The identity crisis of Jon Cruddas


10:22 am - September 29th 2012

by Sunder Katwala    


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Jon Cruddas may have been asked to lead the Labour opposition’s policy review but the Dagenham MP is not, truth be told, especially interested in policy. ‘What interests me is not policy as such; rather the search for political sentiment, voice and language; of general definition within a national story. Less The Spirit Level, more what is England’, he said, speaking on ‘the good society’ at the University of East Anglia (Cruddas, 2012).

The public lecture series was entitled ‘Philosopher kings? How philosophy informs real politics today’, making contributions from Cruddas and Conservative David Willetts perhaps inevitable. But the utility of philosophy in political battle is not universally acknowledged. ‘Perhaps when they find out what is England they will let us all have the answer’, said Chancellor George Osborne, deploying this Cruddas passage for a little partisan political knockabout. The mockery will have chimed with Labour MPs who worry about whether their new policy chief leading Ed Miliband on an elusive quest for the essence of national identity will prove a particularly direct route to a winning agenda on the deficit, growth, jobs and housing.

Ed Miliband has placed a significant political bet on Cruddas as Labour’s philosopher king. It was not just a bet on the man himself, and his ability to somehow cajole the disparate actors within the byzantine, opaque, and dysfunctional Labour policy review and manifesto-making process into some sort of coherence. It was also a significant endorsement of the Cruddasite disposition about what matters most in politics, a view with which his leader has increasingly come to empathise.

That Cruddas world-view is well captured by his contrasting the state of England, an allusion to his political hero, the 1930s Labour leader George Lansbury, with The Spirit Level (2009), Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential best-seller which was hailed by many on the left as the most important book for a generation. It tells a story through comparative data, painting its picture by amassing graphs demonstrating correlations of various social harms associated with increased inequality.

This enabled Guardian and New Statesman columnists and leftish wonks to declare that they had found the Holy Grail: knock-down proof so that, surely, anybody could now see why the left was right and the right was wrong about inequality all along (Hattersley, 2009) (1). Mysteriously, these factual proofs seemed altogether less convincing for Telegraph or Spectator writers, and wonks on the right proved curiously stubborn in refusing to concede the argument (Saunders and Evans, 2010). This fierce partisan battle over the book’s merits demonstrated what the emerging application of brain science to political psychology would predict: that very few political arguments can ever be settled by appeals to ‘the facts’.

Rather, evidence tends to be used as ammunition to reinforce existing views, while even contrary counter-evidence will very often reinforce long-held views too, once the motivation behind its production is brought in to play. Every quarter’s economic statistics on growth, jobs, and unemployment shows us much the same phenomenon. Any expert analyses of the evident need for austerity measures, or their evident futility, will usually repolarise and rehash the existing debate, rarely bringing rivals together in the disinterested pursuit of evidence-based policymaking. If the facts don’t fit the frame, it is the facts that get rejected, not the frame.

Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain (2007), has characterised much liberal progressive advocacy as demonstrating an ‘irrational commitment to rationality’ in seeking political support through policy arguments, based on a belief that appeals to the evidence are a political trump card. Jon Cruddas would see these research conclusions from political psychology as providing further ammunition to reinforce what had long been his own gut instinct, that for Labour to connect, it needs less of the spirit of the LSE and rather more of that of Lansbury.

As Cruddas put it in the UEA lecture:

Politics for me is not a variant of rational choice theory. It is about base, visceral connections, sentiment, themes and language that grip people; stories and allegories that render intelligible the world around them.

This demands that his party understands politics as being driven by questions of identity as much as interests; to see persuasion as depending more often on stories than facts, and to put policy in its proper place, by understanding that the policy manifesto pledges which provide a necessary route-map of priorities for government will not resonate unless they fulfill a vital symbolic purpose too, speak to ‘political sentiment, voice and language’, so as to explain what motivates a political party and how that is reflected in what it wants to say about the nature of the country which it seeks to govern, and what its ambitions to change it are.

This is the Cruddas starting point: identity matters. And it matters for party and country alike. He sees the 2008 economic crash and 2010 election drubbing as creating Labour’s third ‘great identity crisis’ in not much more than a century of existence, comparable to its lost decades in the 1930s and 1980s.

There is a crisis of belonging in society, with a particular concern for the sense of social and political dislocation arising from the loss of traditional class identities among those who were once solidly Labour. In response to the dizzying changes of the global era, there is a foundational question about national identity, and how the form that it takes may shape the possibilities and contours of partisan political competition.

