The Labour Party and the Future of Work I: Theory, Politics and Industrial Relations

Pierre Terre / Ford Works, 1973 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Frederick Harry Pitts: When Renewal asked me to interview you about your new book, The Dignity of Labour, my first thought was how to render comprehensible to readers what might seem a slightly incongruous combination of radical Marxist theory and reformist political conclusions. The best way to contextualise this mix, perhaps, is with reference to your own biography.

The book represents the result of an intellectual and political trajectory taking in union activism, Marxism, a PhD in value theory, Tony Blair’s ascendency in the nineties, a status as a leading light of the soft left in the period following the Iraq War, leading policy development under Ed Miliband’s leadership 2010s, and, following a post-mortem of the party’s defeat in 2015, being one of the rueful MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for a tilt at the leadership, under which you commenced the critical engagement with left thinking about the past, present and future of work represented in this book.

Could you say a little about this intellectual and political trajectory, and how it maps against the combination of critical and philosophical themes covered in The Dignity of Labour?

Jon Cruddas: It’s a big question. It’s partly driven by the Irish diaspora, we were sort of Irish, Catholic, Labour. A lot of my family left the West of Ireland for Australia, America, Canada, England. Working on the building sites I got a good education in the union movement as an activist in the Builders and Labourers Federation in Australia.

From there, I went to the University of Warwick, which had a very strong labour relations tradition, to do a degree, to which I subsequently added an MA and a PhD. The PhD tended toward more abstract concerns. It was the eighties.  There were a series of critical debates. State theory, for example, exchanges between Bob Jessop and Nicos Poulantzas. Labour Process Theory and debates around the nature of work in capitalist societies – before and after the miners’ strike. There was the fracturing of structuralism within the Marxist left, in part driven by Edward Thompson, a legend at Warwick. His criticism of Althusser in The Poverty of Theory remains a landmark intervention.

And mixed in with all of this was this enduring character of Thatcherism, which looked like it would govern for as long as it wanted. There were elements of the New Left that were in and out of Labour. The debates within the Communist Party between the eurocommunists and the more traditional wing actually drove a lot of the debates in Labour – culminating in New Labour.

For me, the most significant debates were in political economy and what we used to call value theory, especially around the journal Capital & Class. Of course, Marxism Today was profoundly significant – the role of Stuart Hall in particular. So there were these numerous theoretical, practical and political debates about the direction of Labour.

After we lost in 1987 I left the country and spent time at the University of Wisconsin where Erik Olin Wright taught a brilliant Marxism course. He had a very different approach, his book  Classes was a significant intervention. I linked into some of the debates and movements across the radical American left.

In terms of the actual political cross currents of the time. I was always in the Labour Party. I’d voted for and supported Benn. Later, Coventry politics had a very strong Militant tradition.

Those debates in and around the party intersected through the eighties. I very much supported the strategic intervention of Eric Hobsbawm. There is no equivalent to the Hobsbawm interventions today. For him the key idea was to support social democratic possibilities where they existed. So that created bridges between the more radical and revisionist left . Fast forward and this is precisely what is required today – compromise, pluralism and a sense of fraternity across the left. Without this the Tories are locked in for a couple of decades.

Back then it wasn’t the sort of rancid political culture you find today. It was much more creative, inquisitive more agile and theoretically grounded. There were all these debates with no real equivalent today. That’s why I quite welcomed a lot of the thinking around Corbyn, the avenues that were being pursued, excavating both a history of theory and political practice.

FHP: So, in the context of Corbynism, what inspired you to revisit some of these earlier debates and write The Dignity of Labour? How did it come together, and what are some of the currents and debates that it responds to on the contemporary left and right?

JC: There were three reasons for doing it – born of three intersecting crises. First the crisis of the left and in response the emergence of a new socialist imagination  around ‘luxury communism’, postcapitalism, the demand for automation and rejecting any notion of purposeful,  dignified work. Driven ideologically by the likes of Mario Tronti and Toni Negri, this new orthodoxy – self-described as the ‘post work’ left – emerged in the 1960s, initially inspired by the Turin car plants, underpinned by assumptions that the working class was dematerialising through technological change. As MP for Dagenham its reappearance today is obviously interesting to me.

