In the middle of last year, James Purnell almost brought down Gordon Brown.
His resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary and his call for Brown “to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election” precipitated the nearest thing to a coup that Brown has faced.
I was in London at the time of Open Left’s launch, and was struck by the fact that at 39 (about the same age as me) Purnell had already worked for a thinktank (ippr), as a Downing Street staffer, and begun and finished a career as a senior Cabinet minister. Now he was off to rethink the progressive movement!
(New Zealand seems quite stately by comparison — here even a politician like Labour MP Grant Robertson can hope for a successful political career, despite being such a late-comer to Parliament!)
When I saw Purnell on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, though, I wasn’t that impressed. He seemed on the back foot, and his call for a focus on pursuing “equality of capability” came across as either incoherent or a way to avoid a commitment to any real redistributive agenda. I wasn’t alone; there were a lot of negative responses.
So, while I was intrigued by the promise of Open Left, when I came across a podcast of Purnell’s lecture at the London School of Economics (LSE) entitled Renewing the Left’s ideology: what should be the principles and goals of the centre-Left today?, I didn’t have high hopes.
My mistake – it’s an impressive presentation. Some of the themes are familiar from Newsnight, but not only does Purnell have the scope here to do justice to his borrowings from Richard Tawney and Amartya Sen, he has also learnt from previous missteps and thought carefully about how best to communicate his ideas in crisp and direct terms:
I think a better way of translating [Sen's] ideas is to talk about power. His idea of capability is what most people would understand as having the power to do or be something. His idea of a functioning would be what people actually decide to do with that power.
There follows a rich and inter-connected argument about the need for balance between the state, market and society:
. . . we need to create the conditions for people to take power and for society to be reciprocal . . . With state, society and markets in balance, each is less likely to crowd the other out and then, and only then, can people flourish.
I want to just pick up on a particular strand of this, which is the discussion of a particular way in which things have got out of balance:
If you believe in open markets but are not prepared to tolerate that injustice, you also need a strong state to alleviate the consequences of the market. That is the story of New Labour – trying to harness the best of markets, then correcting their failures through the state.
The consequence of these good intentions is that the state has been too strong in respect of society, and not strong enough in respect of markets. Our unwillingness to be more hands on with the market has required us to be too hands on with the state.
Some of the most interesting points come up in the question and answer segment. However, while the LSE has helpfully provided a transcript of Purnell’s speech, which is a valuable reference, this segment is only found on the audio.
In reply to one question [at 47.19 minutes], Purnell talks about how New Labour fell into this imbalance:
I’d say we came into power actually with a quite bold set of reforms for restructuring market power: trade union legislation, the minimum wage most obviously, four weeks paid leave. But we didn’t actually renew that. So we came in with good democratic reforms, good market reforms, but over time we came to rely more and more on public services and redistribution. And that’s I think because of this point that we became hands off with the market and therefore we had to be too hands on with the state . . . You end up having to put very, very much more pressure on the state and I would say that can be self-defeating.
Purnell traces this [at 103:01 minutes] back to :
. . . what happened to Labour after 1945, that we were sort of the victims of our own success. The creation of the welfare state was so successful, in practice and also in politics, that actually we forgot the other things that we had, and we became to a certain extent sceptical of them . . . Certainly the ‘97 [Blair] government became pretty reluctant to alter market outcomes. It wasn’t impossible, but the starting point was the market outcome, and you then had to prove the case against it. And certainly became less confident about how you could use society to achieve those changes.
(Note the parallels with Kay’s critique of New Labour’s reliance on the ‘market failure doctrine’.)
Against this Purnell argues [102:21]:
. . . that we should recapture that Croslandite idea that inequality is clearly something that undermines people’s ability to be powerful, and our society to be reciprocal . . . but also that, in trying to achieve that, we should not try and do it all through the state nor do it all to people. . . . People can’t just be passively equal, . . . you can’t just do it through redistribution. People have to take their own power if it’s to actually feel real to them and feel just to everybody else.
There’s some really fascinating ideas there (and others I haven’t even touched on here). I’d encourage everybody to read, or listen to, this lecture for themselves. I’m particularly interested by the tension it highlights between redistribution after the fact on the one hand, and intervening to alter the initial market outcomes on the other. In Thursday’s post [published 6 May] I’ll explore how that relates to the New Zealand experience.
In the meantime, what do you think of James Purnell has to say in this lecture, and about the whole Open Left project?
Note – the ideas in Purnell’s lecture are explored further in the Open Left/Demos publication We mean power: ideas for the future of the left.