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The man who wants to save Labour’s soul

The Church fell out with Labour under Blair. Catholic MP Jon Cruddas speaks about why the people’s party lost its faith

By on Friday, 3 December 2010

Jon Cruddas: ‘The biggest calamity facing society is the disintegration of the family’  	     Andrew Parsons/PA Wire

Jon Cruddas: ‘The biggest calamity facing society is the disintegration of the family’ Andrew Parsons/PA Wire

Labour MP Jon Cruddas is a big, but slightly unusual, political beast. One of the candidates for Deputy Labour leader in 2007, he won the first round of voting and subsequently turned down an offer of a cabinet place, going on to become a vocal critic of the Government’s immigration, economic and education policies.

This year the popular 48-year-old could have stood for Mayor of London or even party leader, but chose to remain in the background and take part in the philosophical battle over the soul of the party. And yet, despite being seen as the most Left-wing senior Labour figure, the Catholic second-generation Irish politician has a considerable following among conservatives.

Perhaps it is because he talks not just of family, a buzzword of both Left and Right, but of duty, obligation and fatherhood; despite Cruddas’s support for socially liberal ideas such as legal abortion, his socialism is essentially small-c conservative and aimed towards the protection of communities.

Proletarian blood still carries value in the Labour hierarchy, and in that respect Cruddas is the real thing. He has a gruff voice, so gruff in fact that my tape recorder has trouble picking it up, and an unpretentious manner that spans from earnestness to schoolboyish laughter and giggles. He speaks with great passion.

His office, at the very far end on the fringes of the MP office building Portcullis House, which he jokes must be a reflection of his importance, is littered with books on many subjects, but especially about Englishness. It’s a subject that fascinates and troubles him, and an identity he is trying to reclaim in the fallout from multiculturalism.

Cruddas’s father hailed from the north-east and was a sailor of 27 year’s standing in the Navy, meeting his future wife, a Donegal native, while stationed in Derry. All his mother’s siblings left to join the Irish Diaspora in Australia and England, while Jon and his four siblings were brought up on naval bases.

He describes it as a “strong Irish Catholic family”, soaked in the tradition of the Diaspora, and while his middle brother joined the Carmelites, “I joined the Labour party, largely because of the social teaching”.

“The heroes were the Kennedys, because they were part of that Diaspora, and Oscar Romero; it was not a Labour thing, it was a Catholic social teaching thing. A sense of obligation to the poor, and the dignity of labour, which are obviously themes running through Catholic teaching.”

The young Cruddas went to Australia, worked in the building industry and got involved in the union there. But the Cruddas children, raised by parents who had never gone near a university, had an academic inclination, with five degrees, four MAs and two PhDs between them, and Jon was no different. In fact his first rebellion as an MP was over tuition fees, and he supports the current (non-violent) student demonstrations. “I saw it and I thought they behaved with great dignity,” he says.

He came back, took a PhD in philosophy, politics and economics, and as he sums up his life story, “went to America and taught, came back, hooked up with Blair, did some research for the Labour party, did stuff about the minimum wage”.

By this stage he was married, to a fellow Labour party activist who went on to work for Harriet Harman, and the couple have a son, in his last year at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, near the Cruddas family home in Notting Hill.

What were his first impressions of Blair? “I liked him. I liked his family. He was modern, contemporary, I liked his communitarianism, it seemed to be different to that materialism and commodification which seemed to be a hallmark of the Right and became a hallmark of New Labour.” There’s much he still admires about Blair. “He had a nice, courteous manner, I never saw him lose his temper. Trouble is it refracted into something it shouldn’t have been.”

Although proud of things such as the international criminal court, the Department for International Development and the minimum wage, he says: “It all went wrong… In the end it maintained quite a dystopian world-view, it embraced globalisation without acknowledging this rapacious thing can also be quite destructive of community and relationships.

“Blair’s early speeches were rich with a sense of nationhood and duty. If you look at his speeches in 2005 they were very different, they lost that generosity because it surrendered to a more atomised view of the world.”

