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