Interview: Jon Cruddas

Jon Cruddas is absurdly popular in his party – standing firmly on the left while speaking in language that doesn’t alienate the right.

It’s a position that has seen him scurry endlessly around the Labour conference, attending fringe event after fringe event setting out an alternate policy agenda for the Brown government. caught up with him on the conference steps, before he departed for yet another panel discussion.

It’s a good time to bump into him. Yesterday, Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, said his preferred leader of the Labour party would be either Cruddas or Ed Balls, the education secretary. It has to be asked: is there any potential future in which you could see yourself leading the party?

He doesn’t exactly rule it out: “Look, the one thing that is sure in politics right now is that the future is unpredictable.

“Everything is deeply unpredictable. I think this personality stuff is a reflection of lots of media speculation, and I’m not interested in that kind of stuff, even though Ken is a man of wise judgement.”

It’s not a surprising analysis of a man who shares many of his values. Both Livingstone and Cruddas come from the acceptable left of the party – both men concern themselves with controlling the market, but neither are out-and-out socialists. With Reaganomics/Thatcherism crashing down around our ears, it seems their time has come. Cruddas’ reaction has been to call for middle income earners to be taken out the upper tax bracket.

“It demands a response in terms of a fairness agenda,” he tells me.

“We’ve got to look again at the hundreds of thousands of people who are paying a higher rate of tax when they weren’t paying a higher rate before. So if you raise the higher rate of tax for those earning £34,000 so it would only kick in when they’re earning £44,000, that’s 180,000 people you can take out of the higher rate of tax. That’s the kind of thing we should be discussing.”

I tell him this fairness agenda stuff makes me feel uncomfortable. Political parties use phrases like that to present a united front when underneath there are different tribes and policy agendas battling it out. No one is against fairness, for instance, but there are plenty in the party who would oppose Cruddas’ tax proposals.

“I agree,” he admits. “The point that words are increasingly meaningless politically because everyone says the same words – and that meaning is actually hidden by those words – is true, actually.

“That’s why you have to go back to the basic issues of policy. Specific policies that do echo are Labour’s fairness agenda. I think it’s the future for us.”

I put it to him that he is using this phrase ‘fairness’ as a cover for the attempts of people on the left of the party to seize the opportunities offered to them by the current financial crisis. It’s much the same manoeuvre party leaders have used to cover conflicting views under a pretty banner.

“I don’t see it as that,” he replies. “You’ve got the most right wing government in the world ever, in the States…”

“More right-wing than Saudi Arabia?” I ask.

“In terms of democratically elected government, for a start.”

“More right-wing than Hitler?” I ask again. I’m being petty, I know.

“No, no, no, across western market economies at the moment, you know,” Cruddas says, slightly irritated, but maintaining a smile.

“They are thinking of quite innovative ways of state intervention – reductions in interest rates, fiscal stimulus to the taxpayers – which we should listen and learn from. If they can do it, that means state intervention for the new era is not either left or right.

“There are echoes all around this conference of it being a ‘hit the rewind button’ to some Old Labour agenda. No. This is a debate around future policy initiatives, given there’s an ideological crisis within the right in terms of its free market dynamics,” he continues.

“That’s what has to change now in terms of our own thinking. We need to come up with novel, imaginative policy agendas for a new era. That’s what we did in 1997. All I’d argue is that we need an equivalent exercise now. If you look at the 1997 manifesto, I would suggest we wouldn’t have the guts to propose many of those things now, and that signals our timidity. We need to be bold.”

The cracks in party unity are never that far from the surface, and the timidity statement sounds like an implicit criticism of the Brown administration to me. He’s quite right, of course. When Tony Blair rode to power he was seen as absurdly right-wing for a Labour leader – and so he proved to be – but the 1997 manifesto nevertheless contained plans to put a tax windfall on energy companies to subsidise the New Deal. It’s hard to imagine that kind of radicalism now.

Cruddas will deny party fracture until he’s blue in the face. “I think there’s a real sense of frustration across this conference that a self-selected gang decided they want to rebel. That’s all gone because the mood had changed in the party. There’s a sense this is a very small gang of people who are part of a faction, within a faction, within the party.

“I think people are quite tired of this sort of indulgency. Before a critical conference for us all, the week was preoccupied with a gang of no more than 12 people who were trying to bomb out the prime minister without any sort of alternative policy agenda or any sort of alternate candidate. It just looked like so much of a sideshow compared to the real issues people are struggling with every day: their mortgages, house prices, the sense their wages are under threat in real terms as food and oil prices go up.

“The idea we became obsessed with this game of political top trumps – that this would somehow dissolve our problems – is delusional. It’s crazy.”

And then Jon Cruddas has to go, whisked away to address similar topics to room-fulls of party members. As he goes he pats me on the shoulder and flashes a smile. He’s a good politician: Smart, moderate, committed and likeable. And yet. You can’t help but conclude from conversations like this that Labour members are quite conscious of the opportunities the current economic climate has given them.

For the centre and right of the party, it has offered them a lifeline, with Gordon Brown coming into his own in serious times, and the Tories confused and disorganised all of a sudden – their economic message conflicting sharply with the popular mood. For the Labour left it offers the very real possibility of a significant shift in party policy in terms of income equality and the supremacy of the City. But those cracks remain, and the smart rhetoric employed by Cruddas – the fairness agenda and all that – doesn’t quite manage to conceal it.

Ian Dunt