Cruddas is all piss and wind, so why are people still listening?
Jon Cruddas demonstrates in a recent interview just how bad a choice he would be as leader of the Labour Party. The interview with Mary Riddell for the Fabian Review of Summer 2009 was brought to the attention of the Labour millions when Tom Miller helpfully posted it to Facebook. Because let’s face it, the activists of Labour would probably rather shave their eyebrows than read the dreary rubbish that the Fabians publish on a regular basis. Cruddas rules himself out of a leadership bid, and categorically outlines why he would be useless anyway.
“See I was never into scientific socialism. I was quite interested in Blair’s communitarianism. Early Blair. […] A lot of the debate around the Labour Party’s future in the coming years will be about reinstating aspects of Blairism. Blair lost the language and the ethical dimension, but there was quite a rich texture to the early Blair.”
In the aftermath of an electoral crucifixion, it will be interesting to see what elements of the PLP survive and whether it is a Blairite pretender or a soft left advocate who can gain the confidence of whatever is left of the parliamentary party. However, the weakness of Cruddas’ analysis (Cruddas being a fair marker for the rest of the softies on the PLP) demonstrates exactly what I have been warning about: an attempt to replay Labour 1994-1997 sans Blair, and without having learned the lessons of the period either.
Historiography from the Right of Labour would have one believe that ‘modernising’ the Party was what won the victory of 1997, and that Labour’s flexibility, its claim to more efficient management of the economy and so on was what did for the Tories even in their own heartlands. Cruddas is lining up behind this shallow moralising with his view that ‘Blair lost the language and the ethical dimension’. In reality, Blair’s language was a mask; nothing changed about Blair and Brown except that people lost faith in their rhetoric.
People lost this faith because after a while the hyperbolic oratory grated against an agenda of privatisation and ‘modernisation’ designed to bite into whatever was left after eighteen years of Tory rule. Things got progressively worse because the government survived in office only to be caught out by its own promises on things like top-up fees. Various scandals over the deals done by New Labour with the business elite, several preposterous wars and a determined attack on civil liberties later, it doesn’t take a genius to see why nostalgic glances to ‘early Blair’ are likely to gain support. Especially from those people who did well then, and aren’t doing so well now.
Without changing the Blairite agenda, we won’t change the popular mood. However, wait ten years. After ten years or so of Conservative government, a new Blair will be able to emerge in the same way that David Cameron has. The ever-increasing troubles post-2001 will have been forgotten amidst Tory cuts and a disorganised Left, having failed to restore some institutional democracy to Labour, will not be able to prevent a re-run of 1994-1997. But Cruddas has some credible policies, so why is he wasting his time talking up ‘early Blair’?
Cruddas is not one for cynical political manoeuvers – at least, not yet. He genuinely believes, it would seem, that up until 2001, New Labour was performing quite well and that only subsequently did things go off the rails. As in an interview with Hopi Sen, he asserts that their authoritarian approach resulted in a ‘shrill, sour politics from 2001’. To borrow from Hopi’s interpretation of the interview, problems arose when Labour continued to focus on the needs of a rather small group of the electorate with such unpopular policies as ID cards, welfare reform etc.
On the subject of policies, I think Cruddas is dead right when he says that when we have some five million people in need of social housing and 75,000 repossessions, housing should be priority number one. I think Cruddas is dead right right when he says it is time to regulate the market in agency workers. Though even on this, I suspect that Cruddas will prove to be a damp squib. There’s an obvious answer – take the gloves off the unions and let a new generation of young workers bring their agency equivalents into the union fold.
Yet Cruddas returns time and again to the praise of New Labour. The failure of New Labour (says he) was nothing to do with their utter crushing of internal accountability, the ability of party leadership to parachute its lackeys into safe parliamentary seats – a double blow to parliamentary oversight and the Labour grassroots, or with the privatisation agenda that has cost the country billions more than straight-up government borrowing would have. It’s that New Labour is for the good times, that it was ‘ill-equipped for when the music stopped.’
Crucially, Cruddas doesn’t analyse why. Here, I think, is his key weakness. Cruddas’ populism is great – especially if ever it results in a couple of million more houses – but he simply has nothing to say about why New Labour failed, about why they were so ill-equipped, or why they seem to focus on such a narrow interest group in society. It’s as if New Labour was great, at one point, then the circumstances changed but New Labour didn’t, thus New Labour failed. The deficiencies which Cruddas exhibits in both interviews should be obvious.
Despite Cruddas’ love for discussion and debate, he continually ignores the structural locations in which such debates occur and the fundamental interests which prejudice them. But Cruddas’ narrative is itself flawed. New Labour was certainly not radical – 1997-2001, if thought of in context: a supremely large majority, with the mandate to reform British democracy and to strike a blow for workers. The best we can say is that some rights at work were reformed, and we got a minimum wage. Which still doesn’t pay enough, and was matched by the opt out from the EU Working Time Directive. Meanwhile key deregulations were being planned, and the post-2001 trajectory was being written.
This failure to match his favoured narrative to the reality, and the gaping whole where some form of structural, material appreciation should lie, is how Cruddas manages to go from demanding real radicalism from the government, to recommending Harriet Harman, David or Ed Miliband or (of all people!) James Purnell as potential future leaders. It is the same sort of shallow politics that has always dogged the soft Left, allowing them to sit on the sidelines and carp as though they are Left wing, then turn around and elect the sort of people they were originally carping about.