Prominent left-wing Labour MP John Cruddas’s political beliefs were forged durng his working clas upbrining on the south coast. Adam Beardsmore reports.
Sporting a chunky gold necklace and speaking with a heavy trace of Pompey vernacular, Jon Cruddas MP does not immediately strike you as a leading political thinker.
The lifelong Pompey fan would not be out of place singing his heart out on the Fratton Park terraces - as he once did watching his hero Alan Biley bang in the goals.
But then the prominent Labour left-winger likes to define himself as very different from the stereotypical Westminster caricature.
He owns a Notting Hill home with his baroness wife, a renowned Labour activist, which suggests his life now is a world away from most ordinary people.
But he and his wife Anna, formerly Anna Healy, live with their son in Cruddas’ Dagenham and Rainham constituency, and he certainly feels his upbringing on the south coast gives him an appreciation of the lives of the working man or woman.
As we speak in Portcullis House, the vast glass structure which is home to MPs across the road from the Houses of Parliament, Cruddas becomes impassioned when talking about a ‘lost Britain’ and his own working-class roots.
‘As a country we embraced globalisation, but left people feeling isolated and vulnerable’, he remarks when asked about the current plight of working people.
‘We need to come up with a modern notion of nationhood and patriotism which embraces concepts such as defence, the Royal Navy, forests, ports – things that people identify with.
‘My father was a sailor and I’m very proud of his background, and when I think now we don’t even have an aircraft carrier.
‘This needs to be a story of modern patriotism and a sense of community, and such a narrative should resonate, particularly with the people of Portsmouth.’
He adds: ‘We have lost a sense of association and community, and that goes with how people are living. It should not be all about individualism and what you can get, but New Labour ended up like that. It embraced materialism too much, and we need to get away from that.
‘There was a strong element of community in my own upbringing and we looked out for one another. We would always have people, priests etc coming in for lunch. I think that sense of togetherness has been lost.’
Cruddas moved to Lee-on-the-Solent with his Irish immigrant mother, sailor father and four siblings at the age of 12, when his father got a job on HMS Daedalus.
His parents now live in Warsash, and he still has other friends and family in the wider Portsmouth area.
Growing up as a member of small but close-knit catholic community, Cruddas, along with his brothers and sisters, attended Oaklands Secondary School in Waterlooville.
During this time he gained a lifelong passion for Pompey, and though he doesn’t often get down to Fratton Park now he says he sees the Blues when they play in London.
‘Biley was my favourite player; I still remember the Fratton End back then, very different from now,’ he reminisces.
‘Supporting Pompey is a bit of a life sentence though!’
Cruddas admits he got a ‘good education’ at Oaklands and on leaving school took a gap year in Australia, before studying at the University of Warwick, then America, before returning to the UK to work for Labour.
An MP since 2001, Cruddas is well respected as a leading left-wing thinker in the party, and came third in the deputy leadership contest of 2007, purportedly after rejecting a job offer from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
He is now a backbencher who prefers to ‘say what I think’ and punch his weight from the sidelines rather than join the Shadow Cabinet.
Cruddas is also a leading advocate of Blue Labour, which some see as a return to the party aiming to attract its ‘core’ working class vote and is a rejection of the market-embracing New Labour years.
Cruddas himself initially served under Tony Blair as his government’s link to the trade unions. But he proved his willingness to stand against the parts of Blair’s policies with which he disagreed when he signed a 2006 letter calling for the recall of Parliament when the Labour government refused to demand Israel immediately cease bombing of Lebanon.
And he readily accepts New Labour ‘lost its way’.
Blue Labour, which includes a strong support for defence and concern over immigration, has been criticised by left-wing groups including the Socialist Party, which claims it is just as out-of-touch with the UK’s workers as the New Labour project.
And some believe Cruddas, whose left-wing credentials had never previously come under scrutiny, has shown his support for the new apporoach as a response to the 2010 General Election, which he won more narrowly than expected after a large swing towards the Tories and BNP.
The BNP candidate Michael Barnbrook finished third in the election, winning 4,592 votes, 11 per cent of the total, the second-highest vote recorded by the party.
But he has argued strongly that New Labour’s focus on ‘the progressive new’ led to ‘a dystopian, destructive neoliberalism, cut loose from the traditions and history of Labour.’
And he feels concepts such as equality and internationalism held his party back from addressing voters’ concerns, such as ignoring fears of low-paid workers about immigration.
He remains adamant Labour has to ‘find a new narrative’.
‘If you asked me what the Labour Party stands for today, I would find it quite difficult to say, so how do you think a member of the public feels?’ he says.
‘Labour is now very much in the early days of trying to shape a new story and discover a sense of purpose.
‘It’s going to be tough, we barely have any MPs in the south of England, but this is the challenge.’
Cruddas also believes that many become MPs ‘too early’ and have little life experience - he insists he was an ‘accidental’ MP who ‘when the music stopped was left doing it’.
He says the future of Labour does include ‘civilising force’ Ed Miliband as leader, despite voting for Ed’s brother David in the leadership contest of September 2010.
But for Cruddas, whoever is leader must discover a sense of purpose and direction for a party who many instinctively feel has left its core working-class vote – in Portsmouth and elsewhere – behind.