When Jon Cruddas launched his new book, The Dignity of Labour, he did so with Policy Exchange, the think tank which describes itself as independent but whose intellectual heart is on the centre-right.
To debate his book at the launch, Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, was joined by fellow Labour MP, Lisa Nandy, and the left leaning New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. The third man on the panel was Jesse Norman, Conservative MP, Treasury minister and biographer of economist Adam Smith and Tory philosopher, Edmund Burke.
Norman was effusive about Cruddas, saying he was honoured to be there discussing such a profoundly important subject as work. He described the author as a brilliant thinker whose book should be read by as wide an audience on the right and left as possible.
What was remarkable listening to their discussion was that you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between the thinking of Norman and Cruddas on the essential value of work; the purpose it brings to individuals, the sense of community that work creates, the importance of family relationships and of fraternity.
Yet Cruddas says this isn’t weird at all. When we spoke – shortly after the Hartlepool result, but more on that later – Cruddas said the most intelligent conversations about the future of the working-class (providing jobs locally, introducing new skills and training such as T-levels) are those taking place on the right. He’s also teamed up with Tory MP, Danny Kruger, in a Lab-Con collaboration on strengthening communities, spear-headed by Onward, another right-leaning think tank.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Cruddas is not softening up around the gills. He remains a committed Labour supporter – although of the Blue Labour variety – but fears the party has lost both its purpose and its soul and will wither away unless it regains its traditional and historical roots with the working class.
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This is why Cruddas sees such potential in the government’s levelling up agenda, a policy which he describes as significant and a step in the right direction. He points to the work of the country’s increasingly powerful Mayors like Ben Houchen in Teesside (Con), Andy Street in the West Midlands (Con), as well as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester (Lab).
“These Mayors are focusing on looking at creating new centres of gravity, and how to best provide work for local communities locally, away from the centrifugal pull of the south east and London. They understand the dignity of work and how to re-invest in their regions, bringing capital and increasing productivity,” he says. Yet this conversation is not taking place on the left, which is why Cruddas says Labour lost so heavily in Hartlepool and continues to lose in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats. “I knew the result would be bad, but not as bad as it turned out. Labour will continue losing support if it drifts towards being a party of the young, urban, liberal elite and ditch its traditional heartlands.”
So far the drift doesn’t look the right way to go, having lost four elections in 11 years. “What Labour forgets is that political parties are democracies of the dead, of our traditions and our history. Parties are not just machines to chase votes and demographics. But Labour has forgotten this, which is why it is losing its traditional working class supporters.”
Yet Cruddas says this need not be so; that the working classes are alive and kicking and still need being represented. The pandemic showed this starkly, with the country being utterly dependent on the work of the delivery drivers, supermarket staff, nurses and care home workers, who kept going despite the lockdowns.
Yet they have been abandoned by Labour, he argues, partly because the party has been captured by the technological determinism of thinkers such as the journalist and economist, Paul Mason.
“What this faction wants is for machines and automation to do the work so that there are no workers. And the ultimate aim of this policy is for people to be given the universal basic income. But we know that people always prefer work to welfare; its work gives them a sense of purpose,” he says.
“Mason is a great thinker and important writer. But I profoundly disagree with him. I think this tech utopianism is functioning as a kind of get-out-of-jail card for the left. It means it does not need to address the real issues.” Interesting to note that Angela Rayner, former Labour deputy, is now the shadow minister for the future of work – not for work.
He wrote the book after watching a short documentary called Talking Heads by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and made in 1980. The film asks a cross-section of Poles of all ages two basic questions: “Who are you? What do you want?” He was mesmerised, and moved by the simplicity of what people wanted out of life: family, friends, purpose and community.
The film hit home because he recognised these sentiments and values, because they are shared by his constituents in Dagenham and Rainham, one home to Ford’s biggest factory. It’s a constituency which he says is used as an example of political hopelessness, an example of the ‘left-behinds’ which lead to Brexit and in the US, to Trump. Yet Cruddas argues his constituents still ‘self-identify’ as working class – with all the ethical values this implies – but have been ignored by agnostic neoliberal policy-makers who see work as merely decorative. Rather than look at distributive economic reforms, they fiddled with more welfare and tax credits.
It’s Cruddas own experience as an MP, coupled with his deep historical analysis and knowledge, that make the book so potent, a look back in anger at the failures of Labour over the last 40 years. He is as brutal about Blair’s drift away from ethical socialism as he is of today’s leaders who have been captured by the radical left techno-topic crowd: they are as misguided as each in ignoring the dignity – and purpose – that work brings to mankind.
Labour’s shadow cabinet should read this book cover to cover if they are serious about ever regaining power again. Paradoxically, I suspect more people are going to be reading Cruddas on the right as the Tories continue to reinvent themselves as the party of the working classes.