The thinking man’s politician?

Two years ago James Purnell may not have been a household name but he was touted by many commentators to have a steady political rise ahead of him. He has the fresh-faced likeability that many attributed to Tony Blair in his early days and some do to David Cameron today. He also seemed to have well thought-out values and intellectual firepower that he was able to turn first on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and then the Department for Work and Pensions. Then came the night of the 2009 European and local elections when he resigned from Cabinet just moments after the polls had closed on what was expected to be a disastrous set of results for Labour. He quickly became recognisable as an emblem of Gordon Brown’s crumbling political authority in the same week that saw the departure of Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears, John Hutton, and Caroline Flint, with a serious concern that Brown would be left with a ‘skeleton crew’ of over-promoted loyalists. Purnell’s letter of resignation pulled no punches when it told Gordon, “I now believe your continued l

eadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely,” and it was evidently the opening salvo in a bid to oust the Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, the attempted ejection (by no means the first of Brown’s premiership) failed, and James Purnell has adjusted to life as a backbencher rather well. When questioned by members of the Oxford University Labour Club, the MP for Stalybridge and Hyde insists he is “pleased to be out of frontline politics for a while”, and does not seem to be saying it through gritted teeth. He famously spent his first weekend out of the Cabinet alphabetizing his bookshelves, a task no doubt neglected amid the bustle of government but also a chance to reassess and revisit, and importantly to reengage with the ideas behind politics. Since June, Purnell has cast himself in the role of the ‘ideas-man’ of progressive politics, netting a high-profile role at the Blairite think tank Demos, where he is tasked with envisioning the future of Left politics. And he has rediscovered a great thinker: Amartya Sen. The work of the Indian-born Nobel laureate can be shoe-horned nicely into the New Labour rhetoric in which James Purnell is fluent: empowerment and capabilities replace the classical liberal emphasis on negative freedom in society and markets.

“If you look at David Cameron’s speeches, Gordon Brown’s speeches, Tony Blair’s speeches, they are about how you can translate ideas into reality”

But isn’t this all the kind of abstract theorizing that he should have got out of his system studying PPE at Balliol in the 1980s? Isn’t government too messy, too ‘real’ for this to be practical? On the contrary, Purnell insists, in politics “if you don’t make the effort to work out what your ideas are then you’re going to make a lot of mistakes”, because the media and interest groups make “modern politics so pressurized” that a grasp of what you want to do has to guide what you actually do. Interestingly, he also defends the importance of ideas to current politicians; “if you look at David Cameron’s speeches, Gordon Brown’s speeches, Tony Blair’s speeches, they are about how you can translate ideas into reality” and at its best that is the role of politics, taking an idea from the abstract to the concrete. This is an upbeat assessment, given that so many of the decisions our political leaders seem to make appear cynical and media-driven, the big-ticket speeches may contain ideas but really serve only as mood music for pragmatic government. “I think it can be hard, definitely” he concedes, but that is not, for him, a reason to think it is dispensable.

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“What I think electoral reform requires you to do is to move from a politics which is mostly about opposition to one that also has a larger element of consensus-building”

I am interested to know whether James Purnell thinks the significance of big ideas in politics could be increased, suggesting that a more proportional electoral system may make a contribution. His response is cagier than I had expected from a declared proponent of electoral reform; greater proportionality, he admits, “creates the space for [discussion of ideas], because it creates more voices”, but if done badly there is the risk that you would “never have a government that can implement those ideas because you disperse the powers so far that no one can get anything done”. These are common responses to PR campaigners, but how does he thinks we can square the circle? He responds in generalities, enthusing that “what I think electoral reform requires you to do is to move from a politics which is mostly about opposition to one that also has a larger element of consensus-building”, but then goes on to suggest that on environmental issues, for instance, Britain already has a greater degree of consensus than France or Italy, with their more proportional systems. In this way, Purnell is very New Labour in his ambivalence towards constitutional reform, not sure where to lay his priorities while refusing to endorse the status quo.

In contrast to this wavering, he offers a raft of detail on how Parliament could function better: primaries for prospective candidates, more ability for the House to initiate legislation, elected select committee Chairs and increased powers for committees. He does not acknowledge the abysmal record of this government in circumventing and diluting the authority of the House of Commons, with its seizure of control over parliamentary time, its huge majorities and uncompromising whipping, and its exercise of the Royal Prerogative. He comes dangerously close to sounding platitudinous when he says, “I think taking democracy as discussion is actually really important”, but his rhetoric at least points in the right direction – it just happens to be the opposite direction to the one in which British politics has been moving for the last quarter-century.

“Then I performed at Edinburgh and I had to admit to myself I wasn’t very good, so I decided to give that up”

James Purnell may yet return to the front bench, not least in a Shadow Cabinet after the next general election, when Gordon Brown will have to stand aside for a new generation of Labour politicians. Then it is likely that Purnell’s strong track record as a Secretary of State will bode well for another prominent role. When I ask which Cabinet role he would like in the future he shies away from an answer, perhaps not wishing to tempt fate. Instead, Purnell revisits his enthusiasm for the roles he has held in the past few years. As the head of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) he was clearly at home with the arts scene; he confesses with embarrassment that when he came up to university he actually wanted to be an actor, quickly adding, “then I performed at Edinburgh and I had to admit to myself I wasn’t very good, so I decided to give that up”. He has maintained links with the theatre, serving on the board of the Young Vic in London. DCMS was thus a chance to influence an area of society that he had a deep-seated passion for, and he was evidently well-liked and respected in the role.

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“New Labour always had the part of the story that was about aspiration and climbing the skills ladder…but we mustn’t forget about the protection part as well”

His interest in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to which he was promoted in January 2008, may not have been so personal but is married to a keen sense of responsibility for the handling of the government’s largest budget. “You’re spending more money each year than the whole income of Portugal,” he says, almost excitedly, “and how well or badly you spend it makes a massive difference to millions and millions of people.” The DWP has been central to the New Labour agenda on tackling unemployment and welfare dependency, and during his time there Purnell was seen as continuing the Blairite line of encouraging transition from benefits to work with judicious use of the stick as well as the carrot. However, during a recession the line between the workshy and the unlucky is increasingly blurred, and Purnell sounds a note of caution on the efforts of the last decade, “New Labour always had the part of the story that was about aspiration and climbing the skills ladder…but we mustn’t forget about the protection part as well”. Some people suffer unemployment because of the vagaries of macroeconomic forces, others because the 21st century economy no longer requires workers with 1970s skill-profiles; he is heavily influenced by Amartya Sen in his new emphasis on people’s substantive freedom to operate in the labour market, their capabilities.

And yet, for all that decentralisation and grass-roots empowerment are the new rhetorical currency of all three parties, Purnell speaks frankly about the role of the state; we cannot escape the fact that “the bread-and-butter of government is running big machines” and we need to run them as well as we can. He may have spent much of his political career looking at ways to increase choice and contestability in public services, but he seems more willing to offer the state and market simultaneously as solutions to the problems people face, rather than lumping for Old Labour statism or New Labour’s faith in markets. It is difficult to shed scepticism of this have-your-cake-and-eat-it mentality, perhaps we will have to see how the Left’s new ideas-man can reconcile such tensions in a future Labour administration.