Friday 19 February 2010

James Purnell: hello to the philosopher politician?

James Purnell seems to have become an expert in the art of the unexpected.

First, he resigns from the cabinet. No one expected that.

He moves to Demos to direct their Open Left project. Once there, he could have decided that the future of the left was simply a warming over of Blairite New Labour. That would have been the safe thing to do, and what many a leading politician in his position would have done.

But he begins to develop a new perspective which integrates aspects of New Labour - choice in the public sector, welfare conditionality - with a quite different conception of 'empowerment' based on community organizing and setting democratic limits to the market.

Then, in the very week that he launches a key, initial report from the Open Left project, and is quite reasonably touted as a potential party leader, he stands down as an MP.

And then he announces he is to retrain as a community organizer with London Citizens.

Following his announcement that he is standing down as an MP, Jessica Asato wrote eloquently at CiF on the theme of 'Farewell to the philosopher politician'. But as the story fills out, perhaps we should see this also as a case of 'Hello to the philosopher politician'?

The Open Left project continues. And by retraining as a community organizer, Purnell will not be so much abandoning politics as finding a new way to be politically engaged. But a way of being engaged that also allows freedom of thought and expression.

There, of course, is something that should give us pause. Isn't it worrying that someone has to leave parliamentary politics to feel they can engage in this way?

Amongst all the commentary about Purnell's resignation today, I was particularly struck by this comment by Stephen Tall at LibDem Voice:

'Perhaps the bigger blow, though, is to the role of the professional politician. Whether you agree with Mr Purnell or not, like him or not, he is intelligent, articulate, youthful: he adds to public life, and will presumably wish to contribute to it still. What does it say about Parliament, or about the life of an MP, that he would much rather operate from beyond Westminster?'


Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. a good post. Whatever James' personal reasons about what he wants to do in his career and life, I regret the possible implication that, once you start thinking as a politician, you might need to get out of Parliament.

The Open Left project has been refreshing and good, and I felt that both James and Jon Cruddas made an important contribution in showing how it is possible to discuss ideas and political differences openly, in the knowledge that Labour and its allies must form a broad and plural movement.

Certainly, if Anthony Barnett (in the good post you link to) was (somewhat) impressed by a pluralist commitment, that is a hard bar to clear, and we can only hope it is a sign that more of the Labour next generation will move further in that direction.

Unknown said...

Purnell is young.

I think this could be a strategic move based on a sensible gamble.

If he jumps now, he misses the worst 5 years Labour will have to face since the early 1980s.

He can be outside the party but also inside it. Not at the heart of power struggles in Westminster, but still connected to the left through his contacts and Demos work. If he plays his cards right, he can become the champion of the egalitarian left, whilst not being burdened by the day-job as an opposition MP.

Five years down the line, Labour have got their act together. Purnell returns as a big-name presence.

In 7-9 years from now, he makes the leadership bid. Not as a lame-duck William Hague style leader who will never be PM because their job is to help the party recover from 2010, but as a leader with a fighting chance of being Prime Minister.

Of course, it's risky because he has to re-enter Parliament, and re-forge alliances. But the high profile Demos work helps make that easier.

And of course, if the long-term leadership strategy fails, he gets to retain a cushy job shouting from the side lines.

The reason we didn't see this one coming may well be because Purnell is a better strategist than we've assumed. When you play a good chess opponent, they often beat you with a move they've had lined up 8 turns earlier but you never saw until the move-before-check-mate.

Jessica Asato said...

Thanks for this post Stuart. I agree that it was possibly premature to suggest that the only way you can be thoughtful and a politician is in Parliament. If James gets stuck in with the community organising and Demos, it could be an exciting way of seeing if politics can be nurtured outside of the more formal methods. But one can't deny that without James Purnell in Parliament, the possibility that you could combine elected representation with an open, pluralist and challenging discourse feels as though it has been prematurely cut short.

Unknown said...

James might feel that he's able to bring about more change outside parliament than in it - that's perhaps because of how little power the place has if you are a backbench MP.

I think it's pointless to speculate as Paul does as to his motives for the long term. It's never easy to break with the dominant way of thinking.

There's certainly the potential for backbench activism - but it involves a willingess to vote against the government when it proposes things that go against the values of the party and the interests of our class.

Stuart White said...

Thanks all. I didn't mean to imply at all that Jessica's analysis at CiF is mistaken, just that another side to the story was emerging.

