interview with jon cruddas mp
CSM Volunteer, Jayne Buchanan talks to the prominent Labour MP Jon Cruddas about Christianity, the Labour Party and the future of British politics. Edited by Ed Thornton.
Do you think there are moral areas we need to communicate better in the next election, and in the party?
We need to return to the basic issues of what is it to be human. I’ve listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury a few times recently talk about virtue in the public sphere and moral capitalism. There is a different language which goes back to more fundamental issues of why we’re involved in the political world, what we’re trying to do and constrain in terms of the excesses of capitalism – and the excesses of liberalism in terms of neoliberal economics. It returns to debates within the Labour Party that occurred in the back end of the 19th century between liberalism and ethical socialism.
Do you think Christianity and politics shouldn’t mix?
No, I do! Someone said to me recently, the problem with Labour is that it used to be religious and civic and it’s now secular and statist – and I think there’s something to that. Labour at its best was pluralistic. You had different classes, different faith traditions, different philosophical traditions, and the policy programmes were the resolution or the reckoning of those different traditions. Now you have a hollowed-out party which is about retaining power. There’s no policy architecture or infrastructure to provide a reckoning from different groups within it.
We need to return to our history, in terms of rebuilding that pluralism, rebuilding space where different traditions can rebuild and articulate their different propositions, and these can be resolved and respected in a tolerant manner, and a different policy agenda can be developed accordingly.
How do we get back into the social justice agenda?
It’s not about initiatives, it’s a much more fundamental issue about philosophical coherence in terms of why you’re here and what you want to redress. And actually, this crisis creates huge opportunities philosophically for us to change and renew. But I don’t see a lot of evidence that we’re going to do that.
Have you ever felt marginalised from the party because of the secularist agenda?
I ran for the deputy leadership a couple of years ago and it became a big issue that I was a Catholic. It became quite shrill and sour, almost to the stage where in a couple of instances it was almost that the next step was to question the validity of someone of a religious disposition having a place in the public domain. There’s a tendency that that’s where we’re getting to, and I think that’s really, really dangerous. And what I don’t understand is the certainty of it all – where certain extreme secular positions, it seems to me, have all the hallmarks of the religious fanaticism that they criticise. Because it’s all so certain, there’s no room for complexity, and there’s nothing transcendent about it. It’s just totally emptied and there’s no self-awareness attached to it, in terms of the remarkable complexity of the world.
How can we continue to encourage young people of faith to get involved? Is it possible?
Yes, absolutely. My sense is that the most challenging element to market fundamentalism – or what I would describe as neoliberalism – is a very specific, atomised view of the human being. Those movements that challenge this the most are faith-based ones.
Looking to the future, what is the key ideological change or the key ethic we need to take up?
Well I think it’s very fundamental. RH Tawney wrote an essay in 1932: The Choice Facing Labour. It was three years after the crash and he talked about how we must confront neo-classical economics – but I would say neoliberalism now – and return to basic ethics of what people are about and the need for us to build responsive institutions that nurture solidarity and fraternity, and cohesive communities, based on a principle of what people are at their best, which are humans, not the Leviathan of Hobbes.
It’s interesting that those debates are occurring more on the right than the left now, and that is a real worry to me. That’s why CSM is so interesting. I always shied away from it because it became a bit of a fashionable thing when Blair became leader, for all of the Labour MPs to sign up – a bit of a bandwagon. But it does interest me now, because of that whole question of rebuilding a pluralist Labour Party, and trying to resist that rabid secular certainty that is around.
What sort of message would you give to people in CSM?
I think CSM has got a massive part to play in the future of the Labour Party, but more broadly as a transmission port between different movement politics and party structures. The CSM does occupy that scene within a party, where people can link into it. And the biggest movements in my constituency are not formal political movements, they are faith-based communities. That’s partly because it’s London, partly because of patterns of migration. But it is also revealing, I think, of the period of major change, that people return again to questions of meaning and authenticity and ethics to make sense of the world.
I think you need to go back to major political and constitutional change in order to allow different movements greater access to the body politic – because at the moment it’s just dominated by the focus group, which is quite a desiccated politics really. Take the Labour Party manifesto of 2005: your family better off, your family greater access to the healthcare. It was your, your, your. One Cabinet minister once said, when asked what Labour was about, it was so that more people could earn and own. Well I don’t think people share that. They want a much wider conception of the society they live in, in terms of the family and the community. Faith-based traditions teach you that, in terms of a sense of obligation.
How does being a Catholic influence you in your politics and your life?
Well, in our family the political heroes weren’t Gaitskell or Bevan. They were the Kennedys because they were Irish, there was Oscar Romero because liberation theology was quite a big thing, and Pope John. So I joined the Labour Party, my brother joined the Carmelites. The Labour Party always seemed to me to be a rational, natural element within some of those things we were brought up to believe in. It was as simple as that.
My family was part of the Diaspora, they were all over the world, and again that returned to certain issues of solidarity. So there was always that seamless thing between faith and political agency, and union activity as well, forged out of the politics of Irish immigration. So it’s really difficult to disentangle it all, because it all came as a job lot. And when I did a PhD in philosophy, I was interested in different variants of neo-Marxism and socialism that tried to reconcile, like they did in Latin America, different forms of faith-based and ethical socialist traditions. I think that’s the task at hand now. And as we see a crisis of a specific type of economics, that creates huge opportunities to return to some of these issues.