A photograph of Jon Cruddas MP speaking at a Policy Exchange event. Copyright is owned by the Policy Exchange and the image is shared with permission for use under creative commons.

Stepping down: Jon Cruddas MP has been heavily influenced by his work with the Industrial Relations Research Unit at WBS

As a Warwick student, Labour MP Jon Cruddas was in his own words “far more left wing, far more extreme” than he is today. “I was always involved in the Labour party – it was my team.” 

If he were starting out now, he would never go into politics. Today’s environment is too vicious, political debates too coarse and polarised, with social media amplifying the dog whistles of right-wing populism. 

It is one reason Jon has decided to stand down at the next General Election, after 23 years as a politician and a lifetime in politics. Another is that he has built a house in the west of Ireland and has at least a couple more books to write. 

“It’s been totally accidental,” he says of his decades at the heart of Labour policy and politics. “But very rewarding.” 

As an undergraduate, he was galvanised by the politically turbulent era of the early 1980s. 

“Margaret Thatcher was beginning to take on the unions, miners were striking, there was mass youth unemployment and an intense period of deindustrialisation. It was a lively time,” he recalls. 

When then Labour leader Michael Foot spoke to the University of Warwick’s student union during the 1983 election, Cruddas and his peers believed they were looking at the UK’s next prime minister.

“We were totally convinced victory was in sight,” he says. 

At the poll, the Conservatives famously went on to clinch their greatest post-war parliamentary majority. 

Laying career foundations with the University of Warwick

Cruddas grew up in Portsmouth. When he had finished with school he travelled to Australia where he spent a couple of formative years on building sites. 

This was where he developed his lifelong interest in labour market policy, became involved in trade unions, and was inspired to study management science as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, followed by a Master’s in industrial relations and a PhD. 

He passed on a couple of opportunities to go into academia, preferring instead to put theory into practice at the sharp end of policymaking. 

However, he has kept one foot in the academic world, and today sits on the advisory committee of the Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU) at Warwick Business School, which has heavily influenced his work. 

He unsuccessfully applied for a policy job at the UK's Trades Union Congress (TUC) – happily it turns out, as a rare vacancy came up in the Labour Party research department in 1989, which was a perfect fit. 

“I was fortunate – these jobs didn’t come up very often,” he says.

How the minimum wage changed the economic landscape

Within a year he was working closely with shadow employment spokesman Tony Blair. He later liaised between a newly elected Blair and trade unions after the 1997 Labour victory, switching between politics and policy in his early career. 

It wasn’t until 2001 that he joined the political coalface as MP for Dagenham in East London (now Dagenham and Rainham) and will step down at the election on July 4. 

One of his greatest policy contributions – alongside working towards trade union recognition and signing up to the European Union’s Social Chapter – was supporting the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999. 

“At the time the Conservative Party was very hostile – they said it would mean two million people unemployed,” he says. “Now it’s a settled piece of the economic landscape, I don’t think any Government will get rid of that.” 

When the Low Pay Commission was founded in 1997 to advise the UK Government on minimum wage levels, it was influenced by a strong Warwick tradition of bringing industry, unions and academics together 

“For 50 years, IRRU has had one foot in the academic world and one foot in public policymaking. That’s why Warwick – with its democratic tradition of analysis – has had such an enduring effect.”

Returning to the notion of 'good work'

With his book The Dignity of Labour in 2021, Cruddas sought to resurrect and rehabilitate the then unfashionable Warwick notion of ‘good work’ – the idea that organised labour and collective rights still have a key role in a corporate state and are key to individual dignity and a sense of control.   

“I wanted to dust this down and challenge some of the modern dynamics,” says the 62 year-old. “The gig economy is a classic example of a hyper-flexible, isolated labour market which comes with a huge downside in terms of our ability to lead fulfilling, rewarding lives. 

“There are wider questions around citizenship and how we should strive to allow people more control and flexibility around their own human labour. The idea that we are living to work rather than working to live seems to be a fundamental change of late.”

Key economic challenges facing a new Government

A future Labour Government will be forced into a substantial rethink about the operation of the labour market, he says, and could draw on the Warwick approach to industrial relations to tackle this and other industrial challenges facing the next UK leader. 

These include flatlining productivity, the growth of the gig economy, wage deflation, and a cost-of-living crisis.  

Jon’s new book A Century of Labour marks 100 years since the first Labour Government and defines the party’s history by examining three competing visions of how a just society might be organised. 

One tradition focuses on maximising human welfare – who gets what in terms of economic rewards.  

The second centres on maximising freedom or liberty – the liberal progressive tradition of the Labour party with an emphasis on human rights. 

And the third looks at human virtue – how we can flourish as ethical beings. These differing visions have always existed within the party, notes Jon. 

“Labour succeeds when it pulls these three together – that’s the basic argument.” 

Remembering these traditions is a political act, he says. The past can shine a light on contemporary challenges facing the left. 

Labour has spent just 33 years in power since Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Government first put the party in power before the Second World War and suffered many terrible defeats. 

“Without remembering, you forget who you are and what your purpose is,” says Cruddas. 

He has been outspoken about Keir Starmer’s leadership, stating that the Labour leader must anchor the party more firmly in its intellectual traditions and rediscover its moral purpose.

Political complacency after the fall of the Berlin Wall

One motivation for his new book is the political complacency that took root after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the year Jon began working for Labour. 

“There was a sense that progress was a given, that liberal democracy would dominate and the great ideological battles between left and right were over.”  

Jon has seen plenty of evidence to the contrary during his 21 years as an MP. 

He has confronted the rise of the far right in his home constituency and is keeping a weather eye on the rise of authoritarian populism and the global decline of social democracy.

Political lessons from history and academia

Political life, he reflects, can be relentless. “We’ve been out of power for 14 years; it’s been a bumpy ride.” 

But if day-to-day politics are for the new guard, he’s looking forward to sharing more lessons from the past by writing a history of Dagenham. He believes it would be “a brilliant way of looking at the history of the British working class in the last 100 years.” 

He also has a mind to write a history of Irish migration – his mother was Irish, his wife comes from the west of Ireland. 

At the same time, he’s keen to rejoin the academic debate around modern industrial relations, and maintain his links with the School's IRRU to drive the debate around work and employment.  

“I’m young enough to get out and do different things. I’m looking forward to it.”

Further reading:

UK General Election: How smiling can help leaders

How old is the argument for cuts in public spending?

Why industrial action is not always bad for employers