The Dignity of Labour by Jon Cruddas; published today by Polity Press, 216pp, £14.99 paperback
A SURPRISING feature of the Labour Party today is that its members and politicians seem to want to talk about anything other than small-l labour. The party is mired in identity politics to such an extent that its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, was recently required to repudiate a visit he had made to one of London’s largest churches catering to a largely black congregation in response to objections from the party’s gay lobby over the church’s Christian beliefs about homosexuality.
At the time of the 2019 general election, it was generally believed that Labour was more interested in the people of Gaza rather than Grimsby, the West Bank rather than Walsall North, and Hamas and Hezbollah rather than Heywood and Middleton, which probably explains why all of these seats are now Conservative.
Jon Cruddas’s own seat in Dagenham used to be one of the safest in the country, but as a result of boundary changes and population shifts he held off his Conservative challenger in December 2019 by just 269 votes.
His latest book, The Dignity of Labour, is an effort to create a coherent set of ideas about how the Labour Party could change the nature of work and also how work functions in society, especially one facing successive automation revolutions, the most recent being the much-heralded telecommuting, and the most-anticipated the advent of Artificial Intelligence. Cruddas engages with how work functions on a personal and emotional level as well.
The book has been written by a socialist and its intended audience appears to be other socialists. It is not mainly a polemic, but has a balance of historical survey, analysis, commentary, opinion and advocacy. It is not an ‘instant book’, based on Labour’s still-vital need for a fundamental policy review, but is instead based on papers submitted to a 2017 seminar run by an organisation related to the ‘Blue Labour’ tendency that tried, and failed, to stop the party turning away over at least the last decade from its traditional support in what is now called the ‘Red Wall’. Labour thought voters in these seats had nowhere else to go. The voters politely disagreed.
Cruddas tries to use as the overarching narrative of this work the change in employment in his seat of Dagenham, which for many decades was home to Ford’s largest factory in Britain, if not Europe. The importance of this workforce as part of the wider labour movement in Britain cannot be overstated. In the era of wage control in the 1970s, pay settlements at Dagenham were the yardstick by which other settlements in every workplace were measured. The 1978 17½ per cent rise in defiance of government pay guidelines helped trigger the ‘Winter of Discontent’ which ushered in Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister the following year.
Cruddas also focuses on two British films set in Dagenham, one in the 1960s and the other in the present day, to suggest how the working class has declined spiritually and morally. Where the stylishly-produced Made in Dagenham (2010) focuses on unity and solidarity, the bleak Fish Tank (2009) looks at disintegration and alienation.
Cruddas surveys how changes in government, policy and the economy have affected the labour market and the trades union movement, stating in the first chapter: ‘Writers pick and mix from available data to validate a personal and political worldview’, something he does on occasion himself. Thus while he regards the 1968 Donovan Report into trades unions and employers’ associations as pivotal in its recommendations, he omits to mention its failure to address the economy-crippling wildcat strikes which amounted to 95 per cent of stoppages at the time.
The book is highly academic in places, certainly when discussing the economics of labour; this is not a populist read, but a serious tome. There are 20 pages of notes. Being based on numerous papers of different styles makes it rather disjointed and Cruddas could have made more of an effort to weave the fate of Dagenham over the years into a narrative survey rather than bolting together disparate pieces of text written in different styles.
He promotes the concept of pluralism in industrial relations, where there is always struggle between what he regards as the competing interests of labour and capital. This probably explains why he is rather agnostic when detailing the various industrial disputes that plagued Ford and other companies in the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly he does not take the point of view of business owners, regarding them as seeking profit when in fact they might have been seeking survival. He takes a stab at explaining Marx’s theory of work and labour power, and this is an area where he could have used Ford’s Dagenham plant as a practical example. Instead he uses Marxist terminology which does not increase reader accessibility unless one is fairly well versed already. That he feels compelled to do this is due to his perception of a Marxist revival in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and also the refashioning of Marxism by some young commentators into a future of leisure as a result of almost full automation, something he refutes.
There is an argument made against a Universal Basic Income, as this is the antithesis of labour. Cruddas points out that the only argument for this is if all work is automated, when no previous automation revolution has ended the absolute need for human labour, but has merely altered work roles.
The thrust of the book is an attempt to make Labour reconnect with its original supporters in an age when vast numbers of regimented workers working in giant factories or offices at the behest of wealthy private business owners – essentially the reason why the Labour Party and unions first achieved prominence – no longer represents a large part of the workforce, if at all. This decline in large firms employing thousands probably explains why Labour has shifted its focus away from a once-dominant and heavily-unionised economic majority to ‘global urban networked youth’, as Cruddas describes them, and to minorities defined by ethnicity and sexual characteristics. Yet the descendants of this economic majority are still here and Labour still needs their votes. The party has yet to work out that if it always panders to minorities, it always ends up with a minority of the votes.
And this is the importance of Cruddas’s book. At the end, he presents a series of concrete proposals and polices concerning the individual’s place in the workplace, what he describes as a New Work Covenant, which is quite reasonable for Sir Keir Starmer to use as the basis for policy. While Labour did devote six pages of its 107-page 2019 election manifesto to work, the proposals were largely reactive or revisionary. There was no coherence to them, and they seemed to be just a way of coyly introducing Marxism to the British economy without using the M-word as part of what was blandly described as ‘transformative’ policies, because British voters are rightfully fearful of ‘revolutionary’ in any political sense, and certainly when used by Left-wingers.
So Cruddas concludes with what should be a blueprint for Starmerism. On the back cover, Sir Keir describes the book as an ‘essential read for anyone interested in how our movement can rebuild’. He could do worse than to use this as the centre of Labour’s policy offer, as it stands a good chance of being able to shift the policy agenda away from the government. It would allow Sir Keir to lead a party of labour again rather than endlessly exploiting the politics of identity and internationalism, a battleground on which the government has now started to park its tanks. If Sir Keir’s praise is just providing lip-service, he does so at his and his party’s peril.
Should a conservative, big- or small-c, buy and read this book? I would say that it is useful to read books which contain ideas and opinions with which there can be hearty disagreement: it helps a person understand what they stand for by showing what they stand against. There are numerous areas in this work with which I have profound issues, but reading it has been educative for me, and that is a value that can be derived whatever a person’s political persuasion.
Cruddas with this work deserves to be part of mainstream thinking in the Labour Party and his ideas, if adopted, cannot help but improve Labour’s still-faltering electoral chances, especially if Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide victory represents the high-water mark of the Conservative Party’s fortunes.