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.
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.