Thursday 4 June 2009

Why James Purnell is not as Blairite as he looks

The resignation of James Purnell from the Cabinet significantly deepens the Labour leadership crisis - putting it at a level which last Autumn's crisis never reached. Whether or not a Cabinet reshuffle can be successfully completed may also be in doubt.

One danger for the anti-Brown forces is that their action is presented as a Blairite putsch, with James Purnell following Hazel Blears from the Cabinet. But that may be a more difficult line to run if Peter Mandelson is to remain perhaps the most valuable remaining protectors of the Prime Minister.

The most interesting part of Purnell's resignation letter is the deliberate rejection of those factional dividing lines.

This moment calls for stronger regulation, an active state, better public services, an open democracy.

It calls for a government that measures itself by how it treats the poorest in society. Those are our values, not David Cameron's.

One thing that has not often been understood about Purnell has been that he combines advocacy of a modernising and unabashedly New Labour agenda with a 'next generation' rejection of the media's definition of what Blairism or "uber-Blairism" are about - his best line has been that people forget that New Labour was Labour as well as New.

Despite Purnell's Blairite credentials, which have seen him often championed by The Spectator, he could legitimately claim to have put the Labour argument on poverty and inequality as clearly as any member of the Brown Cabinet. (Most often on Fabian platforms, as with his lecture on child poverty after last year's local election results, proposing that this could be a fightback theme to could unite Old and new Labour, which has also a hope of many supporters of Gordon Brown.

Indeed, last September Fabian Review awarded Purnell, slightly tongue-in-cheek, Keir Hardie's flat cap because of the strength of his comments on redistribution and claiming an Old Labour pedigree for conditionality.

The other intriguing rumour in recent months has been of a Purnell-Cruddas future alliance along these lines - though Jon Cruddas has made it categorically clear that he is not involved in any moves to destabilise the Prime Minister.

It has long been thought in Westminster that James Purnell and David Miliband have an understanding that they would not run against each other in a future leadership contest. Purnell's resignation letter seems to be ruling himself out of a contest, and denying any coordination. (The idea that there is a coordinated plot is undermined by the loyalist interviews which have been given by 'Blairite' ministers such as Caroline Flint, Liam Byrne and Jim Knight in the last few minutes).


Rachael Jolley said...

Ken Livingstone is on Newsnight saying GB has been making many of the right moves - but blown off course by greed and MPs who have abused their expenses. He sees a Brown/Blairite plot. Interesting to see him fighting for GB in loyalist corner. Livingston says MPs are out of touch with rest of Labour Party.

Captain Fun said...

Any Links for the Flint, Byrne & Knight interviews ?

Sunder Katwala said...

Byrne was on Newsnight.

Flint or Knight were on Sky News just before newsnight was on.

Apart from their websites, I expect PoliticsHome will have key quotes from interviews soon

The Liberal Conspiracy thread is discussing Byrne's newsnight interview

Newmania said...

Milliband as well eh well he has been pawing the turf for ages .What you do not want to admit is that this is a rejection of Brownite Policies ie the policies that have been followed by the Labour Party for ten years .

You have lost the argument and thank god

Sunder Katwala said...

Nick Raynsford on Newsnight - in a rather sober and moderate tone - said that he does not think that Brown can get through this.

Peter Kilfoyle - who did not nominate Brown for leader - was defending him staunchly on Sky News, and attacking Blears and Purnell in personal terms as careerist and useless.

Sunder Katwala said...

While the resignation of Purnell is a significant development, it is not necessarily a decisive move in determining the outcome.

The statements from David Miliband and Andy Burnham that they do not agree and will not resign (IF these hold for 24 hours) could potentially offer Brown a firewall.

Miliband and Burnham are close to Purnell: if they are neither coordinated nor willing to follow then it would certainly be possible to complete a reshuffle. (Whereas two more resignations would be enormously difficult to survive).

I can’t myself identify which other resignations of senior Cabinet figures would be pretty likely if those two are staying. The political lobby take Alan Johnson’s position to be that he will play no part in destabilising Brown, but could run if there was a vacancy. For now, most of the Cabinet seem to be backing Brown (eg Straw,Mandelson).

John Hutton has also now backed Brown: he was famously critical of Brown prior to the 2007 change of leadership.

So the Purnell resignation does not seem to have convinced the Cabinet at this stage. The Cabinet has much more power than the backbenchers in being able to make a decisive intervention.

Tom said...

Sunder, many criticisms are unfairly made of Fabian thinkers, but I'd say that a jusftified current one is the tendency to invent variants of a kind of micro-cultural theory to describe what are in and indepdenendent and material reality detailed policy positions. Yes, I'm afraid I'm accusing you of it!

For me it's pretty simple. What policies does Purnell actually advocate, and what would they do/to what end are they useful?

Charlie Marks said...

So, Purnell was outing himself as a socialist when he was bigging up "egalitarian capitalism", in the same manner as Milburn was arguing in the independent that "progressives shouldn't be anti-capitalist"...?

Since the whole ethos of Blair and Brown was about being relaxed about getting rich it's no surprise that Purnell was claiming huge expenses of the taxpayer.

He displayed the the kind of behaviour that, if he was a benefit claimant - if he was poor - instead of being an affluent minister, he would be jailed for.

For fuck's sake, he was negotiating with three media outlets to sell his story!

Sunder Katwala said...


I am pretty sure he wasn't selling his story. You have got the wrong end of the stick here. He won't have received any money, and won't have been seeking any.

If he intended it to be a significant political intervention, breaking as the broadcast embargo ended at 10pm, then he would have wanted to make sure that the major newspapers could cover it in detail in their early editions.

Downing Street can criticise the discourtesy of not letting the Prime Minister know earlier. The reason for not doing that would presumably be the likelihood that the news would have been leaked.

Newmania said...

Having seen Labour Ministers telling their own Party that the alternative to Brown is an ideological fight and then an election off the back or a shattered Party Brown limping on is my prefferred outcome .

_______ said...

James Purnell isn't an arch-blairite.

He doesn't want to consumerize public services, he wants to democratize them, but have private-subcontracting for the delivery of services at local and national levels, while keeping services free of charge.

His views are more like that of Brown's, than those of Milburn, who wants healthcare budgets.

Charlie Marks said...

Sunder, I may be wrong on his getting money for the letter - but why else negotiate with different papers?

John - You say of Purnell:

"He doesn't want to consumerize public services, he wants to democratize them"

Okay, but then you say,

"but have private-subcontracting for the delivery of services at local and national levels, while keeping services free of charge."

This is commercialisation! The next step would be to introduce charges!

Why not do as they are in Scotland, and have elections to NHS trusts? That would be democratisation.