green

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Greg Rosen

is author of Old Labour to New, chair of the Labour History Group and a political columnist for the Scotsman


  • For the ‘political system’ to have relevance and meaning to people it has to operate on a local level. The immediate neighbourhood concerns and aspirations of people have much higher status than ‘national debt’ or ‘foreign policy’. The average voter, I would suggest, exercises more emotional energy on local issues (litter, vandalism, council tax etc) than national issues debated in Westminster, yet such a voter is less likely to know, for example, the name of their elected councillor(s) compared to their MP. Constituency MPs appear to show more interest in the lives of constituents than councillors. I believe that this political disconnect at the local level is primarily responsible for the general decline in voter turnout and support for parties and for the increased voter ignorance of party policies and the consequential domination of media propaganda in shaping public opinion. Observe, for example, the observations and opinions of members of the “Question Time” audience (is this programme unique in airing the views of ordinary people on a weekly basis?) to see how often they accept ‘as gospel’ headlines and statements made in the media. I fear we have become a country of zombies unwilling to question media assertions. If Labour is to reconnect with voters it has to start at the local level. Forget about Cameron’s DIY ‘big society’ policy, let’s have a Labour commitment to local democracy.

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