Interview: James Purnell

Saviour of Labour or dangerous Thatcherite? James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, talks to

It's fair to say James Purnell divides opinion. Depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, the 38-year-old Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is either the saviour of the Labour Party or a smug Thatcherite fifth columnist undermining the very principles of the movement. He has been tipped as a future leader by the Sun and the Spectator, while a recent focus group in the Times suggested that in terms of public trust he was rivalled only by the left-winger Jon Cruddas. In the increasingly sectarian world of Labour Party politics, Purnell is something of a touchstone.

When his name was raised with one former cabinet minister recently, the grandee harrumphed: "Well you can hardly call James Purnell Labour." At the Trades Union Congress in Brighton this month, Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union, described him as "even worse than John Hutton". In the demonology of Labour right-wingers this is quite an accolade. Among trade unionists, the Business and Enterprise Secretary has become a hate figure of some potency for positioning himself as a champion of the rich.

Purnell's offence has been to introduce a package of wel-fare reforms, announced in July, which propose mandatory work programmes for the unemployed, making long-term claimants sign on every day, removing benefits from addicts who refuse treatment, and health checks for everyone on incapacity benefit.

The truth is I passionately believe that the way we’re going to reform the welfare state will achieve traditional, left-wing goals

Serwotka described these as "a fundamental assault on the welfare state". For Purnell they were the opposite: "A return to the founding principles of the welfare state."

Speaking to the New Statesman just before his party's annual conference he said he was well aware of the criticism from Serwotka, who had taken him to task about the reforms over dinner at the TUC. But he was unbowed, saying the hard left always denounced social democracy by trying to impugn its motives. "It's just a fundamental misunderstanding of what we're trying to do. It's easier to believe that we're just doing it out of electoral calculation or we're doing it because we're not really left-wing, rather than actually grapple with what works and what doesn't work," he said, arguing that he remained a man of the left despite his growing fan base on the right. It's not easy to see Purnell, that most new Labour of politicians, as a socialist but he is not afraid to use the "s" word.

"The truth is I passionately believe that the way we're going to reform the welfare state will achieve traditional, left-wing goals, socialist goals even, as well as social-democratic goals," he said. "There is nothing left-wing about people being trapped on benefits, having miserable lives where their universe consists of a trip from the bedroom to the living room."

Purnell has urged his fellow ministers to take the argument to the Conservatives rather than obsessing about the internal difficulties in their own party. He believes the internal contradictions of David Cameron's detoxified Tory party should be held up to intense scrutiny.

Policy not presentation

But the real question for Purnell, as for any other government minister, is where to go from here. With the parliamentary party in open rebellion and the economy in crisis, there is a creeping sense of fatalism that is impossible to ignore.

"I don't think it's about presentation, it's about policy," Purnell suggests, in a reversal of the received wisdom about Labour's predicament. His solution, however, is to turn for inspiration to the master of presentation ousted from office just over a year ago. "When Tony was asked what Major should have done in '94, it would have been to put new Labour under the spotlight every day in parliament."

A radical Tory agenda would have forced the newly rebranded party into an uncomfortable position between adopting the government position or exposing the fact that the changes were only skin-deep. For Purnell, the same applies to the Tories. A bold Labour government would expose just where the Tories stood on core issues such as child poverty. "There's always the argument that they would decontaminate their brand and move back to the right, not because of any ideological extremism, but because of a lack of anything better to do."

The world changed underneath our feet and that’s been a challenge for all the political parties

Unlike many of his colleagues, Purnell is very good at concentrating on his political rivals across the political divide rather than internal enemies, real or imagined. But even he can't avoid the elephant in the room. He may be right that Labour has the correct progressive solutions for the times, but no one is listening. He admits that the Labour government was slow to wake up to the encroaching economic uncertainty: "Something happened earlier in the year when we were pursuing the policies which were very much based on the old political challenges," he says, quickly adding that the same was true for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. "The world changed underneath our feet and that's been a challenge for all the political parties, but particularly for the government, to the point where people thought: You're not talking about the challenges I've got right now. You're talking about the agenda you've had for the past ten years, but actually the world is changing and I don't think you're talking about that . . . That's why people slightly turned away from us and there's no magic bullet to put that right, actually."

The only antidote to the gloom, for Purnell, is having an array of policies to capture the imagination of the public. "You don't get back into the conversation by protesting too much," he says. "You get back into it by showing through policies that you are addressing people's concerns."

