Review of Jon Cruddas’ A Century of Labour: What is the party’s stance?
As the Labour party may be on the verge of winning a significant general election, the pressing issue of their beliefs and values has become directly applicable.
At the beginning of this complex political journey, Jon Cruddas, the departing Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham, acknowledges that he is not an unbiased observer of Labour’s ongoing debate of concepts. His main argument is that Labour’s objective cannot be simplified into one statement or slogan, but rather encompasses three separate concepts of justice, which have fluctuated in their influence within the party over time.
Initially, there is a belief in the distribution of resources known as the “statist, labourist tradition of distributional justice”. This is often associated with trade unions and has been a dominant aspect of Labour’s ideology. Secondly, there is a focus on individual liberty, which Cruddas dates back to the Magna Carta. The effects of this viewpoint can be seen in various progressive legal and constitutional changes, such as equal pay and the Human Rights Act. Thirdly, and most importantly to Cruddas, is the less popular consideration of “virtue” and what is necessary to establish a thriving society.
When summarizing Labour’s chaotic hundred years of existence, it is the combination of these three distinct traditions that has allowed the party to attract voters successfully – and importantly, maintain its sense of direction while in power.
After evaluating previous leaders, Cruddas specifically mentions Clement Attlee, John Smith, and Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister as examples of effectively embodying all three aspects of the party’s identity.
Rejecting the caricature of Attlee as “statist, technocratic and utilitarian”, he cites a speech the great postwar premier gave to the US Congress in 1945, in which he linked Labour with “those who fought for Magna Carta, habeus corpus, with the Pilgrim Fathers and with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence”, and also spoke of “a world as orderly as a well-run town, with citizens diverse in character but cooperating for the common good”.
Before his unexpected passing, Smith took the lead in advocating for what he referred to as “positive liberty” – the ability to attain success through access to education, healthcare, housing, and employment.
In contrast, Cruddas attributes the turmoil of the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan administrations to “orthodox thinking”, which viewed socialism as primarily focused on “redistributing” resources and believed that without economic growth, this goal could not be achieved.
According to the author, Blair, who the author worked for, combined three ideas of justice in what he refers to as a “triptych”, giving New Labour a distinct political identity. During the economic prosperity, the government was able to allocate significant funds towards helping the most disadvantaged once they were in power. They also implemented changes to the constitution and passed laws protecting human rights. However, Cruddas expresses disappointment that over time, the diverse political traditions that were initially present have diminished. Instead of trying to reform the British economy, he argues that New Labour chose to simply give monetary aid to the poor, based on a misguided belief in never-ending economic growth.
Cruddas urges the current leader of the Labour party to not let the party’s defining mission be reduced to mere practical matters, at the expense of deeper moral and spiritual concerns for human liberty and freedom. He rejects the notion that Starmer is simply imitating Blair, and instead suggests that his industrial policies and commitment to worker democracy show influence from a previous era, specifically calling it “Wilsonian”. However, Cruddas cautions that despite the party’s strong lead in polls, there is still something missing and encourages Starmer to tap into the party’s rich history of radical ideas. He emphasizes the need for Starmer to develop a narrative of national renewal with a strong moral purpose.
This complex exploration of concepts may not be an easy read, but it ultimately conveys a sincere call for diversity from a Labour leader whose time in parliament is coming to an end as his party embarks on a new era.