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.