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.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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What to look out for in the 2017 local elections on 4 May

Your guide to the important results, through the night and into Friday evening. 

Voters in England, Scotland and Wales will elect councillors and county councillors on 4 May, in the first major indicator of party strength since the referendum contest. The snap election on 8 June gives the contest an added edge. Here's what to look out for as the night unfolds. 

22:00:  Polls close, and the New Statesman liveblog opens. Parties will start their spin operations, which will give us an idea how well or badly they think they’ve done.

Remember the historic trajectory is for the opposition parties to do better at local elections than general elections, as voters use them to send a message to the boss. That even holds true for the elections in 1983 and 1987, which occurred in May before a June election, where the Conservatives made gains, unusually for a governing party when locals are not held on the same day as general election. So both the Liberal Democrats and Labour will want to post big results in anticipation of doing worse on 8 June than they will on 4 May.

We will also be electing the new combined authority mayors. These use the instant run-off system, which means that if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off. This is one reason why the Conservatives will struggle to win any of these elections other than Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

There will, I imagine, be some on-the-whistle polls, though these should not be considered “exit polls” in the sense of the big one on general election nights.

Well, British exit polls aren’t measuring voting intention – they don’t give us much of a sense of what the percentage of the vote will be, for instance – but change. Although there are many more Labour voters in Hackney than there are in Harrogate, for instance, for the most part, if there is a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Hackney, there will be a five per cent increase in the Labour vote at the expense of the Conservatives in Harrogate – and, more importantly, in Harlow, a marginal seat.

This is very expensive however, so broadcasters will not be shelling out for an exit poll for the local elections. Instead, we’ll just get ordinary polls.

Hopefully they’ll be interesting, because we won’t have much to talk about until…

02:00: Results come in from the Isle of Wight, which, thanks to its large number of independents, won’t tell us all that much unless the Liberal Democrats are on course for a fantastic night. More interesting is Swansea, the first Welsh council due to declare.  Labour hold 49 of the seats here, but the Liberal Democrats went from 23 seats here to just 12 last time, so they will hope to make gains.

These results won’t disprove anything – Labour could hold on in Swansea and the Isle of Wight could continue to be a bit odd and the Liberal Democrat revival could be on, but it’s also possible that we will see that they are really starting to get back to their pre-coalition position.

Also keep a look out for how the Conservatives do in the wards that make up Gower, a Labour seat from 1906 until the 2015 election, where Byron Davies is defending a wafer-thin majority on 8 June.

02:30: Wrexham will declare. Wrexham has been in no overall control since ten Labour councillors, including the council leader, resigned the whip in protest at interference from regional officers. As a result, we won’t get as good an idea as we’d like what this result means for Ian Lucas’s chances of holding onto to Wrexham, which narrowly stayed Labour in 2015.

03:00:  It’s raining Welsh councils. Cardiff (Labour controlled, Liberal Democrats looking to recover lost ground in a council they ran until 2012) , Flintshire (Labour in coalition with independents facing Liberal Democrats), Merthyr Tydfil (Labour controlled having been run by a Liberal coalition with Indepedents from 2008 to 2012), and the improbably-named Neath Port Talbot  (Labour hegemony).

In terms of general election battles, look at how the Conservatives do in the wards making up Cardiff North, which they are defending, and Cardiffs West and South, which they hope to take. Look out for how the Labour-Liberal Democrat battle works out in Cardiff Central, too. In Flintshire, keep an eye out for the results in Delyn and Alyn and Deeside, where Labour’s Mark Tami and David Hanson face tough re-election bids against the Tories.

The great unknown is how well Ukip will do. Ukip have performed strongly in Wales but the last time these seats were up, in 2012, the party hadn’t enjoyed its 2013-4 surge and now it is in institutional crisis. They are standing fewer candidates though some former Kippers may do well as independents.

Then the English mainland finally gets on the act, as county councils in Dorset (narrow Conservative majority) , Essex, Gloucestershire (narrow Conservative majority) and Lincolnshire (Conservatives in coalition with Liberal Democrats and independents), Somerset (Conservative majority), Warwickshire (no overall control) declare.

In Dorset, watch out how the Liberal Democrats do, particularly in the wards of Mid Dorset and Poole,  which they held until 2015 and then lost on a massive swing. We’d expect a reversion to the mean for the Liberal Democrats on 8 June as they come off the back of their very bad losses in the 2015 general election. So look out for signs of that here. For Labour, their best hope comes within South Dorset, a seat they held until 2010, though unfavorable boundary changes since then make it a safe seat for Richard Drax.  