Yet post-workerism’s whole theoretical approach is erected on the basis of a highly questionable pivot within Marxism. A technical pivot within value theory that totally redirects left politics in disastrous ways. Basically, through the emphasis on a few pages of Marx’s Grundrisse known as the ‘Fragment on Machine’– literally pages from his notebooks prior to Capital – these writers suggest Marx asserted that technological change would wither away the working class.

This upends the whole labour theory of value by suggesting value refers to concrete, private labour in production and that the forces of technology shrink this labour. It ignores the concept of abstract labour in Marxism, debates in value theory throughout the last forty years and the later corrections of Marx himself, all in order to suggest a utopian technological route to ‘post capitalism’. It amounts to futurology which – in a tragic feedback loop – falls prey to the worst forms of technological determinism – the dominance of the forces of production – which has disfigured the history of the left.

So, one of the reasons I wrote this book was to inspect this approach that asserts the working class is on the wrong side of history, that a radical new base for the left exists based around the networked youth in urban environments. This has obvious concrete political relevance for the left today in challenging the dominance of the right.

The second reason for the book was the role of modern authoritarian populism in upending liberal democracy and how this is linked to a populist backlash around liberal progressives disrespecting the work performed by many of their fellow citizens – a form of ‘meritocratic hubris’ to quote Michael Sandel. There is a need for the left to return to questions of ethics and justice in how we think of work, of what we value and reward. These questions of dignity and value have obviously been highlighted throughout the pandemic.

Third was the enduring productivity ‘puzzle’ we appear unable to diagnose and remedy. The word ‘puzzle’ is a benign, almost humorous, word to describe a modern crisis in work. We are unable to dissect it, I would argue, because the political class bought into – and still does – the idea of a Thatcher productivity ‘miracle’ built around labour deregulation. The notion of miracle suggests a religious experience under Thatcher which obviously leaves little resources left available beyond labelling this unique period since the crash as anything more substantial than a ‘puzzle’

So cumulatively these three crises all lead back to how we understand labour as an economic and social category and the need for the left to discover a new politics of work. So I therefore thought I would make an argument about the politics of work – not to make friends, and knowing full well that much of the Blairite and Corbynite flanks would recoil in horror, but rather to try and have a row and confront issues that are destroying a left politics rooted around a discernible labour interest.

FHP: Returning, again, to the backstory – the book draws upon your experience working for the Labour Party, and later 10 Downing Street, in the period spanning Kinnock, Smith and Blair, and charts the debates about industrial relations and industrial strategy that were live at the time. How did you make the move from the world of academic Marxism to Blair’s first term?

JC: I was coming back from America, and thought a retreat into academia would be a political  cop-out. I joined the Labour Party Research Department, as a vacancy had opened around labor relations. My job from late 1989 was on individual and collective labour law, employment rights, productivity, links with the unions and the like. That’s when the Kinnock policy review was beginning to develop. Michael Meacher got sacked as Shadow Secretary for Employment, and Tony Blair came in. I got to work with him a bit. At the time there was quite a debate around the history of British labor law, whether to embrace a European positive rights agenda, rejection of the closed shop and embrace of the Social Charter.

Then we had a major fallout with the unions around their constitutional relationship with the Party and One Member One Vote under John Smith. I was moved to the General Secretary’s office. Unfortunately, the first thing I had to do was help arrange the leadership election following the tragic death of John. I had worked with both Blair and Prescott before then and after 1997 became Blair’s Deputy Political Secretary dealing with minimum wage introduction, regulation of working time, trade union recognition, some of the European legislation and links with the TUC.

Throughout all of this the consistent themes are first the institutional labor relations issues that have bedevilled post-war public policy and the history of the party. Second, debates within Marxism, and its intersection with labour politics. And, third, wider debates about how Thatcher had reconfigured class politics in Britain, and the implications for the left. There is obviously an equivalent  today, in terms of how Johnson seeks  to reconfigure politics on the right , and what the Labour response is. Moreover, labour relations and work are once again centre stage and Marxism – or certain forms of Marxism – are once again fashionable.

FHP: Parking biography for a second and switching to some of theoretical ideas that carried you through that period, you have adopted an approach to the politics of work informed not only by Marxian value theory, but the pluralist tradition in British industrial relations. Grouped around the so-called ‘Oxford School’, this tradition saw conflict as an inevitable part of workplace life that can be managed and made productive, with antagonisms allowed to play out without enforced closure by employers or the state.