This is a fairly common belief among those on the Left of the Labour Party, but what is paradoxical about Cruddas is that he sounds far more like someone from the Labour Party from before the 1960s, when the Christian socialist party was submerged by deconstructionists, Marxists and multiculturalists.

He says the “biggest calamity” facing society is “the relentless disintegration of the family and the profoundly dangerous consequential element of a lack of male role models”. And why not, he asks?

“I’m interested in a modern nationhood, I’m interested in preserving the family, and the interface between faith and politics. That might not seem the natural preserve of the Labour Party, but historically it always has been. What interests me is why it isn’t any more, because it’s rich within our history.”

I mention how I recently met a fairly important Blairite who had never heard of Cardinal Manning. Cruddas gets animated.
“A few miles down the road there was a dock strike in 1899. The Catholic Church was front and centre in the lead, built around the notion of the dignity of human labour, reciprocity and solidarity. Now we’ve lost that because we’ve lost our identity, lost what we’re about.”

He blames “certain forms of Fabianism” for taking the Labour movement away from that noble vision. “They thought that unless they raised the birth rate they might hand the country over to the Irish and the Jews.

“The Labour Party once had strong links with the Catholic Church, as the haven of migrants. Labour used to be civic and religious, now it’s secular and statist.

“We’ve always had that pluralism, and it’s a vehicle to reconcile those elements. It cannot be a preserve of a metropolitan liberal elite.”
There are also added issues in that we’re entering potential hard times with welfare about to be reformed. Cruddas describes Iain Duncan Smith, in charge of welfare reform, as “a good man” and says he respects where he’s coming from, “but you have to see the colour of the money”.

“On the one hand you can say welfare is a sin. On the other, people with profound mental health issues and life-threatening diseases are being pushed off incapacity benefit on to Jobseeker’s Allowance. That’s the collatoral damage. I think people have an obligation to work. But I don’t want ‘the Big Society’ to be used to hide these profound social changes, taking £18 billion of welfare cuts.”

Funnily enough, Cruddas is one of very few politicians on either side of the house who likes David Cameron’s big, and so far largely unsold, idea. “Fraternity, duty, obligation, I like those things, and it’s clever for the Tories to do that. The question is what it obscures. Is it just cover for the dismantling of services?”

The Big Society is based around a Victorian concept of civic mindedness, of the “little platoons” rebuilding the social fabric undone in four decades, and of volunteering. What most politicians will not admit is that such a theme is dependent on religious groups, many of whom might hold views at odds with the social liberal norm.

“Absolutely,” he says, “the most interesting movements in London are faith-based.” Among those he supports are London Citizens, which campaigns against what used to be called “usury”. For reasons I cannot understand, few politicians seem to be interested in this obvious social evil, arguably as destructive as gambling or drug abuse, few politicians except Cruddas.

“The way they target these products at the working poor, the people who are really struggling, is wrong. These compound interest rates are wrong. It’s very dangerous, a form of modern gangsterism. Why can’t you re-moralise the economy?”

London Citizens is led by an academic Cruddas describes as “the most interesting man around Labour”, Maurice Glassman: “He has a whole model of Labour going wrong and why it got wrong, because it lost its anchorage in faith-based traditions, and lost its sense of duty and reciprocity.”

He also praises the Christian Socialist Movement for re-Christianising the party.

But what about his voting record on abortion, which is decidely un-Catholic? He says he did not support previous amendments because “they were tagged on for political purposes” and he argues that it “should be safe, legal and rare”, which will not please many Catholics.

“I don’t like abortion, I don’t know anyone who does. The fear is if you dramatically change it you lead it to the back door.”

New Labour and the Church fell out spectacularly not just over abortion, but also Iraq, the adoption agencies and plans to dilute church schools. That latter plan, by Cruddas’s colleague Alan Johnson, was slapped down by Archbishop Vincent Nichols. Despite various differences Cruddas welcomes the new leader of the English Church. “I met him and like him. I think he’s going to be a tough political operator, which I welcome. I want him on the park in these debates.”