In Gloucestershire, the Liberal Democrats will be looking for a big performance in the wards of Cheltenham, another 2015 loss, while Labour will hope to build on their 2012 gains in the city of Gloucester itself. Seats in the Cotswolds constituency will give us a good clue as to whether or not the Liberal Democrats’ push into affluent Conservative areas that voted Remain is bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Labour have two marginals to defend, while the Tories have three at a parliamentary level in Lincolnshire. The Tories will hope to defend LincolnBrigg and Goole and Cleethorpes in June, while Labour’s Melanie Onn and Nic Dakin are protecting narrow majorities in Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe respectively.

In Somerset, look out for the scale of the Liberal Democrat revival, particularly in Taunton Deane and Wells where Rebecca Pow and James Heappey are hoping to head off Liberal revivals. Remain-voting Bath in particular is worth keeping an eye on.

Warwickshire is all-blue at a Westminster level, though it contains the marginal seats of Nuneaton, North Warwickshire, and Rugby, which despite its 10,000 vote majority is the emblematic seat Labour would need to win to secure a parliamentary majority. As with all three of those seats, the council race should be a straightforward Tory-Labour battle.

04:00: Look for how Ukip or Ukippers-turned-independent can do in Blaenau Gwent, while the Conservatives hope to take Bridgend – held by Madeleine Moon at Westminster and crucially, Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones at the Assembly level – in June. A good Labour performance here would indicate that the Tories will face a harder time in Wales than the polls suggest.

In Newport, Labour regained their majority – lost in 2008 – in 2012, and the Liberal Democrats and Tories will both hope to eat into it. If the polls are to be believed, both Newport seats are at risk from the Conservatives, so look out for how they do here.

English county councils in Hampshire (Conservative) and Northumberland (no overall control) will declare. In Hampshire, the Liberal Democrats are looking for gains, particularly in Portsmouth South and Eastleigh, both lost in 2015.

04:30: Ceredigion, one of just eight Liberal Democrat defences, is up, but unfortunately, the local council is run by independents and Plaid Cymru so it's unlikely to tell us much unless the Welsh nationalists have an astonishingly good result, in which case, we won’t know much about what these means for Mark Williams’ re-election hopes.

05:00: CityMetric editor Jonn Elledge is scheduled to make his “O” face as the first ever combined authority mayoral result for the West of England comes in. (More accurately, it’s the Bristol-Bath-South Gloucestershire-and-North-East-Somerset mayoralty but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. Irritate a Bath resident and call it the “Greater Bristol” mayor. 

I am v. sceptical that this will come in at the advertised time as Bristol famously counts its results very, very slowly. But this is the only genuine three-way marginal of the mayoralties, though thanks to the form of run-off voting used, I expect there will be a lot of wasted transfers. (If you are a Green voter, it’s not at all clear whether you should put Labour or the Liberal Democrats as your second preference to stop the Tories, for instance.)  

That the Liberal Democrats are standing their still-popular former Bristol MP Stephen Williams as their candidate increases their chances here.

Monmouthshire (Conservative-Liberal coalition), will declare. Labour will hope to become the largest party and take control. Monmouth constituency has a formidable Tory majority of 10,000 despite being Labour until 2005, but is, again, in the ballpark of seats Labour must compete in if it wishes to govern alone. 

05:30: Doncaster mayoralty. Ukip used to talk a big game about taking this kind of thing. Not so much now.

07:00: Vale of Glamorgan will declare. Conservative at Westminster, but run by a minority Labour administration since 2012, Labour must take control and take control comfortably if they are to take the seat back on 8 June.

08:00:  Cumbria, where Labour runs a minority administration, to declare. Look out for how the party performs in the wards of Copeland and Barrow, both of which the party hopes to hold onto from 2015. The Welsh council of Torfaen, a Labour stronghold at both Westminster and local level, will also declare.

08:00-11:00: Sleep.

11:00: The first Scottish result comes in. Unfortunately, it’s from the Orkney Islands, where only independents stand at a local level, so we will learn….not a lot.

Scotlad elects councillors under the single transferable vote system so most of the councils are coalitions. In terms of stress-testing the polls, there are two things to look out for: the first is a general Conservative vote increase. The second is the emergence of what you might call the Unionist front: that is, people voting on constitutional lines across left-right lines. If that happens, the SNP may underperform their voteshare significantly as far as council seats go.

The nightmare for Labour: a massive increase in the Tory vote but no emergence of Unionist tactical voting. That would suggest that not only are the polls showing the Tories up to 30 per cent in Scotland are true, but that there is no electoral dividend for Labour there at all. (This would also be in contrast to the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, where Labour lost votes but their vote became more effective thanks to tactical Unionist votes.)