Rather than reconciliation being achieved outside the workplace in the market or in the  distributive policies of the state, for pluralist industrial relations reconciliation between competing class interests occurs at work. Struggles produce new compromises that cascade upwards politically. The recovering communists pivotal to post-war pluralism moved from a utopian orientation to a new realism in the wake of institutional collapse at the hands of fascism. This motivated a new emphasis on ‘establishing pluralist balance’ between competing social forces.

This, the book proposes, has much to offer our own time. How much of the book’s return to post-war industrial pluralism was inspired by the context of recent populist upheavals and the destabilisation of institutional life that they sparked? What can be learnt from pluralism today?

JC: In the book, I mention a tendency for a generational egotism described as ‘chronocentric’, where you view yourself as the first generation to really understand the gravity of the epic shifts that you see around you, and you’re the only ones that can interpret what’s going on. I prefer a different approach, which is to try and look back and learn through periods that might have a certain equivalence and provide insight.

There is a series of books that have come out recently. Lise Butler has written a political biography of Michael Young, reinvestigating the post-war communitarianism that Young advocated in the 1940s and 1950s, in Labour’s Research Department, reflected in the setting up of the Institute of Community Studies – now the Young Foundation – working through the Social Science Research Council. A series of institutional interventions to operationalize work within the social sciences, particularly sociology, within post-war social democracy. Butler suggests a rehabilitation of this tradition today. Marc Stears, in a similar way, has sought to rehabilitate a series of interwar cultural interventions, especially Orwell and Dylan Thomas, and emphasise their contemporary political significance.

Echoing these attempts to excavate history to shine a light on the challenges today, there is a tradition which is totally neglected, the Oxford School, filled with former Trotskyists and communists, formed from pre-Second World War experiences of confronting totalitarianism and fascism. They sought to civilize capitalism in the post-war era, specifically with what we would now know as the first iterations of economic stakeholder thinking, consolidating the working class into the regulation of the economy and building institutions to stabilize capitalism and establish genuine labour economic and democratic power with the extension of collective bargaining. An antagonistic pluralism. And you can see this influence continue right up to the establishment of the Low Pay Commission under New Labour.

I thought it was a timely opportunity to seek to rehabilitate that tradition, not least to diagnose modern authoritarian populism and the threats posed to liberal democracy, not just across the west, but across the world. How do we understand the threats to liberal democracy? And how can we build a more resilient civilized capitalism and return to some of these stakeholder models that could inform an approach going forward today?

Now this was deeply unfashionable, really, after the first year or two of the New Labour period and it’s disappeared from view aside from a brilliant biography of Allan Flanders by John Kelly, and Peter Ackers’s forthcoming biography of Hugh Clegg, another key figure in the school. I thought it was time to try and rehabilitate them for a number of reasons. As I said, this challenge of authoritarian populism. How are we going to deal with that? Analysts like Michael Sandel suggest that we need to reestablish a politics of work to stabilize liberal democracy. The second challenge is the modern crisis on the left in terms of who what we are. And I think this tradition could offer insights towards a new direction. Interestingly, it was described in the late 1940s by Flanders as the ‘third way’, some forty years before Tony Giddens and Tony Blair.

The other element is the enduring productivity crisis that we’re living through now. Productivity has flatlined since the economic crisis. Living standards, therefore, have continued to decline, because the cost of living has increased.

So we inhabit three different crises – the collapse of the left, the march of authoritarian populism and flatlining productivity. It seemed to me quite a timely moment to try and rehabilitate this tradition that tried to diagnose postwar productivity problems, the hangover of war and  authoritarianism and the crisis of the post-war left. They might have something to offer us today. And that’s what I tried to look at in the first half of the book. The second part is not just a question of economics, but also ethical principles within the history of socialism.

FHP: Returning to Blair, the book draws on direct experience of the transformation of an early kind of communitarian agenda after 1997 to one that you describe as a cold, brutal liberalism around 2005, tied up with the advance of globalization and the knowledge economy.

The book highlights in particular how the new ideas that we see today on the left carry resonances with the recent past, in particular in the formal affinities you draw between Blairism and contemporary ‘postcapitalist’ and ‘postwork’ thinking. What kind of continuities can we see in the development of the theoretical and intellectual context in the party between Blair and Corbyn? How did processing those shifts intellectually provide the kind of theoretical axes around which the book is structured?