Cruddas’s vision of moral capitalism is the interface between his brand of socialism and Chestertonian conservatism, and “Red Tory” philosopher Phillip Blond has had kind words to say about him.

“Oh really, oh no,” he shrugs and laughs, then gets serious again. “I like Phillip Blond. I like the idea of mutuals and the mixed economy. You have to re-capitalise the poor and create a just society. Labour has to be there. We’ve lost our language, we talk a lot about justice and fairness but we don’t talk about duty and family.”

He blames “relativism driven by individualism” and, unlike many in the party, Cruddas accepts the concept of the broken society, and his own constituency of Dagenham and Rainham has certainly suffered its fair share of social problems from the broken society.
With a constituency in the cheapest borough in Greater London, Cruddas recently warned about “social cleansing”, poor people being driven out of inner London by changes to welfare. This will “turn up the dial” on already rapid changes in outer London, aggravating serious social problems.

Dagenham, once famous for cars, is now probably best known for the British National Party. Until May the party held 12 seats on the local council and both Cruddas’s seat and next door Barking were major targets.

“You cannot ignore the fact that there are racial elements to this,” he says. “People get worried when they can’t get a house or a school and it becomes racialised, it’s very dangerous stuff. This [race] is what everyone is talking about. When your community changes around you, it’s very uncomfortable. I think Labour should conserve things – families, relationships, communities.”

But isn’t it also true that while poverty aggravates social unease, and unpalatable though it may be to suggest, people there just don’t want their communities to ethnically change. Realistically, won’t Dagenham end up with the same demographics as Newham and Tower Hamlets, I suggest.

“I agree,” he says with what I think is surprising honesty. “Our community will take the strain.”

Well, at least they won’t have to worry about the BNP in Dagenham for long, then.

Whatever the Coalition’s housing policy, this demographic revolution was the product of Labour’s immigration policies. I wonder how much one can square conservative socialism with the Left’s ideological commitment to diversity.

Perhaps he could have done more if he stood as Labour London mayoral candidate in 2012, something most pollsters predicted him to win. “Because, because.” He pauses: “I thought about it. But I don’t want anything, that’s my point. I never expected to be an MP. What I’m interested in is whether Labour rediscovers its soul. I’m going to put in my two-pennyworth in that debate. I’m not trading up anything.”

There is a “crisis” of social democracy in Europe, he says, so “does Labour just become a residual metropolitan and public sector or does it speak a language that transcends the identity politics?

“The real danger is that politics becomes Balkanised, religion and race.”

Labour should return, instead, to the fundamental virtues, among them the search for compassion. He quotes Karen Armstrong’s description of Hillel’s law, when a non-believer comes up to the Hebrew prophet and says he’ll convert if Hillel will stand on one leg and recite the scriptures.

“He just stands on one leg and says ‘Do unto others as they would to you.’ That’s the Torah, the rest is just commentary.” I suppose a Christian socialist might say the same for the Labour manifesto; but as the party enters the wilderness it will be interesting to see how it looks when it returns.

  • louella

    Wow…..is this the best we can do. Is this the type of politician we are expected to vote for now as Catholis?! A proabort…..who mentions family often. Not good enough I'm afraid.

    I want a proper Catholic…..who will campaign for a Catholic Britain.

  • Anthony

    Louella, it is somewhat unfair to reduce Cruddas' opinions to the caricature of “a proabort”, when what he clearly wishes to be avoided is a misguided return to back-street terminations. As faithful Catholics, you and I would rather there were no abortions, agreed, but with the majority of our fellow countrymen and women not even practising Christianity in any meaningful sense, the Church's teachings will always be ignored by some (many?) people.

    If I had a daughter (which I do not) who found herself pregnant in such circumstances (we can use our imaginations) that she was unable to rationalise her situation on a moral level beyond that of her own perceived state of despair, of course I would do everything in my power to help her carry the child to full term; and if, regrettably, that meant having to have recourse to adoption (again, imagine the possible circumstances) an abortion would still be avoided and the gift of a child's life preserved for another couple. But we both know that some newborns are abandoned, and I am sure you would not wish to condemn a desperate woman or girl to the dangers of a backstreet practitioner.