I like Paul's speculative history of the future. But my sense is that JP is very tired of the life of a parliamentary politician, so I'm not sure that he'll be back in that capacity. As Sunder says, it is a shame that someone of his ability just feels unable to operate in that environment. Its one sign, among many, of the way Labour needs to renew the way it does politics. Somehow we have to put all the anxieties provoked by the 1980s behind us and learn to accept more open, explicit - and conflictual - pluralism within the party. You shouldn't have to choose between being a thinking person, who can speak openly about ideas, and an effective party politician.

As to JP's future: the one thing that seems certain is that he will surprise us.

Sunder Katwala said...

"They'll all want to be community organisers now", as Barack Obama is said to have said as the election results came in.

True. And a good thing too. But I think there is an irony here too. Obama's community organising background was an important credential for his campaign, and drove the idea of a movement campaign. It gave him some sharp lines against Hillary Clinton in the primary debates.

But what is most striking in "Dreams of my father" is how he becomes frustrated at the limits of community organising, and so realises the need to get into elected politics to shift power and resources.

I do think that there is an important argument about the British left needing to recover the idea of mobilisation in our society, without which we would never have got the chance to reshape the post-war state.

What we need is an ability to form links between a party and a broader movement, and between representative democracy and pressure politics. There is some ambivalence to that (for good reasons) in groups like London citizens. It would be good if James Purnell did try to help build those bridges and links; several of our more forward-thinking councillors and most active parties are trying to do that too.

Unknown said...

With regards Obama and community organising / electoral politics. I think what's happened is that after the election, the campaign was kind of put to bed. I don't hear of Obama leading rallies for the ECA or universal healthcare, for example.

In the UK, the tendency has been for Labour to shift from movement politics to consumer politics - a focus group of eight people sipping wine in Kettering having more weight than policies developed within the party and decided by conference.

We need to recognise that to succeed as a party we need to copy some of the tactics of the Obama campaign - but learn from the mistakes. The bailout hasn't built a constituency of support - US firms that have gained make their support for the Democrats conditional on pro-capitalist policies.

Perhaps the best thing that could be done for fairness in the UK would be to scrap the anti-union laws, and to give preferential support to co-operative and mutual enterprise.

Labour doesn't even need to establish a constituency of support to do these things - Labour has institutional links with the union and cooperative movements, a majority in the Commons, and has just bailed out British capitalism. What is required is for the paradigm shift away from neoliberalism to reach its logical conclusion...

Robert said...

Thank god after 43 year in labour I've walked away, because the people out side in the real world does not see many of the people within Labour as anything else as money seeking expenses grabbing pillocks.

Purnell wanted me and I'm a f*cking scrounger according to Purnell, to get a job, I've tried my best and the bloke told me I was not trying hard enough.

If Purnell is the new out look of the Labour party then I'm better off out and gone.

yes i know New labour is better off without me and I agree...

sadly for me and brown to day selling new labour, the majority not the minority a well known BNP speak, I going to vote for the Tories.

Stuart White said...

Robert: many thanks for this. I'm sure its hard for those of us not on the receiving end of the benefit reforms that James Purnell initiated to appreciate what they are like. I am really grateful for the perspective you bring. I think Purnell is on a journey, and it'll be interesting to see what he himself thinks of the reforms in, say, 4 or 5 years time, when he's spent more time out of the political class and immersed in the problems of communities. Its also possible that disability issues, and the need for our society to spend a lot more to make disability rights a reality, could become one of themes of the Open Left project at Demos as it develops. I certainly hope so.

Anthony Painter said...

Interesting that Sunder makes the point about the limits of community organising as a change initiator. And he's right. When Obama left Altgeld Gardens etc it was an admission of defeat. It is also worth pointing out that his next move was into law not politics. It wasn't clear that he would have a political career at all until some years later.

To bridge the divide between communities and politics places a special responsibility on political parties- they could be grounded in both community (and civil society) and institutions of authority. Idealistic though it might sound, that could become a new way of doing politics for parties. Latterly, parties have become vote harvesting machines. Imagine if they could become the missing connectors between civil society and the state? Could that help rebuild a greater level of trust in politics? I believe it could.

Such a model of party is a radical departure from the type of party we have currently. It may be too radical. There is a world of difference between an organic movement and the world of the political machine. It may be too far to travel. And make no mistake, Obama '08 exhibited features of both machine and movement (I described it as a 'professional movement' in a lecture last week- see my blog.

What James Purnell is doing (NB I am working on a project at Open Left so need to declare an interest...) is exploring different ways that we can do politics.