JC: First, I’ll go through some of the reasons why the stakeholding Oxford School tradition was rejected within New Labour whilst also being detectable in some of the policy interventions, like trade union recognition laws and amongst the architects of the Low Pay Commission.

Gradually they got overtaken by other fashions, especially that employed by the Treasury, which thought tax credits were the remedy to the faltering disposable income of the working class rather than the extension of collective bargaining because of globalization raising the cost of labour in production, which priced people out of work. So the Treasury remained hostile to the types of work redesign and union organization we were proposing.

Second, since Jacques Delors addressed the TUC conference in the late eighties the labour movement increasingly favored European-wide regulation because of domestic weaknesses, and the assumption that Thatcherism wasn’t going to be beaten, so they exported, or subcontracted, issues to the European procedural level, and the courts, which remains an anathema, really, given the history of British labour law.

Thirdly, there was the issue of Blair himself, or some ideologues around him, which saw the solution to this dilemma of old and new Labour, and the question of union pressures in government, to rethink the role of the working class in history through recourse to technological change. And so the notion of new knowledge work became a very useful intellectual framework to disinvent the working class, both in terms of policy and political campaigning in Middle England. They asserted through a series of intellectual assumptions that these issues belonged to a previous era before New Labour. We could assume the working class was withering away.

Labour regulation issues were seen as belonging to a different era of Red Robbo and Dagenham militants. There was a lot of literature around this that suggested the working class would be increasingly irrelevant for modern workplaces and efficient production technologies. This is what is repeated in some of the modern debates today about the working class dematerializing.

This has re-emerged today within a fashionable literature self-identified as post-workerist, the result of iterations in autonomous left thinking over the last fifty years. There’s a similar character to those debates today to some of the debates in and around New Labour and the idea that a knowledge-based economy and technological change could get you out of the dilemma of politically representing or trying to remedy some of the problems associated with the industrial working class, a kind of get-out-of-jail card through technology. With one technological bound the left is free from this disagreeable working class. I just see history repeating itself from Blair to Corbyn. As I say I am not going to make many friends here!

FHP: Criticising the left’s tendency towards a blind faith in economic rationality and determinism, the book suggests that Blairism and contemporary postcapitalist thinking make unlikely bedfellows in their shared focus on technological shifts, which takes the onus off a serious engagement with the politics and regulation of work. An assumption of economic rationality in how and why firms implement new technology which was present in New Labour thinking about the ‘new economy’ is now reflected in current left discourse about automation. This, you argue, misses that productivity is actually at historically unprecedented lows rather than the kind of highs that will bring about the substantial social and economic transformation some optimists perceive technology offering.

The book uses insights from Labour Process Theory to argue that productivity is not predetermined, and cannot be left to technological and economic forces alone. Human labour being creative and thus intrinsically indeterminate, it must be brought under control at the level of social relations through organisation and regulation. This has political consequences, because just as New Labour sowed seeds for today’s malaise by assuming economic rationality alone was sufficient to maintain its present voting blocs, whether aspirational ‘middle England’ in the noughties or later, under Miliband, the ‘squeezed middle’ of the 2010s, some elements of Corbynism also assumed that the arc of productivity trends and technological and economic development bent favourably in their direction and it was simply a question of social relations shifting in response.

On paper, the two – Blairism and Corbynism – seem distant and some would question their proximity. Do you see a shared Marxist basis underpinning the kind of economic and technological determinism that you see characterising Blairism and contemporary strands of left thought in and around the Labour Party? Was there a legacy of orthodox Marxism within Blairism that might help explain this resonance?

JC: Absolutely. There was an awful lot of ex-Trotskyists, alongside survivors from some of the Communist Party debates in the eighties, who re-emerged in the era of New Labour, stepped up ideologically to reinvent the future, just like we’re reinventing the future today. And demanding automation as a way of shrinking the working class in terms of its political agency and its industrial significance. And that’s again also reappearing today, with people who claim allegiance to a Marxist left. It’s no coincidence.