He recognises that it is the job of government to reassure people in times of economic turbulence but he is less clear about how it might go about this. It's when he talks about the economy that James Purnell begins to look a little more like the Thatcherite demon of the hard left's imagination. "Capitalism is never a smooth ride," he says. "The past ten years have been ahistorical in that sense. Look at the 20th century - markets overcorrect in both directions. They tend to be right on average, but you have periods of extremes in both directions. The fundamental thing is that you do everything you can in the short term to protect people but have measures in place to ensure our economy grows afterwards."

Winning ideas

When it comes to direct questions about Labour's current leadership crisis ("Can Labour win the next election?" and "Can Labour win the next election under Gordon Brown's leadership?") Purnell bats them away with a swift "Yes" and "Yes".

The "how" is a little more difficult. "There's clearly a difficult backdrop," he admits. "We've never won four times; the economy's harder than it seemed. But there's a paradox in British politics at the moment which is that we're doing badly in the polls at a time when you could argue that we are winning the battle of ideas.

"If the Tories want to talk about progressive goals, that does suggest to me that their attitude has changed. But if that's what people want, then we have to demonstrate we are the best government to deliver those goals."

He is happy to accept Tory support for his welfare reforms but does not accept that this means Cameron has successfully colonised the centre ground. "There may be some agreement on welfare reform, but there's complete disagreement on child poverty. We believe that, yes, reducing worklessness is key to attacking child poverty, but we also think that spending money on tax credits is vital."

If there is any valid criticism of the government, he says, it is that it stopped spending money on reducing child poverty, not that it has spent too much with nothing to show for it. "Actually the reason that the level [of child poverty] didn't change is that we didn't spend any money in the two Budgets which were relevant to those years. Now that Gordon and Alistair have found another billion pounds in the last Budget, we're set to take another 250,000 out [of poverty]."

Is it fair to see Purnell merely as a rampant Blairite privatiser, when he talks so eloquently of Labour's commitment to the poorest in society? He describes himself as a "progressive", but so do David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. He admits that this raises the question of what it is to be a progressive. "'Progressive' to me is a socialist who got mugged by reality, but still believes in the same things. You learned the lesson from the Eighties that our old tools didn't work. And it was not just that some of the tools which Margaret Thatcher used couldn't be opposed, they could actually be effective."

But Purnell doesn't stop with a critique of old, state-driven solutions. Where he has made enemies in the Labour movement is as an evangelist for these alternative tools. "You can use a hammer to build a church or you can use a hammer to hit people on the head with. I think choice, the market and the [use of] the private sector in public service reform are good tools. When properly used they can achieve left-wing goals."

In this way he remains convinced that the introduction of private-sector providers within the National Health Service has helped reduce waiting times and that the private money backing the academy schools programme will go some way towards tackling underachievement at inner-city comprehensives.

Refusal to condemn

And yet, he recognises that one of Labour's biggest problems is that the public remains unconvinced that the vast investment in public services has shown adequate results. "Part of that is about expectations, the curse of being in government so long," he says. "When we trumpeted the investment, people thought things would get 90 per cent better and, of course, things like that take a very long time. The rebuilding schools programme is only just started . . . People think Sure Start [schemes for disadvantaged parents of young children] is old hat, but in most communities it's only just beginning to arrive."

Purnell is understandably resistant to talking about the immediate leadership battle, but asked what he thought of John Hutton's refusal to condemn those calling for a leadership election in an interview for The Andrew Marr Show, he says: "I would agree with him on that and I think it would be ridiculous to pretend that you can't complain when you're worried. I mean, I'm worried that we're 20 points behind. I'm not going to condemn people or question their motives. [But] I don't agree with what they did."

It has been suggested that Hutton was intentionally unclear as to whether he would support a future leadership challenge. Purnell's response was equally opaque: "One of the great wisdoms of politics is not to answer hypothetical questions and that's a hypothetical question. As John said, the job of the cabinet is to support the Prime Minister and that's what we're going to do." A final question: While you remain in the cabinet? "We support the Prime Minister."

So does that mean James Purnell would mount a challenge to Gordon Brown only after resigning from the cabinet? Not exactly. A guarded threat? Probably not. But it's far from a ringing endorsement, to state the obvious: cabinet ministers must support the Prime Minister whether they like it or not.