Dr Paul Williams (R) congratulates Jill Mortimer after he loses the Hartlepool Parliamentary By-election. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

Hartlepool and the dignity of Labour

After losing Hartlepool to the Conservatives, the Labour Party would do well to take heed of Jon Cruddas’s new book

Books Portcullis

Labour’s crushing defeat in Hartlepool this morning makes Jon Cruddas’s point for him: unless the Labour Party refocuses its politics on the workplace, and starts campaigning in earnest for dignity at work, the party that used to represent the working class faces extinction.

When a group of Communists burst into the theatre where Bertold Brecht, the radical German dramatist was working, telling him that the Revolution had started and to come and join them, he apparently shouted at them, “For God’s sake! Can’t you see I’m rehearsing a play?”

That story always reminds me of Jon Cruddas, an MP at the intellectual end of the think/fight spectrum of politics. Political parties and movements need thinkers as much as they need fighters, and the Labour party, while blessed with vast numbers of people willing to give their opinions on why it’s on its knees, is short on people with ideas on how to help Labour get up and walk again.

Cruddas’s new book, The Dignity of Labour, tells the Party to get back to its founding principles and rebuild around the politics of work. His argument is put into a historical context charting the evolution of today’s Labour party through its thinkers and movements from Marx to neo-classical theory and the Oxford School which makes the language more university tutorial than supermarket queue conversation, but don’t let that put you off.

The Dignity of Labour by Jon Cruddas (Polity Press, 2021)

While Cruddas believes that work is good, his point is that not all work is good work. Having seen for himself the scourge that comes from mass unemployment when the Ford factory in his Dagenham constituency closed its doors, he understands that work is a “source of dignity and its loss humiliating.” But, he says, while “work can be a vocation, a calling… which provides identity and belonging,” it can also be degrading.

He writes at length about the unenjoyable jobs at the bottom of the hour-glass economy where people lack flexibility, agency and security. This matters because work “shapes our lives between leaving education and retiring.” It determines how we subsist, our self-worth and how we regard others.

This is why Cruddas believes “the dignity of labour” should be the central focus of the Labour party – to empower people at work but crucially to allow them to make the case for good work themselves.

This is a really important point and explains why, although this is such a positive and constructive book, he dedicates quite a chunk of it to blaming Tony Blair for the plight of today’s Labour party.

In the history section of the book, Cruddas describes a political seesaw: Labour gives power to trade unions who use it to improve pay, increase holidays and reduce hours. Eventually, strikes and inflation tip the seesaw and a Conservative government disempowers workers until Labour returns to office again. Up and down it went – until Blair broke the seesaw.

Cruddas understands why Blair did it – he was one of Blair’s close advisers in his first term as Prime Minister, after all. Both of them had grown up under eighteen years of Conservative rule when whole manufacturing industries disappeared forever. Why then would you give more powers to workforces whose jobs were obsolete?

Instead, Cruddas says, Blair focused on getting people trained for the knowledge economy which he saw growing in place of manufacturing, and instead of more rights for workers, he emphasised partnership between industry and trade unions.

But the final insult for Cruddas came with tax credits, or “remedial cash transfers” as he calls them. These in-work welfare supplements boosted stagnant incomes when what Blair’s government should have done was give workers the powers to negotiate better pay and conditions for themselves.

It’s this disempowerment of people at work that so angers Cruddas – a situation only made worse when Blair signed up to the European Social Chapter where rights and directives were not fought for and won by workers themselves but sprinkled on them from above by a “soulless managerialism” on whom they had no influence.

Instead of ensuring the dignity of work in the rapidly developing gig economy, Blair’s focus was on pushing 50 percent of school leavers into university to service the knowledge economy of the future. But, says Cruddas, by 2010 only around 20 percent of jobs needed graduate or post-graduate qualifications. The other 80 percent did not – and that was where the trouble started.

Universal benefits, Cruddas believes, are the opposite of dignifying

The fact that policies were so clearly channelled at the university-educated 20 per cent only emphasised the disdain the Labour party, which once represented them, had for the working class. It reinforced what they knew already – that the Labour party had left them behind. This was at a time when it was generally assumed in Labour circles that the working class had nowhere else to go. But that was then.

Cruddas’s biggest concern is that unless the Labour party returns to its roots and empowers people at work, Boris Johnson and his re-cast Conservative party will not just steal a march but will displace Labour altogether. It happened in the Red Wall in the 2019 general election and the latest results show that it’s only getting worse.

The nature of work has changed, but while technology and automation have created a different kind of gig-working class, degrading work is still out there – and the fight for empowerment still matters. Instead, though, “The fashionable left response is to head entirely in the opposite direction and replace a politics of work with the case for maximum welfare through UBI.” Universal benefits, he believes, are the opposite of dignifying.

Beyond the disempowerment of people at work, there is a final accusation that Cruddas lays at Blair’s door. He changed the way the Party sees voters. To understand Blair, Cruddas says, we must first understand Schumpeter’s dictum that the core of democracy lies in the “competitive struggle for the people’s vote”, much like a marketplace in which “votes are the form of exchange, policies the commodities and elected office the derived profit.”

Unions shouldn’t have to wait for a sympathetic Labour government to give them rights and powers

In other words, Labour no longer sees itself coming from the voters it wants to represent with ideas about how to bring dignity back to work, but rather tries to sell policies as retail offers in return for votes. This certainly rings true when you hear the Labour party today ask the question: “What do we have to do to win back the Red Wall?” when really it should be asking itself why it wants to represent the working-class voters who live there.

Although I agree completely with Cruddas’s analysis and his proposals for Labour’s salvation, I think he lets trade unions off too lightly. They are, after all, the people who ought to give workers a voice. They shouldn’t have to wait for a sympathetic Labour government to give them rights and powers. They should make the case themselves – and they too should find better ways of representing gig economy workers than just berate governments for not doing so.

Over a hundred years ago, the trade unions gave birth to the Labour Party to represent workers in Parliament. Today, though, both are fighting for relevance and if they want to survive, they need to rediscover their zeal to empower labour.

Cruddas may be a thinker, but this book is summoning the whole Labour movement to a fight.

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