New Times,
New Thinking.

28 April 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

James Purnell re-enters the fray

Exclusive extracts from ex-minister’s weekend speech.

By Dan Hodges

The former cabinet minister James Purnell is preparing to enter the debate over Labour’s future direction by urging the labour movement “not to renew our progressive values, but to return to our Labour tradition”.

In a speech that will be seen as an endorsement of the Blue Labour philosophy being promoted by Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, Purnell will argue that the left faces “a progressive paradox” and that “it is the Labour tradition that is a better guide to reorganising and rethinking, and then winning again”.

Addressing the Progressive Australia conference in Sydney on Saturday, he will single out how, in his view, Blue Labour has correctly indentified how “we’ve ended up obsessed with the pattern of society, rather than the lives we lead. That in the name of helping the poorest, we’ve thought too much about what people get out of society, and not enough about what they put in.”

Blue Labour argues that we should reach back to an older tradition, before Blair or Crosland. That we should excavate Richard Tawney, the great reformer and essayist who wrote in 1932 that Labour’s creed is not “transcendental doctrines nor rigid formulae but a common view of the life proper to human beings, and of the steps required at any moment more nearly to attain it”.

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According to Purnell:

This roots politics back in people’s lives and how they can pursue what they want. It’s not that GDP or equality don’t matter; just that they are not the right place to start. The danger of abstractions is that they can be rather overbearing.

They can lead to a politics, especially on the left, where the elite decides what other people need and then gets angry and self-righteous when the beneficiaries – voters – don’t agree.

Blue Labour instead starts from the things that matter – “responsibility, love, loyalty, friendship, action and victory” – values that, as David Miliband said in his Keir Hardie Lecture, “used to be engraved upon Labour’s heart”.

Purnell praises Ed Miliband, who he says has “rightly identified the problem of the squeezed middle”, and even expresses a sneaking admiration for Gordon Brown, whom he describes as “a tough old so-and-so, even I have to admit”.

Yet at the heart of his speech lies an appeal to acknowledge the distinction between what he calls Labour and its progressive “cousins”:

Labour emphasised protection; progressives majored on aspiration. Labour emphasised how markets could hurt people. Progressives talked about how they normally worked.

And here’s how we explain the Progressive Paradox. We had said to our voters that markets worked. So, when a huge crash in financial markets occurred, we had no way of explaining to them what had just happened. Political traditions work as a way of explaining the world, and predicting the future, and the progressive tradition had no space for this bit of data.

He concludes by arguing that “going back to our Labour values would help us develop much better policies than retilling the progressive ground we’ve been going over for the last few years”.

And although Purnell recognises that “Blue Labour needs its progressive cousins’ central insight – that modern politics is about giving people power”, he also acknowledges that:

We would talk about empowerment. It was a great guide to policy. It was a good summary of our ideology. But it failed as a slogan. We never said it on the doorstep. Gordon Brown didn’t use it to Mrs Duffy.

That’s not because it was the wrong idea. It’s because we hadn’t delivered it. We hadn’t delivered it because we were relying entirely on the state to do it. We hadn’t made people powerful because we had forgotten how markets can crash and exploit people.

If we put aspiration and protection back together, maybe we can make that promise of power real. Maybe we could say to people with a straight face that they will have the power to live the life they want, to live a life proper to human beings.

And maybe they would then want to join our parties again and fight with us. Because they would understand that these are not rights conferred from on high, but protections won by politics and which have to be won again in each generation.

Purnell’s intervention is said by friends to be the product of a period of political reflection and analysis, and may well presage a sustained re-engagement with front-line politics. Although closely identified with the Blairite wing of the party, he has nurtured a good relationship with independent centre-left figures such as Cruddas, and was approached by Ed Miliband over the possibility of becoming his chief of staff.

It’s not yet clear how Purnell’s assessment aligns itself with the Purple Book agenda being promoted by the Blairite think tank Progress, due to be published later this year. But it will certainly be seen as providing a contribution to Labour’s ongoing post-election analysis.

And a significant one.

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