Review of a century of work by Jon Cruddas – what does the party stand for? | Political books

With Labor potentially on the verge of a historic general election victory, the hotly contested question of what the party stands for has taken on immediate practical importance.

At the start of this turbulent political history, Jon Cruddas, the outgoing MP for Dagenham and Rainham, admits that he is not a neutral observer of Labour’s battle of ideas. Its central claim is that the purpose of the Labor Party cannot be reduced to a single statement or slogan – but embraces three distinct ideas of justice, whose hold on the party has fluctuated over time.

First there is what he calls the “statist and Labor tradition of distributive justice” – who gets what – which he links to the unions, and which he complains about, which too often dominates Labor thinking. Second, there is the quest for freedom, which Cruddas traces back to Magna Carta. He sees the fruits of this Labor line of thought in a series of progressive legal and constitutional reforms, from equal pay to the Human Rights Act. Third, and most important to him, is an old-fashioned concern with “virtue,” or what it takes to create a good society.

In his account of Labour’s tumultuous century of existence, it was when these three distinct traditions were woven together that the party was able to appeal most strongly to voters – and, crucially, retain its raison d’être in government .

In assessing past leaders, Cruddas singles out Clement Attlee, John Smith and Tony Blair – during his first term in office – as successfully representing all three strands of the party’s identity.

Dismissing the caricature of Attlee as “statist, technocratic and utilitarian”, he cites a speech the great post-war prime minister gave to the US Congress in 1945, in which he linked the Labor Party to “those who fought for Magna Carta, habeus corpus, with the Pilgrim.” Fathers and with the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” and also spoke of “a world as orderly as a well-managed city, with citizens of diverse character but cooperating for the common good.”

Smith picked up the thread before his untimely death, promising to build what he called “positive liberty – the freedom to achieve that is gained through education, health care, housing and ‘job “.

In contrast, Cruddas attributes the tumult of the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in part to what he calls “orthodox thinking”, which saw socialism as primarily “a politics of redistribution” that “could not work without growth to redistribute.”

He claims that Blair – for whom he worked – married the three conceptions of justice in what he grandiosely calls a “triptych”, giving New Labor a clear political identity. The fruits of a long economic boom enabled large transfers to the poorest once Labor was in power, while the government also enacted constitutional reform and human rights legislation. But Cruddas laments that “what began as a vibrant mix of political traditions has diminished considerably over time.” Instead of trying to remake the British economy, he claims, New Labor opted for “corrective cash transfers to the poor, under the mistaken belief of endless growth”.

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Cruddas urges the current Labor leader not to allow his party’s defining mission to be reduced to “questions of utility”, at the expense of “deeper moral or spiritual questions and concerns about human freedom”. Rejecting the idea that Starmer is just a tribute act to Blair, Cruddas suggests that in his industrial policy and promise of more workers’ democracy he goes beyond New Labour, calling his position “Wilsonian”. . But he warns that, despite the big poll lead, something is missing, and urges Starmer to exploit the party’s “rich radical tradition”. It must develop “a story of national renewal; one with a moral purpose.”

This dense history of ideas is not an easy read – but it adds up to a heartfelt plea for pluralism from a Labor thinker whose parliamentary career is drawing to a close just as his party enters in a new chapter.

A Century of Work is published by Polity (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply. From Friday 8 December 2023 to Wednesday 10 January 2024, 20p from every Guardian bookstore order will support the Guardian and Observer 2023 charity appeal.

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