Tuesday 23 September 2008

James Purnell on the Lab-Lib tragedy of 1997

A full house in Manchester Town Hall (as there was in Bournemouth) for the second Fabian/CentreForum fringe on the question 'Labour and the Liberal Democrats: Allies or enemies?'. There is a strong appetite for keeping this debate alive, though the Labour fringe event was a rather more partisan discussion than that at the LibDem conference.

James Purnell argued that

The question of whether the LibDems are our allies or are the enemy. That is not a question for us to resolve – that is a question for the LibDems to resolve through their actions.

But he had a strange variation on a Lib-Lab theme of the missed opportunity of what he called the tragedy of 1997.

It was not the (highly plausible) idea that Tony Blair should have consummated his long courtship with Paddy Ashdown.

Instead, Purnell's complaint was that the LibDems had missed a historic opportunity to move to the centre-right and destroy the Conservatives.

British politics could have been absolutely transformed in 1997 had the LibDems gone to the centre-right, we could have had a fundamental realignment in British politics, forcing the Conservatives to be the extreme-right party that they could have become. That chance was missed in 1997.

Yet Purnell criticised Charles Kennedy "fishing for votes to the left of Labour" yet also Nick Clegg's leaning rightwards, which he said was "the tragedy of 2008": "the courageous thing to have done would have been to argue for those progressive positions and to have made an argument for it", Purnell said, arguing that the LibDems now risked vacating the progressive space.

Purnell's analysis of what the LibDems should have done in 1997 was rejected by both Norman Lamb and Ming Campbell.

Health spokesman Norman Lamb said:

What we have in common is an absolute commitment to the pursuit of social justice. James’ suggestion that we should have in 1997 have positioned ourselves on the centre-right of politics would have been absolutely cynical positioning. I regard myself as a progressive. When you get up in the morning, it is about challenging the entrenched disadvantaged in our society.

And Sir Ming Campbell said:

I am a politician of the centre-left. I always have been. I always will be. The idea that we should have moved our tents to the centre-right to challenge the Conservatives is not one I think I would have been physically, emotionally or intellectually capable of doing

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