Turning Point for Britain's Labour Party | The Nation


Turning Point for Britain's Labour Party

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Jon Cruddas. Reuters/Stephen Hird


Jon Cruddas could have been a contender. In 2007, the MP from Dagenham in East London won the first round of the contest to become deputy leader of the Labour Party. Although he eventually lost to Harriet Harman, Cruddas’s call for Labour to reconnect with its grassroots and renew its core values, which he described as “hollowed out” after ten years in power, resonated powerfully within the party. Labour’s decisive defeat in May 2010, which ushered in a coalition between David Cameron’s Conservative Party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, also put an end to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s political career—and to the vicious sniping between Brown loyalists and the followers of his predecessor, Tony Blair, that had long paralyzed the party. 

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

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The referendum result may have settled the question of Scottish independence. But the cost of winning it was to expose the ramshackle nature of the whole country’s constitutional arrangements.

If Scotland wakes up on Friday still bound to England, it will not be because solidarity or shared vision prevailed but rather fears of job loss, higher prices and higher taxes.

Given this opening at the top, Cruddas’s decision not to run for Labour leader remains one of the mysteries of British politics. Instead, he threw his support behind David Miliband, an opportunistic move designed to lend leftist cover to the Blairite front-runner—but which, after David’s defeat by his younger brother Ed, seemed to consign Cruddas to terminal marginality. By 2011, Cruddas was so estranged that he ended up listening to Ed Miliband’s leader’s speech to the annual party conference—the centerpiece of the political calendar—on his car radio. 

Fast-forward two years, and Cruddas is now a member of the shadow cabinet, chosen by Miliband to chair the party’s comprehensive policy review. To the extent that politics is a battle of ideas, Cruddas has been put in charge of the armory. Just think of him as “Q” to Miliband’s James Bond. 

It was a popular choice—Cruddas is widely liked across most of Labour’s perennially warring tribes—and a canny move by Miliband as well. After a shaky start, the Labour leader has also become increasingly sure-footed in his dealings with Britain’s reliably hostile press. Miliband’s strong, and early, stand against Rupert Murdoch in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal showed a boldness and confidence lacking in his first months as party leader. Likewise his deft response to the death of Margaret Thatcher, in which he acknowledged the Iron Lady’s importance as a pathbreaker, not just as Britain’s first female prime minister but as “a woman chemist” at Oxford “when most people assumed scientists had to be men,” while at the same time underlining the devastation she wrought in office. “Mining areas felt angry and abandoned,” Miliband said. “Gay and lesbian people felt stigmatized” by the policies of a woman who, he reminded the House of Commons, had shunned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. 

Yet Miliband’s apparent reluctance—or inability—to articulate a convincing alternative to the coalition government’s austerity agenda leaves him open to Tony Blair’s charge in April that he leads a party without policies, “simple fellow travelers in sympathy” rather than a credible government-in-waiting. Blair has always been ready with a damaging quote or some unhelpful public advice for his successors. Perhaps, though, he also senses that by putting Cruddas in charge of policy, Miliband might be repudiating not just Blair’s legacy but the entire New Labour project. Blair is now a Catholic, and Cruddas—the son of an itinerant Irish sailor and a mother who came to England from Donegal—once served as his aide and liaison to the unions, and speaks frequently of the importance of Catholic social teaching to his own political evolution. But the two men have been on opposing political trajectories for well over a decade. 

Cruddas is now a crucial member of Miliband’s brain trust, a group that also includes Maurice Glasman, an academic who coined the term “Blue Labour” to signify an appeal that blends respect for traditional social values like patriotism and family with a rejection of neoliberal economics; Marc Stears, an old Oxford friend of Miliband’s; and Arnie Graf, a veteran American community organizer who resigned from the Saul Alinsky–founded Industrial Areas Foundation and now spends every other month in Britain helping train Labour’s ground troops. The group meets regularly, and its members are in touch almost constantly. “I’m at Maurice’s house for Shabbat dinner whenever I’m in London,” Graf tells me. Like Cruddas, he was brought into the inner circle via Glasman, who led the Alinsky-inspired London Citizens campaign for a living wage before becoming Miliband’s first appointment to the House of Lords. 

A provocateur who was briefly banished last year for writing in the New Statesman that Labour’s new leader seemed to have “no strategy, no narrative and little energy,” Glasman likes to make pronouncements. “We’re city lovers,” he says of Blue Labour. Some of Glasman’s epigrams are miniature manifestos, as when he observes, “We give priority to the social over the state or the market. We believe in society—that’s why we’re socialists.” Others reflect long-simmering hostilities: “Communists are Litvaks with power,” he tells me on discovering, with delight, that we are both Galitzianers—Jews whose ancestors came from western Ukraine, long held in contempt by their more genteel Lithuanian co-religionists. But he can be irresistibly charming when he chooses. 

“I hardly knew Maurice, but he asked me to come over in December 2010 to meet Ed,” says Graf. “I paid my own way. I’ve never been involved in party politics—all my life I’ve been involved in the civil rights movement or community organizing.” On that first visit, he met a variety of Labour figures, including both Miliband brothers, but Cruddas “stood out. He was thoughtful, well-read, and you could engage him intellectually,” says Graf, who was asked by Ed Miliband to help him open up the party. “Our idea is, by next January, to have organizers in every key seat Labour needs to get back in power.” 

Eventually, Graf’s approach could turn Labour from a fatally compromised dispenser of patronage into a genuine campaigning organization. But in the short term, the challenge to the party’s traditional centers of power will need to be very carefully managed if Graf is to avoid the fate of Blue Labour, whose modest tilt toward a left-inflected populism was swiftly demonized as racist, xenophobic pandering. 

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