Now I would say an allegiance to a Marxist left not the Marxist left because there are other traditions, possibly more rigorous ones, and approaches to politics which would provide a corrective to some of these technologist routes out of capitalism deployed by both Blair and elements of Corbynism. Even though I’m not sure Corbyn himself was that interested, it’s definitely the case that some of the more innovative, fashionable elements of the ‘post-work’ left had a significant input in and around Corbynism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think these contributions are fascinating, as they were around Blair in the mid-nineties to the early noughties. I just think they relied too much on orthodox Marxist interpretations of political economy, which shares too much in common with Ricardo rather than the Marx of Capital. And they use highly selectively elements within the history of Marxism to justify this technologist route out of capitalism, to the neglect of issues of day-to-day political and economic struggle, and also the neglect of the workplace itself.

So, cumulatively, it creates a political strategy, at odds with the one that I would favor, which is more day-to-day, more democratic, more devolved, with a greater emphasis on fraternity and the character of work as a contested terrain. Because the danger of all of this is that it writes off work, whereas I was always taught and experienced the employment relationship to be the absolute anchor of a socialist politics, as the prime site for political activity. The politics and economics of work are central concerns within classical political economy, Marxism and neoclassical theory – the three approaches that have dominated the last 300 years.

FHP: Your reading of Marx’s value theory, dating back to your doctoral research, is in the lineage of unorthodox approaches that stress the category of abstract labour and the centrality of monetary exchange as decisive and pathbreaking elements of his critique of political economy. This strand of value-theoretical Marxism typically casts doubt on the inevitability of capitalism’s contradictions and crises leading to a final collapse, places no faith in any proletarian revolutionary subject or the teleological positivity of revolution, and does not tend to see the capture of the valorisation process by the state as presenting an emancipatory alternative to capitalism.

But at the same time as calling into question the cold, dead hands of orthodox Marxism, such revisionist readings of Marx’s critique of political economy also pose a challenge to social democratic strategies of constructing electoral coalitions in order to seek piecemeal reforms through a labour movement acting in and with a state that is intertwined with the continued ‘valorisation of value’.

As far as I see it, this impasse leaves the question of “praxis” generously unresolved, opening paths outside and beyond the failures and tragedies of applied Marxism. But this lack of theoretical closure can have either debilitating or liberating practical and political implications. On one count, it could be seen as comprehensively foreclosing day-to-day modes of engaging in politics owing to the impossibility of the transformations such an analysis implies. But, in identifying the incapacity of prevailing modes of radical politics to generate those transformations, the critique of political economy could equally be seen as justifying more limited repertoires of political coalition-building and reformism that strike an accommodation with existing electoral and institutional realities in the name of better work, greater dignity and so on, within the context of the present system.

How do you, then, in the book, reconcile the radical and negative conclusions of Marx’s value theory, which underpin the analysis of economic life you present, with the social democratic programme of electoral politics and piecemeal reform its practical recommendations propose?

JC: When Marx considered production, he was not primarily interested in the private, concrete dimensions of human labour but rather the social relations within which production takes place and the socio-historic representation of these relations. Without an appreciation of abstract labour it is difficult to qualitatively separate out Marxism from the rest of political economy with their concerns for embodied labour. Consequently you can assert revolutionary immanence because of declining embodied labour in commodities through the effects of automation, and therefore project a utopian transition out of capitalism altogether.

At a stroke politics is simplified, the case for a politics that acknowledges the need for compromise and coalition and a path through social democracy withers. A technological conception of history questions the purpose of any parliamentary political path. Political purity is retained; a necessary ingredient given the performative character of modern politics within personal echo chambers. It is almost as if the terms of modern debate demand that any embrace of Marxism be at the expense of complexity and without any element of struggle, or the possibility of failure or defeat. And that is what has been supplied – a feelgood Marxism served up for the advancing brahmin.

That is why I return again to the role of Hobsbawm. Rather that supply us with Marxist Prozac he sought to support social democratic movements and the difficult tasks of gaining and retaining power, the need for pluralism and coalition, the notion of politics as sacrifice rather than performance. You have to grind it out, it is tough, due to the social relations that shape capitalism captured by the idea of abstract labour. There is a quote by David Harvey that I use in the book where he says ‘I can’t look at any discussion of technological change and imagine it’s got some kind of socialist utopia attached to it, as you know some of these people writing these days do’ and I very much agree. Politics is tough, unrewarding and more often than not a story of defeat and dispossession.

Monday 10th May 2021

Jon Cruddas is Labour Member of Parliament for Dagenham and Rainham

Frederick Harry Pitts is Lecturer in Work, Employment, Organisation & Public Policy, University of Bristol