Does James Purnell have any policies?

His Newsnight interview revealed an emperor with no clothes on

How many of you saw James Purnell's cringe-inducing performance on Newsnight on Monday night? He spent the first few minutes of the live interview repeatedly rebuking Kirsty Wark for focusing her questions on his resignation from the Cabinet and not on issues of substance. But when Wark finally got round to asking him which specific policies he would advocate Labour adopting to avoid "annihilation" (her word, not mine) at the next election, this was his answer:

"I think what we need to do is to renew ourselves and I think that goes through idealism. I think it goes through going back to our basic principles and articulating them for today."

Sorry, what on earth does that mean? And why does this man think he can launch a philosophical debate about the future of the left on the basis of such vague and dubious generalisations? In fact, this statement from Purnell is so meaningless, so pointless, so hollow and empty, that I would argue a whole host of figures on the left - from Gordon Brown to Tony Benn to Hugo Chavez - and perhaps even a few on the right, could easily sign up to it. So what purpose does it serve?

Where, I wondered, as I watched the interview, were his policies? What did he think should be done about Trident? Or ID cards? Spending cuts? Perhaps I nodded off on my couch, but I don't remember hearing Purnell outline a single policy or proposal that he believed would help Labour avoid the electoral defeat next year that Wark referred to in her original question.

Should I be surprised? He may be clever but James Purnell is, by no stretch of the imagination, a public intellectual, or Labour's 21st century Antony Crosland - no matter what his supporters in the press might claim. I'm not normally someone who agrees with Rod Liddle, but I couldn't help but nod furiously as I read the former Today Programme editor's description of the former Work and Pensions Secretary in a recent Speccie piece:

"He is a public school-educated monkey whose career, prior to him becoming a useless MP, comprised various vapid and pointless media consultancy positions, culminating in him being appointed to the job of lickspittle to the BBC's worst-ever director-general, John Birt, in the BBC's most useless and counter-productive and overpaid department, corporate affairs. Later, as an MP, he was the most avid supporter of Lord Hutton's whitewashed inquiry into the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly, and the most vociferous critic of his previous employers, the BBC."

To be fair to Purnell, the problem is not him. The problem is that it is now fashionable for ambitious young politicians on the left and centre-left to engage in pompous, pretentious, highfalutin rhetoric about choice, diversity, opportunity, equality and other high-minded principles at the expense of proper discussions about practical policies.

The latest buzzword is "capability", as in Amartya Sen's "equality of capabilities" - cited by, among others, Purnell in the Newsnight interview, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and numerous other New Labour figures. It sounds fantastically deep and noble - and comes with a Nobel Laureate attached to it! - but as the Fabians' Sunder Katwala points out, what happened to old-fashioned equality-related issues like income and wealth? No longer fashionable? Out of date?

I, for one, want to know where the Labour's various self-appointed leaders, thinkers, intellectuals, etc, be they Purnell, Miliband, Balls, Cruddas, whoever, stand on specific issues like the 50p top rate of tax, bankers' bonuses, the war in Afghanistan and a whole range of other pressing, everyday issues. Hiding behind vague and vacuous clichés and catchphrases will not do.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496