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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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