Prospect Magazine - June 2010
THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE Labour MP Jon Cruddas is an intellectual who also speaks for the disaffected working class—and he will be a kingmaker in the contest to lead Labour. I saw him taking on the BNP in his east London constituency david edmonds ander son julian
Jon Cruddas in his Dagenham patch, where the blue-collar utopia is dead
42 · prospect · june 2010
new politics: jon cruddas
There are not many MPs who can quote political philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, RH Tawney and TH Green. But Jon Cruddas is an exotic political creature, with a reputation for being able to connect with people from all walks of life, equally at ease discussing fuel bills with senior citizens or Antonio Gramsci in senior common rooms. His face is unmemorable, a bit like his Dagenham constituency: flat and featureless. He has neither the looks of a character actor, nor a leading man. Colleagues note that his accent changes depending to whom he is speaking. He is a working-class Catholic boy from Portsmouth, whose father was a sailor. He is also an intellectual with a PhD in political theory and fans in the media and academia. Some people saw him as a future Labour leader. While he announced in mid-May that he wouldn’t stand for the leadership, his ideas on how to reconnect with the traditional working class will remain influential in the coming contest.
ruddas was the big surprise of Labour’s 2007 deputy leadership race: he scored the most votes in the first round, and ultimately came third, demonstrating support beyond the party’s leftist fringes. He is close to David Miliband, who has already launched his bid for Labour’s crown, and shares some similarities. Both worked for Tony Blair—Miliband as head of policy, Cruddas as deputy political secretary. Both went on to become MPs for de-industrialised areas. Both are animated by ideas. But while Miliband easily held his seat on 6th May, Cruddas came close to being dethroned.
ruddas hung on in Dagenham and Rainham by 2,630 votes. His race, along with that of Labour MP Margaret Hodge in the neighbouring constituency of Barking, gained huge media prominence because of the involvement of the British National party. BNP leader Nick Griffin attempted to unseat Hodge, but said the real prize was the council. Yet while the BNP’s challenge fell spectacularly short—coming third against both Hodge and Cruddas and losing all its councils seat in Barking—this deprived corner of east London still carries great symbolic significance. It is here that Labour lost touch with its core vote, where it struggled to provide jobs to replace the manufacturing industries of old, and where once unified white communities found themselves suddenly mixing with waves of immigrants. The BNP may have been trounced, but its challenge to Labour—in an area traditionally seen by the other parties as impenetrable—tells us much about the coming struggle for the soul of the Labour party.
o find out more, a few weeks ago I visited the Roundhouse, a large, ugly, dilapidated Dagenham pub, on the corner of the busy A1153. The pub is divided into four sections around the central bar. One section has two pool tables: there are televisions to watch sport, and jukeboxes and fruit machines. The carpet is badly frayed and the toilets are a bit scuzzy. There are several signs warning the patrons to behave, or face being barred. Inside, I didn’t hear a single racist term of abuse. This, however, is a BNP pub: not a pub owned or
David Edmonds is the author of “Caste Wars: A Philosophy of Discrimination” (Routledge) and is a research associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University run by the party, not a pub that trumpets its support for it, but a pub in which BNP sympathisers feel at home. Everyone I met (bar one cantankerous Tory) said they would vote BNP. It is also a welcoming place—of a sort. People know each other. Backs are slapped. A couple had brought their sevenyear-old boy with them and the grown-ups joshed with him. Two elderly men pored over the newspaper, working out which horses to bet on. The barmaids actually say “’ello darlin’.” The day before my visit, West Ham lost again; postmortems were under way. One man in his fifties said: “I’m a Millwall supporter—that’s like being a bloody alien in here—but I never get no trouble—people are unbelievably friendly.”
asked one woman, a mother of six, what would happen if a black person walked in. “Well, we’d all just stare at him,” she said. The woman calls non-white people, “multiculturals.” Her kids go to a school in which more than half the pupils are multiculturals. The buses are crammed with multiculturals. The multiculturals “get all the good houses, and take all the good jobs.” The staring seems deterrent enough. There were no multiculturals in this pub. It was February, three months before the election. The BNP was hoping for an electoral breakthrough. In 2006 the party took 12 of the 51 council seats: in 2010 it was expecting to become the largest bloc in the council; a Westminster seat didn’t seem inconceivable.
Here I should declare a family interest, requiring a detour to north Africa, via west Europe: Margaret Hodge is my aunt. My grandfather, Hans Oppenheimer, was born in Stuttgart, into a middle-class Jewish family, so assimilated into German culture that almost every vestige of religious ritual had been sloughed-off. Streetsmart, but not academic, Hans spurned university in favour of a job with an uncle in the Egyptian port of Alexandria. There he met and married Lizbeth, a Jewish Viennese woman. When the Nazis took power Hans and Lizbeth were left stranded and stateless. They would have stayed in Egypt had it not been for the 1948 Arab-Israeli war: a brick through the window was the warning that antisemitism had migrated to the middle east. The family moved to Britain and bought a house in Orpington, a genteel, very English neighbourhood in London’s commuter belt. Lizbeth succumbed to stomach cancer, leaving Hans to bring up his five children alone.
he middle child, Margaret, took her mother’s death worst and was packed off to boarding school. A lovable but fearsome chain-smoking patriarch with a heavy accent, Hans set up a steel trading company, and became moderately wealthy. “Anything an Oppenheimer wants to do, an Oppenheimer can do,” he told his grandkids. It was a lesson Margaret took to heart. After graduating from the LSE, she worked in market research before being elected a councillor in Islington. She became council leader in 1982, a post she held for a decade, providing regular fodder for the Evening Standard. The tabloids called her a member of the loony left and Islington “the Bananas republic.” The Mail referred to it as “The mad mad mad mad world of Islington.” Many of those stories were fabricated, but some were true, like the raising of the red flag over the town hall. After that my aunt embarked on what commentators like to describe as “a political journey”: a june 2010 · prospect · 43