Jon Cruddas: How Labour lost its heart – and heartland

The East London MP and poster boy of the left says his constituents are paying a high price for his party's loss of purpose. Matt Chorley meets Jon Cruddas
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The Independent Online

A former Downing Street apparatchik who is now a Notting Hill resident and husband of a baroness makes for an unlikely working-class hero. But with Labour desperate to reconnect with its roots, Jon Cruddas is seen as a rare authentic voice from the party's old industrial heartland.

Drinking cappuccino in the glass-covered atrium of Portcullis House, the 49-year-old readily admits he is no longer working class – "I never knew I was till I went to university". But as MP for Dagenham and Rainham, he is better placed to speak for the people bearing the brunt of the coalition's cuts now that New Labour's aspirational bubble has burst.

He is unsurprised by our survey that only 24 per cent of people now consider themselves working class, saying a once "noble" bloc has been "demonised" and served up as entertainment. From Shameless to Wife Swap, the working classes have become something to ridicule or fear as a "mob at the gate".

New Labour, he believes, inadvertently helped to create this crisis by building its appeal on aspiration. Gordon Brown claimed to have ended boom and bust, so class no longer mattered as we all became hitched to an "information technology juggernaut".

"Labour was about how much you can earn and own," Cruddas says, "rather than applauding a sense of community and belonging and family. We were all building hedge funds of our own bricks and mortar. But what happens when the music stops?"

It turns out many people – too many – had bought the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle but not settled the bill: 110 per cent mortgages, credit cards maxed out, ads on daytime TV offering what seemed like free money. "It was an indentured consumption. It's not a free lunch."

Labour, he says, created a "global class apart at the top of society beyond the reach of national boundaries and tax law" and targeted a "mythical Middle England" for votes because "the assumption was the working class had nowhere else to go in terms of voting".

But traditional Labour voters had plenty of places to go – the Lib Dems, not voting at all, or switching to support the far right in the form of the British National Party.

Immigration has become shorthand for many of the social problems Britain faces today. Pressures on housing, jobs and public services caused by an influx of migrants tend to be more keenly felt by working-class families. There is often "bewilderment about the sheer velocity of change", which can quickly turn to "hostility, anger and resentment", Cruddas warns. He attacks the English Defence League as a "violent militia", terrorising and hospitalising people in his constituency with increasing regularity.

One lasting legacy of Labour in government is the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, both of which have seen "a renewed sense of nationhood and modern patriotism developing". But there is no equivalent mood in England. "Labour should have an 'English Labour'. It should embrace a modern, radical Englishness, or else England and patriotism will simply be a right-wing politics of loss and sourness." It is a radical idea which could meet resistance from the Scottish mafia who once dominated ran the party.

Cruddas says Labour must shed its reputation as the party of "gangs and tribes", consumed by in-fighting between Blairites and Brownites. He supported David Miliband for the Labour leadership, but believes his brother Ed could be "just the civilising individual who could allow this poison to be cut out". It has been reported in a new biography of Ed that Cruddas told David on his defeat: "Why don't you fucking punch him? That's what I'd do." He denies saying it, claiming he and David met last week and laughed it off. "I would not say to one brother to hit the other, or use the word 'punch'. It is just ridiculous."

As the party's liaison with the trade unions, Cruddas was in the front row of the Blair modernisation project, from the "New Labour, New Britain" rebrand to ditching Clause 4. Even last week Tony Blair warned his party not to shift from New Labour. But Cruddas says times have changed and the former prime minister now risks advocating a "sort of New Labour cosmopolitanism of the first-class British Airways cabin, where you look down from 36,000 feet rather than deal with issues on the ground".

In his Dagenham constituency he sees those issues up close. Two movies have been shot there in the past couple of years. Made in Dagenham recounted the 1968 equal pay fight for women workers at the Ford factory, capturing the mood of solidarity and patriotism. Fish Tank, set on the Mardyke estate, charted the grim life of a 15-year-old girl, telling of family disintegration, loneliness and lost opportunity. The stark difference between the movies "sums up the way things have changed," Cruddas says. "It's not going to be the same again."

He is a key thinker in the Blue Labour movement championed by Lord Glasman, an adviser to Ed Miliband. Labour needs to return to the concept of the "common good" so there is a "sense of the common obligation to others, duty, community, family that we can go back to rather than the liberalism of the individual which is what we ended up with".

The process will "take years", something Miliband does not have if he hopes to become PM in 2015. For now the Labour leader should leave the "day-to-day skirmishes" behind in Westminster and tour the country with a call for greater social responsibility. While the working class demand a crackdown on welfare cheats "swinging the lead", they also want "renewed compassion for the ill and vulnerable".

As a backbencher, Cruddas speaks more freely – and at times more intellectually – than his more cautious, soundbite-friendly front-bench colleagues. He laments how Labour has allowed right-wingers to "reframe all of the debates around nationhood, the family, the public services, the deficit, the state and hostility to it". He warns that Miliband's promise of "29 specific policy reviews is not the solution, because we face a more profound question of identity and character".

He is also an enthusiastic supporter of David Cameron's Big Society – "it taps into something deep within us" – and says Labour must ask itself how they allowed the Tories to take charge of the agenda of communities pulling together.

But cuts threaten the laudable concept, and it is the young who seem to be paying the price. Under threat, Cruddas says, is a principle that the working class had more faith in than most – that their children would do better than them. Ed Miliband has dubbed it the "British promise".

Cruddas understands it from personal experience. His father was a sailor who moved the family around naval bases, and his mother an Irish immigrant from County Donegal. Both left school at 14, but all of their five children went to university, picking up "a couple of PhDs" along the way.

"Those wheels are stopping," Cruddas says now, "and arguably are going backwards. Mine was a classic tale really, but it would be much more difficult now." Difficult, but not impossible. Labour needs Ed Miliband to find a way to make that rags-to-riches fairy tale come true again for millions of working-class kids. Or both will be consigned to the scrapheap for a generation.

Curriculum vitae

1962 Born in Helston, Cornwall.

1973 Starts Oaklands RC Comprehensive in Waterlooville. After finishing, moves to Australia. On his return, he studies at Warwick University.

1987 Spends a year as visiting fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

1989 Returns to Britain and joins Labour as a policy officer.

1991 PhD from Warwick University.

1992 Marries Anna Healy, now Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill.

1994 Becomes chief assistant to the general secretary of the Labour Party.

1997 Appointed Tony Blair's deputy political secretary.

2001 Becomes MP for Dagenham.

2007 Failed deputy leadership bid.

2010 Wins newly reconstituted Dagenham and Rainham seat.

Matt Thomas