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.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.