Jon Cruddas belongs to a rare breed of politicians who believe the best view of the House of Commons is through the rear-view mirror. He glances at it as we head to his Dagenham constituency in his non-ecologically friendly Land-Rover. ‘Gordon Brown will be taxing you for this soon,’ I say. He replies with a look that suggests 1,000 expletives. Reverence for the Labour hierarchy is not his strong point, yet it is on this very platform that he is staking his claim to be the party’s deputy leader.
Since being elected as an MP five years ago he has pursued an unusual career path. He was a No. 10 Downing Street adviser, brought in to bridge the gap with the trade unions. Elected at the age of 39, he was well placed to climb the greasy pole. Instead he forswore ministerial ambition and pledged himself to politics in Dagenham, his adopted home since fighting the Ford plant closures. His focus now is on the gap between the Labour party and the working-class voters: a gap he fears is being fast filled by the British National party.
As we drive east he points out factory wasteland and talks about how the BNP managed to become the official opposition in Barking and Dagenham with 11 council seats (Labour has 38 seats, the Tories barely clung on to one). In Westminster terms, it is safe Labour — and for that reason, he believes, it has dropped off the party’s campaign map. ‘Electoral science now allows ever-more precise canvassing into swing wards. Targeted mail, telephone canvassing, the whole election machinery is focused on the swing voters in the swing seats. Areas like mine are left behind.’
As we reach Dagenham he points out landmarks in enemy territory: a pub where BNP leaders drink, streets where the BNP vote is strongest, and parkland where they intend to hold a rally. ‘They come up with very simple messages: we’re for your rights, we’re for our culture,’ he says. ‘They say, “We’re the Labour party of your parents’ generation.” And they tap into this sense of disfranchisement, a sense that all politics is gravitating towards a very small slice of the landscape.’
The BNP also know where to campaign. He tells me of three council-house tower blocks where data showed that no one voted — so no Westminster party sent anyone there. The BNP campaigners blitzed them and the residents, having been shown political attention for the first time in years, voted overwhelmingly for it. This is precisely the way in which Mr Cruddas believes territory is being ceded to the far Right.
Our first stop is a Christmas party for a volunteer group who work with the elderly, where I meet a woman who is considering attending the BNP rally. She is by no means racist. Her gripe is that a group of kids has started to congregate regularly outside her house, and the council will not act. There is widespread contempt for Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown seems to have been placed in the same bracket. David Cameron barely features on the radar.
Afterwards Mr Cruddas says there is little more affection for the Prime Minister among his fellow Labour councillors. ‘They’re all young, lively and frustrated. All pretty much Independent Labour,’ he laughs. ‘They’re taking the BNP on, street by street, every weekend. In 1997 the Labour party was brilliant at acknowledging and trying to resolve people’s insecurities. But not now.’ This is his deputy leadership pitch: there is a serious problem, and the answer lies outside Westminster.
It says something about ambition within the Labour party that so far there is only one candidate to be the new Tony Blair, but six seeking to be the new John Prescott. ‘A lot of candidates want the job of deputy prime minister. Well, I’m not interested in any of that,’ he says. If elected, he intends to spend his time outside the Commons, trying to re-establish local Labour parties. He plans an ‘anti-fascist fortnight’ in other BNP strongholds (his work in this field earned him the title ‘Campaigner of the Year’ in the recent Threadneedle/Spectator parliamentarian awards).
When we arrive at his constituency office he sends me next door to the greengrocer — and asks the shopkeeper to tell me ‘what happened last week’. The story is shocking: a neighbouring barber was robbed, then beaten with his own equipment and left for dead. ‘I could understand if they stopped once they had the money,’ says the greengrocer. ‘But to keep on at him like that….’ Mr Cruddas says nothing. His point is that this is a world away from Westminster.
In his office I meet Liam Smith, a tattooed Labour councillor who traces the rise of the BNP to the Thatcher government’s right-to-buy policy. At first, this had the desired effect: owner-occupiers took pride in their property and community. But when the property boom started in the late 1990s, things fell apart. Owners sold up, and in their place came buy-to-let landlords who rented to immigrants priced out of inner London. Those who remained saw their communities change at a bewildering pace, and found no political party able to understand their new concerns.
‘Now,’ says Mr Smith, ‘tell me why a white working-class man should vote Labour.’ He shrugs. It appears even he has no answer.
For all its ills, Dagenham has improved in employment and education standards in recent years. Mr Cruddas praises the heroic work of local head teachers, but says that immigration has helped. ‘We’ve had a huge influx of West Africans who have an incredible work ethic. They’re family-orientated, stable and are certainly not hoovering up benefits.’ They are resolutely Christian. He points out a pub closed down for drugs-selling, now partly converted into an African church hall.
The headmasters of his local secondary school, he says, have also made great strides — but with no thanks to government education reform. ‘They focus on structures: whether it’s a City Academy or not,’ he says. ‘It comes down to basic management and inspirational headteachers.’ One of them, Paul Grant, has quintupled the GCSE pass rate at his school — but only after shock therapy which involved suspending 200 pupils in his first two months and working until midnight explaining his actions to furious, often abusive parents.
Everywhere Mr Cruddas walks he seems to see a list of problems, a list of solutions — and a Labour government blind to both. Like several sink estates, the houses in Dagenham do not look derelict. A new health centre has opened. We passed several Community Support officers on patrol. The government has visibly spent billions on the area — yet the signs of deprivation persist and New Labour is held in contempt, even by its own councillors.
‘The orthodoxy in Labour has been to create a “virtual party”,’ Mr Cruddas says. ‘It’s not based on real campaigns, real people or real communities. And that’s why it’s so dangerous: it’s part of the same political system where the leaders are interchangeable. They ruthlessly pursue the same voters, so they will obviously have the same policies.’
Yet, strikingly, he will not criticise the Prime Minister. ‘I have a benign take on Blair–Cameron.’ he says. ‘The system spits them out. The laws of electoral science push them into this sort of thing.’ He speaks as if they are the twin heads of a political beast, mincing around the Home Counties. ‘But if you build parties on hollowed-out virtual shells, if you have no political organisation on the ground, you create conditions for political extremism. That’s why the stakes are so high.’
But how high? Does he fear he will lose his seat? He visibly bites his tongue. Talking up the chances of the BNP is seen as a tactical err
or. When Margaret Hodge said at the last local elections that eight in ten of her white constituents in Barking would vote BNP, it was seen as giving the party publicity it could never have afforded. So if Mr Cruddas believes that Nick Griffin from the BNP may sit alongside George Galloway in the House of Commons, he does not say so specifically.
‘Let me put it this way,’ he says. ‘I would not underestimate the strength of what they’re tapping into. The alienation. The sense of disfranchisement, the social immobility and this feeling that the political classes have been completely removed from their day-to-day life experiences … the sense, I suppose, that no one is on their side.’ He thinks his team will defeat the BNP in Dagenham. ‘We’ll out-organise them. We have a real sense of mission here, a real camaraderie.’
Ironically, he says the BNP threat has focused minds and driven recruitment. ‘In a strange way, it helps rebuild the Labour party. People rejoin; the BNP reminds them why they were involved in the first place. People who had drifted away, frustrated with the party nationally, are coming back for local reasons. They make a mental separation between the national and local parties.’
To redeem itself, he believes, Labour must make a mental separation between prime minister and party and elect as its deputy a man whose main job will be outside the House of Commons. But is the party in the mood for such a move? ‘That’s the big question: whether it’s retrievable — the party, I mean,’ he says. ‘And I think it is. But it’s going to be the challenge for the new leader.’ And, he hopes, a new deputy.