‘We need a bold, imaginative offer’
A confident Jon Cruddas tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell it is ‘game time’ for Labour’s policy review
Two years ago, in his first interview after Ed Miliband picked him to head Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas described his appointment as ‘a gamble’. He would, he suggested, quit if he was not allowed to be ‘bold’ and he argued that he was not interested in the job if he were asked simply to ‘dust down the record’ of the last Labour government.
So has that flutter paid off? Cruddas admits it is now ‘game time’ for the policy review. The backdrop could hardly be less auspicious: a crumbling Labour poll lead, the first signs of backbench jitters, and rumours that some of the party’s election strategists are concerned that Cruddas’ plan will be too long on grand visions and too short on policies that campaigners can sell on the doorstep.
Despite that, he betrays no signs of nerves. ‘I am very confident. A year ago the charge was, “a blank sheet of paper – no policy, what is the party for?” Now, we have “all this policy ricocheting around, all these reviews, how are you going to manage it?” I think that is probably a better position to be in than last year.
Cruddas has little time for the contention that his review more closely resembles a university seminar than the policy-development engine-room of a political party. ‘I hear that charge all the time, “all this ideas stuff, it’s abstract, it’s a distraction.” [In] my view, it is incumbent on us to use opposition to renew ourselves, to really focus again on who we are [and] what we are for, out of which policy deductively flows, rather than being just a list that randomly holds together, because people see that as white noise.’
Instead, Cruddas appeals for patience from his critics. ‘I understand people’s concerns that we are not doing enough quickly enough and it’s not distilling into retail, concrete policies or sufficient numbers of them,’ he responds. ‘We will [get] over that if people bear with us over the next few months.’
Cruddas is keen to dispel the notion that there are any tensions between him and Douglas Alexander, the party’s campaign coordinator. He has just listened to Alexander delivering a presentation on election strategy. ‘It was very effective and was entirely consistent with what we are trying to do with this national political policy review,’ Cruddas suggests. ‘It should not be beyond our collective wit to get a campaign strategy that is aligned with a policy agenda that helps the campaign agenda and is also a programmatic agenda for government.’
Some of the tensions around the policy review were highlighted at the end of last month by a letter to the Guardian signed by the heads of a number of thinktanks and political organisations close to the party, including Progress. It warned that if Labour ‘plays the next election safe, hoping to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have earned a mandate’ for change. Does Cruddas share their concerns? ‘Yeah. I do – unequivocally – I do. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t actually,’ he responds. ‘I agree with the sentiment of the letter entirely I think it has sort of got confused, given the timing of it around the budget and some of the poll contractions. Journalists are kind of overinterpreting it as frustrations … I thought it was quite a healthy contribution actually.’ Cruddas echoes the letter’s warning against a ‘safety-first’ approach to the manifesto. ‘I agree that we need a bold, imaginative, transformative offer,’ he says. ‘I think that is what I have been charged with helping to deliver.’
Cruddas’ response reflects the inclusive style he has brought to the policy review. ‘I am a pluralist,’ he says. ‘I am really attracted by the question of harvesting different traditions, working with different traditions around Labour, to pool knowledge so that the sum is greater than the parts.’
Cruddas’ own recent political history reflects that pluralism. When Labour came to power in 1997, Tony Blair appointed him to his political office at No 10 and gave him responsibility for relations with the trade unions. Elected to parliament in 2001, he soon became closely associated with the soft-left campaign group Compass and was endorsed by it when he stood for the party’s deputy leadership in 2007. His pitch then was that New Labour had become dangerously disconnected from the party’s traditional working-class base. Up against a field of higher-profile government ministers, Cruddas came a close third, prompting speculation he would stand for the leadership in 2010. Ruling himself out of the contest, he instead endorsed David Miliband.
