books politics

The Dignity of Labour, by John Cruddas

I don’t normally read books by politicians. I don’t see the world and its problems on a left/right spectrum, and so books that take that for granted and only speak to one side get on my nerves. But I am interested in good work, and so I made an exception for this one.

Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, a post-industrial region just to the east of London that’s played an important role in labour history in Britain. It used to have Europe’s largest car factory, and disputes between Ford and its workers have shaped political decisions nationally at times.

For Cruddas, his constituency demonstrates two competing and co-existing visions of the working class. On the one hand there are connotations of workless entitlement and decline. On the other you have skilled manual work and the pride of being part of vital industries. This latter vision is of course the birthplace of the Labour party, but Cruddas argues that the party has become increasingly disconnected from those roots. Unions were devalued under Thatcher, then industrial jobs were further marginalised under the globalisation of the Blair government.

They now risk a further devaluation from automation, and Cruddas is concerned that trendy young socialists don’t see industrial jobs as worth fighting for. They may even see solutions in robots and a basic income – taken to its extremes by Aaron Bastani in his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

What these post-work fantasies miss is the role that rewarding work plays in creating community and personal identity: “secure work that offers autonomy can help citizens flourish.” Good jobs are something that people build a life around, and this is something that is well understood in places like Dagenham. Ignoring labour concerns, or dreaming of utopias beyond work, strips industrial regions of their identity and purpose. That leaves those places open to more radical and divisive politics.

“Instead” says Cruddas, “we might wish to organise a society that seeks to create and reward good work and challenge its degraded form and the alienation that comes from it.”

This is a political challenge to the Labour party, first and foremost. A lot of the author’s recommendations read like a to-do list for “a future Labour government”, but of course good ideas can be painted in more than one political colour. I was interested to see workplace democracy described as a ‘big idea’ for future politics, as it’s a theme in my book The Economics of Arrival, a way to improve people’s lives without needing extra consumption.

There are some really useful sections of the book that look into what makes good work, and by contrast, what makes it boring and unrewarding, or exploitative. There are also long sections on the history of unions, tracing the lineage of ideas back through stratified layers of theory in ways that felt like more of a trudge. I also think Cruddas throws the basic income baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that it means “a life without purposeful work”. Only the most extreme and unrealistic visions of UBI imagine it replacing work altogether (the clue is in the ‘basic’).

One particularly valuable aspect of the book is the way it seeks to “bend the conversation through Dagenham”, always coming back to real people and their everyday lives and concerns. Substitute Vauxhall for Ford, and a lot of the issues in Dagenham resonate for me as a voter in the similarly post-industrial car town of Luton.

Overall, The Dignity of Labour asks vital questions and explores policies that would make a difference to millions of people. That makes it an important book, though one that only attempts to speak to a particular section of the country.

4 comments

  1. Have not read the book, but it strikes a chord for me – I do have on my bookshelves Richard Sennett’s ‘The Craftsman’; Matthew Crawford’s ‘Shopclass as Soulcraft’; and Michael Sandel’s ‘The Tyranny of Merit’. I identify as coming from a family of journeyman maintenance fitters – my father was apprenticed in the Glasgow shipyards – and I married into a Sheffield family of (now ex-) steel workers – I myself was a highly skilled IT programmer and maintenance technician.
    It continuously dismays me that so-called well-educated liberals (and often labour voters) that I know just don’t ‘get’ the problem of UBI – for me UBI would only work alongside JGS (Job Guarantee Scheme) – where the jobs must be ‘dignified’ – not trivial make-work. If UBI enables exploitative companies to get away even more with demeaning work, then it will fail since “a life without purposeful work” could become the norm for so many. They seem to just not understand what the ‘dignity of labour’ is. They also all too often don’t understand the nature of ‘skill’, a vital component of dignified work.
    BUT – I feel such books need to speak to ALL sections of society – for every one of us relies on the work of others, as we have to some extent discovered through the pandemic. Just what sort of relationship do we have with the care worker and the delivery driver and the shop worker and so on, without whom our lives could not function? It is imperative that we understand just what the dignity of labour is and think twice about using Amazon and Deliveroo and Uber and all the others that actively seek to demean and de-skill those unfortunate enough to work for them.
    btw, I was very impressed with Rowan William’s review of the book in The New Statesman alongside Robert Putnam’s new co-authored book (https://www.newstatesman.com/dignity-labour-jon-cruddas-upswing-robert-putnam-review).

    1. Thank you Gordon, that’s a useful perspective. There is a risk at the moment that UBI is being discussed without the participation of working people, which straight away makes it a liberal elite idea. It won’t ever get political traction without a broader support base, so those that are serious about it should be thinking more about how a UBI can support rewarding work, not make it obsolete.

      Thanks for the links to Williams’ review, I’ll go and read that now.

      1. Yes, talking about UBI as an opportunity to take up a craft, or play a musical instrument is elitist nonsense. What UBI could do is enable ordinary workers to thumb their noses at the likes of Amazon because they can be guaranteed a job elsewhere. Such guarantees could be provided if we had public utilities again (and Amazon paid proper taxes of course) – my brother’s apprenticeship was with the South of Scotland Electricity Board back in the mid 1970s.
        An abiding memory of mine is on holiday in New York City back in 2004 travelling on the bus and seeing an advert from the New York MTA (Metropolitan Transport Authority) for mechanic apprenticeships at their bus depots. The last thing I expected to see in that bastion of free market capitalism. However, I read that the New York MTA programme is under threat of closure, though Biden’s massive stimulus programme may save it: https://www.thecity.nyc/work/2021/3/10/22322152/mta-reverses-course-worker-apprenticeships-nyc-bus. TfL (Transport for London) also offers apprenticeships, but does TfL get government support for their programme? Public utilities could set the benchmark (as they so often used to) for proper highly skilled dignified jobs.
        It seems to me that we are at a crossroads – either the continuing downward spiral of inequality and degradation for so many whilst the liberal elite continue to cream it, or the possibility of an upward spiral that would see the likes of Amazon needing to change to provide dignified work – and charging their customers more to pay for proper wages and training – because otherwise no one would ever want to or need to work for them.

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