I would expect part of that to involve thinking about how the state, parties, civil society and communities interact. It is a conversation that is long overdue. I don't know where it will lead but I do know that the way political parties currently operate is a recipe for alienation and politics being held in further contempt. My own view is that there are three possible scenarios for the future direction of party politics: (i) It becomes more embedded and organic; (ii) It continues as it is; (iii) It becomes more populist. It is very difficult to make (i) work but it's worth giving it a shot as the other two options are not attractive.

Jessica Asato said...

Sunder - good point about Barack and why he stopped the community organising. There will always be a tension between sticking to your ideals and finding ways of putting them into practice. My feeling is that we need people in politics to rediscover more ideals, and people in movements/NGOs/community organisation to rediscover better ways of getting their ideals into practice. Compromise in politics is always seen as selling out. It leads to disillusionment rather than being seen as a first step towards the end objective. Yet sometimes it is better than achieving nothing at all.

There's also the point that community organising is great when you can make a popular case with the public - it's hard to see who could be against the idea of a Living Wage, except for industry. But what about making the case for incinerators locally? Hilary Benn has pointed out that modern incinerators actually emit less toxic gas than a barbeque, and could help to reduce waste and therefore greenhouse gases. Trying to convince a community that having an incinerator near them will be far harder, and in the end, it will be up to local politicians to make the case in the interests of the greater good. (I expect very few would touch the issue with a bargepole!)

So I agree, what is really needed is for the barriers between community movements and political parties to be far more porous. Campaigning organisations need to be able to maintain their objectives, but also understand how they can help to make their goals a reality by working with political parties.

Let's hope James Purnell sees part of his role as facilitating this debate.

Unknown said...

"Compromise in politics is always seen as selling out."

I don't believe this is true at all. Specifically with regards the Labour Party, we're seen as the party of government, not the party of the people. Polls show that a strong majority of people agree with notion of Labour having abandoned ordinary people.

The presentational aspects of "New Labour" - embracing the financialisation of the economy and abandoning a critique of capitalism (however modest) had obvious policy effects and as a campaigning organisation, Labour's brand was seen to have been decontaminated of any radical potential - the social democratic policies that the party has implemented when in office have thus been deliberately underplayed.

Perhaps the biggest community movements we have are the trade unions, many have a link with the Labour party - something that modernisers thought out-dated rather than a vital connection with grassroots activism.

As regards Obama's machine/movement, we can see that once the task of electing the president was over, the momentum ended. And this was always Obama's promise - that he would not be a community organiser as President.

Stuart White said...

Community organzing can't substitute for party politics. But what a party politician can and will do is shaped by the level of popular mobilisation around her/him. Social democratic (and other) politicians will tend to do more progressive things when they face constraints and pressures from the likes of community organizing to offset the pressures and constraints they face from business etc.

R.H. Tawney said that Labour politicians require a democracy that is 'militant and formidible'. He wasn't thinking only of the party, but of the party as part of a wider social movement. Community organizing seems an important part of the strategy for rebuilding a social movement politics that Labour can engage with - and be constructively pushed and shoved by.

I think a lesson of the New Labour years is that major advances cannot be delivered merely by a well-intentioned party political elite acting in isolation from the 'militant and formidible' democracy Tawney spoke of.

Jessica Asato said...

I agree with you Stuart. Though I think I like the formidable part of the Tawney equation - I'm not sure many Labour politicians would like to see a return of the word militant!

Anthony Painter said...

I don't disagree with a single word of Stuart and Jessica's comments.

The task, however, is not transitional- it's transformational. Moving from concept to practice will not be easy. It can be done. But it requires us to make organisation a central component of any renewal. And that requires a rhetoric that emphasises the importance of process in outcome, ie in securing the left's values. There....a small challenge.

Jessica Asato said...

It's been a long day, so my brain is working slowly, but what do you mean by emphasising the importance of process in outcome? Do you mean things like re-democratising policy making in the Labour Party? Or do you mean that we can talk about community organising, but unless we get off our backsides and go do it ourselves as people interested and engaged in politics, it will never happen? Or both?

Anthony Painter said...

@Jessica. You were right to pull me up on that jargonistic tangle!

I meant that the type of party you are- how you are organised and engage- influences the types of policy you pursue. It means that people have more influence over and ownership of what you do either locally or nationally.

In other words, process and organisation matter. It's not just an anorak issue just as political reform is not. Now in search of a rhetoric...