Sunday 10 January 2010

Purnell goes beyond the limits of New Labour

James Purnell has an interesting column in The Guardian, which the paper reports here.

The piece is mostly about ideas. But first the inside baseball. The statement

"I've thought a lot about my resignation since last June. I knew that no one would follow me"

is an eye-catching one. I am not so sure. That would leave Purnell in a very small minority of people who knew what would happen at 10pm that evening.

Purnell expresses the fear that "the principle of vitality and vision that must animate a Labour government is on life support. The words are managerial, the values administrative and the vision technocratic".

I think it would be a mistake to think that is primarily at the leadership of Gordon Brown. (Purnell opens by stating that Brown will lead Labour; and has long said he was not going to return substantively to the leadership question, regarding it as having been de facto settled that evening last June).

And so the piece seems to me to be offering something rather more novel, interesting and refreshing than that. It is actually an attempt to embark on a self-critical, insider's critique of Blair-Brownism, also known as New Labour and the Third Way:

The root cause of our predicament lies firmly in the half-lessons of the third-way paradigm and in our lack of confidence in our traditions.

The thrust of this might be summarised as the concern, from somebody who knows why New Labour was necessary, and was a strong advocate of it, is how a party and movement which modernises can also keep faith with its traditions and remember what it is fundamentally for.

The third way learned the lessons of Labour's mistakes in the 70s and 80s. But it elevated avoiding mistakes to an ideology. It wasn't confident enough where it was right, or sceptical enough where it was wrong.

In finance, the New Labour lesson was that the City could contribute wealth to fund public services and redistribution. But the failure was to realise that uncontrolled lending could also reduce the nation's wealth. We should value the City's wealth creation, but not give in to the blackmail that it will leave if regulated.

The piece goes on to attempt a frank audit of New Labour's advances and its limits in several areas.

I am sure there will be some policy and political issues on which I have a different view than Purnell takes. But, in my view, it is really very important to hear these arguments are made from the 'modernising right' of the party, as well as from other positions within Labour, because that does a good deal to help to establish the terrain of the party's long-term debate and to narrow the differences within it.

Otherwise, one does have a risk not just of factionalism, but that commonplace assertions of Labour values become absurdly misrepresented as a leftwards lurch to Old Labour. That is a bizarre description of, for example, Ed Balls, among the architects of New Labour's political economy.

Or let us see if James Purnell is now accused of ditching new Labour. He has just written something rather clearer about Thatcherism than I can recall any Labour frontbencher saying since 1997;

We believe that Thatcherism was an often wicked period of our national history that celebrated greed, inflicted unnecessary pain and failed to govern for the whole country.

Having written before about the Obama-style movement politics of the British left a century ago, I am also sympathetic to the argument that the left which got the great achievement of the Beveridge-Attlee settlement may well have a great deal to teach the left which has lived off it since:

The powerless need to take their power. That will only be done by organising people to act together, not by shrinking the state. That was the original politics of the Labour movement. In creating the welfare state, we gained a claim to fairness only to lose the art of association and the energy for organising.

1 comment:

Red Rag said...

If only he said some of those things whilst being a minister.