    Cruddas qualifies his reluctant acceptance of the fact of “safe, legal” abortion with “rare”: realpolitik, the cynical might say, but why not moral responsibilty with a compassionate face. We who believe must continue to pray for the world to see that what the Church teaches is for the good of all humanity; but in condemning this sin we must not, when all is said and done, condemn the sinner.

  • louella

    Not really…..he is a proabort! And no Catholic should ever vote for him. I want a better brand of politician to vote for…..surely they can't be that rare! As I said…..in view of the moral collapse of the UK….I want a Catholic politician campaigning for a Catholic Britain. Why on earth do secular politicians think that Catholics should vote for them?! Are we really that desperate and hard up for a truly Catholic representative?!

    And remember …when the moral base of a nation collapses….everything else collapses after that!

  • Anthony

    I take your point, and appreciate what you are saying, about the dangers of moral collapse: the good fight,as ever, is on. ('Same old same old' for us Catholics, then.) By the way, I didn't say I would campaign for him, but if the only choice was between him and a Dawkins-Hitchens Frybrid…

  • paulsays

    Because as posters like me and Anthony show there is major dissent between what the Church's official line is and what Catholics themselves think and do.

    Also with less then 12% of the population I don't believe someone could get elected on an entirely Catholic platform. Being inoffensive and appealing to the masses is the only way to get the votes to stack up

  • louella

    But wait until time passes……and the terrible fruits of secularism come to pass. Then the only alternatives to the failed secular system will be an Islamic state……..or a Catholic State.

    Then Catholicism must step back up to the fray once more instead of cow towing to the godless secular system.

  • Tom Carty

    AT LAST A FRESH VOICE!

    The question remains: Is there still room for Catholic Social Democrats in the Labour Party?
    The palpably growing atmosphere of crisis after several months of a vague but definite 'give them a chance' attitude on the part of the electorate fascinated by the novelty of coalition government, suggests that the honeymoon is over. The government will find it difficult to keep its two sets of backbenchers happy, with growing right-wing Conservative frustration at concessions made to the Liberal Democrats, and Liberal Democrats feeling bruised by having had to go back on individual pledges rather than a mere manifesto promise when it came to university tuition fees (and not seeming to understand the difference). People will not forget this in a hurry.
    And now the local government financial settlement announced on the 14 December looks like another presentational own goal and it was painful to see Secretary of State Eric Pickles desperately trying to talk down the huge cuts and doling out sticking plasters to stem some of the worst wounds. Too late: the grossly unfair results need no further comment: contrast the cuts dealt to the massively deprived Stoke-on-Trent with those that have befallen the nearby unitary authority of Cheshire East, Manchester Home Counties for those who do not know it: Stoke will lose over 8% of its budget next year while leafy Sandbach, Wilmslow, Holmes Chapel and Alderley Edge will have a 1.7% cut. A glance at any of the coverage in the daily papers shows this consistent pattern. Dorset County Council somehow managed to get a budget increase in this round of cuts!
    Apart from being wrong and vindictive, it is a missed chance to establish the government's bona fides in the eyes of the wider society. The policy being pursued by the coalition makes it a straightforward case for Christians, and specifically for Catholics: the Jewish social tradition which lies behind Jesus’ teaching on justice is deeply social: it is not enough to devote yourself to saving your soul in isolation because the criterion is how far you have shown care for the poor, the marginalised, the rejected. In Jesus’ dramatic story about the last judgement, even the righteous are amazed to discover that in encountering their sister and brother in distress they were face-to-face with Jesus. We have to oppose these policies and expose the rhetoric (big society and localism) behind it all as insubstantial bluff and the misuse of really interesting ideas.
    Catholics in this country have been in their majority Social Democratic in political orientation, for (Irish) nationalist and class reasons as well as because of Catholic social thought. But new Labour while correctly abandoning some of the trappings of its rusty identity, and in spite of some real successes in health and education, had become a cynical exercise in short termism, headline chasing, spin and arrogance. Anyone who doubts that harsh verdict need only consider the events leading up to the attack on Iraq, a truly shocking event. Pope John Paul's timely reiteration at that time of the church's teaching on the conditions required for a just war (which were clearly not present in this case) reminded us of the cultural significance and majestic timescale of our church and threw into context the empty bluster of John Prescott, John Reid and Jack Straw. They were no match for St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas!
    New Labour also took an uncompromising ‘liberal’ stance on many issues which Catholics couldn't help seeing in a different light. There was a new stroppiness, a barely concealed spite around when it came to discussions about church schools, adoption and abortion. 'We don't do religion' (which is fair enough) became 'we don't like religion and we are going to show it'. The assertive atheism which felt emboldened in this climate came down to earth with a bump during those few days Pope Benedict spent with us earlier this year.
    So where do we go from here? Is the Labour Party still a vehicle for social justice or has it become another liberal pressure group? Specifically, is there a place in it for Catholic Social Democrats? The question needs an urgent resolution.
    Tom Carty