If Dr Cruddas has diagnosed the identity crisis facing Labour, he feels it much more viscerally and directly than that. His own personal political journey can be seen to represent a living out and working through of the strands, tensions, and contradictions of the Labour tradition in an attempt to discover, or to forge, its contemporary meaning and mission.

—–
This is the intro to a long essay published by Renewal Magazine. The longer version is here.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Well lets be honest if Cruddas was to come out with something which was socialist or idealistic, I could see MIliband and Blair saying it’s a shame we brought in ATOS, we could have said Cruddas was suffering a stress related illness, now ATOS would say he’s fit for work.

Cruddas has stated it may take many years before he is finished so if Labour wins the next election they can just ignore what Cruddas says, and if they lose well it does not really matter does it.

Well, maybe once Labour has finished answering rhetorical questions it might be able to come to the public with some reasons to vote for it.

3. Chaise Guevara

To be fair, the title of that “philosopher kings” lecture might have somewhat encouraged people to come out with high-falutin’ nonsense.

“Rather, evidence tends to be used as ammunition to reinforce existing views, while even contrary counter-evidence will very often reinforce long-held views too, once the motivation behind its production is brought into play”

Yep, very true. And it’s an unfortunate reality that politicians have to face. Proving your opponent is factually incorrect might win you the argument, but it doesn’t win them over – hence people still believing in creationism and other such voodoo.

Cruddas has said that too many immigrants were allowed into the UK in recent years I think.
Which is quite increddible really, from a Labour person. And I was thinking just today who he might mean, as I tried to book a library computer in the Leeds library and ”one stop shop” social services centre. The place is ”swamped” with poor people, as it’s an area of high deprivation. And half the people in there are the new type immigrants from all over the world. Roma gypsies, Somalian mothers, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans. Long time Pakistami immigrants and others who speak little English.
The job of librarian in such an inner city library like the one in Harehills Leeds is no longer for people looking for a quiet bookish job. It’s for dealing with the poor unemployed all day who want to book computers, and who are constantly asking for help for this or that problem they have.
I wonder how Philip Larkin (librarian in Hull) would have dealt with this modern society.

As I write this in my new flat facing out into the back alleys of these small terraced houses, I can hear the shouted rowing of a Jeremy Kyle like family from a few doors along. Pure Yorkshire chaviness.

Labour are never going to get a handle on that kind of thing. It’s too far gone.

@4 You get about a bit, quite the move from Northern Ireland that.

Two years in Northern Ireland and I fancied a change.
New horizons etc.

Is James Purnell working this man?

There’s a lot less to Jon Cruddas than meets the eye.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. andy mycock

    Good piece by @sundersays Jon Cruddas's identity crisis http://t.co/SaMEvRQt. Does not consider his north/south or british identity crisis

  2. Sunder Katwala

    Good piece by @sundersays Jon Cruddas's identity crisis http://t.co/SaMEvRQt. Does not consider his north/south or british identity crisis

  3. Sunder Katwala

    thanks to @sunny_hundal for running @libcon chunky extract of my Cruddas essay. Happy to talk about it in thread there http://t.co/iz82UlVs

  4. sunny hundal

    Great piece by @sundersays – 'The Identity Crisis of Jon Cruddas MP' http://t.co/IDDKhu4K

  5. RENEWAL

    Great piece by @sundersays – 'The Identity Crisis of Jon Cruddas MP' http://t.co/IDDKhu4K

  6. Gods & Monsters

    Great piece by @sundersays – 'The Identity Crisis of Jon Cruddas MP' http://t.co/IDDKhu4K

  7. Jonathan Glennie

    Agree with everyone else, this is a great contribution by @sundersay: The identity crisis of Jon Cruddas http://t.co/YNhiV1a7

  8. RENEWAL

    Good piece by @sundersays Jon Cruddas's identity crisis http://t.co/SaMEvRQt. Does not consider his north/south or british identity crisis

  9. RENEWAL

    Agree with everyone else, this is a great contribution by @sundersay: The identity crisis of Jon Cruddas http://t.co/YNhiV1a7

  10. Marc López

    La identidad, importa! @sunny_hundal: Great piece by @sundersays – 'The Identity Crisis of Jon Cruddas MP' http://t.co/jpLSAP4m cc @jrteruel

  11. Paul Hilder

    Smart stuff by @sundersays on the unique and remarkable Jon Cruddas http://t.co/dj3VpsbB

  12. RENEWAL

    Smart stuff by @sundersays on the unique and remarkable Jon Cruddas http://t.co/dj3VpsbB





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