That decision should not have been the surprise it was to many: Cruddas had by then formed a close alliance with one of Miliband’s closest parliamentary allies, the Blairite former work and pensions secretary James Purnell. Their friendship was based on a shared belief that Labour needed to abandon its managerial style, ditch its commitment to statism, and embark on a radical devolution of power, both to individuals and local communities. Purnell’s oft-cited formulation – that Labour was ‘too hands off with the market and too hands on with the state’ during its time in power – is one that Cruddas agrees with. He now wants to see a Britain where citizens are more ‘muscular’ in terms of being ‘able to call to account the institutions around them, the elites that dominate their worlds and doing things to them, and that includes the political classes’.
Cruddas does not see this as idle intellectual theorising but critical to the success of a cash-strapped future Labour government. ‘The creativity of our administration when there is no money is the key question,’ he argues. ‘Irrespective of what we think, this is an enduring feature for the next few years, this question of a tight fiscal framework that we all have to inhabit. You can’t disinvent that.’ François Hollande’s deep unpopularity in France, he warns, provides an object lesson in the risk of ‘not preparing both the party and the country for how you administer in such a difficult climate’.
Paradoxically, he argues, austerity ‘can also be a source of great innovation’. Travelling around the country he has found ‘real innovative, creative public policy’. He describes the work of Labour local authorities as ‘a real-time policy review’. ‘It’s from the frontline in terms of administration in a very cold climate while not compromising your values and priorities,’ he suggests. His role, Cruddas believes, is to use that local experience to inform the national party’s policy development.
But if this agenda is so important, has Labour not come rather late to it? Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture in February was his first major address on public service reform. The party has shown a greater willingness to tackle vested interests in the market than the state. ‘I think that is absolutely right, but I also think there is a reason for it,’ Cruddas responds. The lengthy leadership election of 2010, he believes, allowed Labour’s opponents to redefine the terms of the economic debate. In response, the party has been ‘preoccupied with the question of our economic bonafides and the messaging around that’. Miliband’s lecture, accepts Cruddas, ‘was an attempt to balance out some of the sense that we have been over-occupied with challenging some of the monopolistic elements in terms of the market and not enough of the equivalent in terms of the role of the state’.
But Cruddas also sees a clear link between the need to devolve power from Whitehall and formulating Labour’s economic policy. Comparative evidence indicates that across western market economies cities are the key engines of growth. But in Britain, he argues, seven of the eight cities outside London have a GDP lower than the national average, while in Germany all eight out of the eight cities outside Berlin have a GDP above the national average. Devolving more power to cities and regions, Cruddas thinks, is key. ‘Power is the new money in terms of driving new growth,’ he argues.
While it may seem counterintuitive, Cruddas believes that Whitehall giving power away can also help overcome the centrifugal forces currently pulling apart the nation and its politics. He predicts that the Tories will unleash a ‘much more systematic English drumbeat’ after the referendum on Scottish independence in September. ‘The day after, they are going to come out with some ideas around England. It is pretty obvious to game that out,’ he argues. Labour’s response should be a set of policies that places ‘more power and decision-making closer to people where they live’.
Next month, Labour faces its last major test at the ballot box before the general election with the local and European elections. Cruddas says he understands the appeal of the United Kingdom Independence party – ‘mates of mine vote Ukip’ – and says Labour needs to challenge Nigel Farage’s attempt to paint the party as part of a homogenous ‘political class’. ‘We need to re-establish our distinct political identity and have confidence in that,’ he suggests. ‘That is the best way of dealing with [Ukip] actually.’ He believes that process is ‘beginning to happen’.
On each occasion it has won in the past, Cruddas says, Labour has done so because it has successfully contested ‘the national story’. In 1945, it offered a picture of the future and contrasted it with the Depression of the 1930s. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ was set against Alexander Douglas Home’s aristocratic ‘grouse moor’ Conservatism. And in 1997 Blair offered ‘economic and social modernisation’ in place of ‘drift, decline and sleaze’. Does Labour yet have its national story for 2015? Probably not. But in Jon Cruddas it does at least have a potential author.
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Jon Cruddas, Labour, policy review