  • Anthony

    Dear paulsays,

    I don't think you have understood what I wrote with the spirit in which it was intended. I am not dissenting from what you refer to as the Church's “official line” (which seems to imply that you think there is an unofficial one that She really upholds). My reply to louella (whose support for the Church's teaching I in fact share) concerned the danger of pinning labels on people which reduce them, and ethical positions we do not agree with, to the level of caricature, whilst expecting what we uphold as moral positions to be taken seriously.

    My argument was simply recognizing that since we live in a world in which people unfortunately do offer abortion “on demand” (and probably always have), then it is merely a first-step in the direction of morality for state-supported abortion to be rare and safe. Moreover, whilst suggesting that for Cruddas this might seem to be morally responsible, I am saying no more than that it is a shade more ethically responsible than turning a blind eye to the horrors of illegal abortion practices The so-called “right to choose” may appear to many people today to be a matter of morality, but it has much more to do with ethics, and the ethics of consumerism in particular, in the absence of morality.

  • paulsays

    The rational argument that you put forward, that abortion will happen regardless and that it is better for it to be rare and safe then dangerous and horrific, is not one supported by the 'official line' of the Church, no flexibility is given and the Church denies the possibility of abortion even when the mother's life is at risk.

    To whom I am referring to is you therefore, and people like you are upholding the 'unofficial line' which is what I talk of. – Thinking Catholics that realize that some doctrines when seen as literal in every sense, at some point do more harm than good.

  • Anthony

    Thanks for the reply. Happy Christmas to you and yours.

  • paulsays

    and to you to :)

  • paulsays

    “cough” head in the sand

    go read a book or something

  • Michael Webb

    As a Laborite from Australia, this is very thought provoking and good on many levels however, I am not impressed with Cruddas' stance on abortion. I say that as a Labor man. There is only one way out here and it is for a pro life Labor man to step up whilst being thoroughly working class and socialising in the sense of basic industries and public utilities. Privatisation of these things is anti-Christian.
    With a pro life Labor team, there could then be no wiggle room for the lovers of unbridled and excessive profit seeking business Catholics. Only then can we laborites jump up in the air for joy and the ultimate sense of self satisfaction and vindication. I pray for the day when the business lovers amongst the clerical and lay in our midst would have no more easy excuses to blacken the name of Labor and of its pro life supporters.

  • Eric Conway

    The Church’s teaching on abortion is both scientifically & morally correct. There is’nt any grey area. Any reputable gynaecologist will tell you that abortion ( the intentional killing of the infant ) is never necesary to save the mothers life. However the Church & reputable Doctors agree that in certain ( thankfully very rare cases ) treatment for the mother may unintentionally have an impact on the infant. This is not abortion, which is the wilfull targeting of the infant. Abortion is illegal in Ireland ( thankfully we are more civilised than most of the world in that regard ) & we have one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world. Much lower than the U.K.

  • Malcolm Little

    Interesting but no suprise that Cruddas has voted for gay marriage. Another case of politics before faith I fear.