The other thing to watch out for: if people, particularly Green-aligned voters, use these elections to punish the SNP government, which is sort of what we’d expect in regular times, or if they too vote tactically for pro-Yes candidates.

12:00: Stirling, the first Scottish local authority which may tell us anything at all about how the general election is going to play out, reports. The SNP are the largest party but they are in opposition, as a combined Labour-Conservative coalition run the show.

12:30: Clackmannanshire, currently run by the SNP but no overall control. Formerly held by Labour at Westminster and now represented by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Meanwhile, in Wales, Denbighshire will declare. The polls suggest that Labour’s Susan Jones will be out of a job come 9 June. If Labour are going to hold the seat at the general, they will want to take control of the council in May. (It is presently a hung council with Labour the largest party.)

13:00: The Shetland Islands, which like Orkney elect independents, will declare. More interesting for the general will be Angus, where the SNP are the largest party by a distance. If the Tories are going to make gains of the kind forecast in the polls in Scotland, they need to at least be becoming the official opposition in places like Angus.

In England, Devon and Hertfordshire will declare. Devon is a straight Tory-Liberal battle. Hertfordshire is more complex. The Liberal Democrats will want a good result in the wards of Three Rivers while Watford is a three-way marginal. If Labour are to defy the polls and form a government, they should expect to gain seats in the wards making up Stevenage.

 14:00:  In England, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, East Sussex all declare. Cambridgeshire is the one to watch – if the #LibDemfightback is a thing, we’ll feel it there, in the wards of the city itself in particular.

In Wales, Caerphilly, Conwy, Gwynedd, and Pembrokeshire all declare. Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire and Conwy have large numbers of independents so may not tell us very much about how the general election will pan out.  Caerphily is a straight party battle: it’s a Labour vs Plaid Cymru but it won’t tell us much about how things will play out in the parliamentary seats, where Labour are miles ahead and their opponent is Ukip.

And in Scotland, Dumfries & Galloway, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Inverclyde, Moray, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and South Ayrshire all declare. The big one to watch is the Borders – the Conservatives are the largest party but are in opposition to an SNP-Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition. Getting good results in places like this will give us an idea how much the Conservative revival in Scotland will pay dividends in terms of gaining seats.

14:30: Aberdeenshire, East Lothian, and Renfrewshire all declare. Aberdeenshire is the fun one: the SNP are the largest party by a distance at the council and they of course hold the seats at Westminster. But it voted to stay in the United Kingdom by a heavy margin and the Scottish Conservatives won the Holyrood seat last year. If the Tories can become the largest party here, they are headed for a great result in Scotland in June.

15:00: Liverpool City Region will declare. Given my dubiousness about Bristol’s counting proccesses, I reckon Steve Rotheram is in with a chance of being the first person elected to these new combined authorities.

In England, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Surrey and West Sussex declare. Cornwall is run by a Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition, and if there is to be a Liberal revival in that part of the world, it will surely be felt in the council elections. 

In Scotland, Aberdeen, East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, North Ayrshire and West Lothian declare. East Dunbartonshire may give us a hint about Jo Swinson’s chances of taking back the parliamentary seat for the Liberal Democrats.

 16:00: A little bit of history will likely be made when Labour lose control of Glasgow Council.

The combined authority of Tees Valley should be a routine Labour win. Worry about June if it’s not. Norma Redfern is running for re-election as Labour’s mayor inn North Tyneside, which she ought to win easily.

In England, Labour should consolidate their position in Derbyshire, and win a majority in Lancashire, where they are currently no overall control. If they don’t – and if they slip back in both or either – that will be further evidence that Labour’s dire polling is correct.

17:00: In England, Labour will hope to make gains in Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire. Elsewhere, it’s a Conservative-Liberal fight.

It is very, very, very unlikely that anyone but the Tories will win the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough combined mayoralty. If the Liberal Democrats do it, expect a lot of Conservative MPs to start worrying.   

In Scotland, Edinburgh will declare. Who comes out on top there will be a fascinating pointer as to where Scottish politics is going: the city returned candidates from the SNP, Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats last year. At a council ward-level, it really is anyone’s game.

17:30: The Tories won seats at a clip in the Scottish Parliament last year, including Eastwood. See how they do in East Renfrewshire to see if they have a chance of doing the same to its Westminster equivalent.

18:00: Who will win the Greater Manchester mayoralty? Hint: rhymes with Andy Burnham.  More interesting is the West Midlands mayoralty, where Labour’s Sion Simon faces a strong challenge from the Conservatives’ Andy Street. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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