Is James Purnell the man to take on the Tories for Labour?

by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2008

Today’s ICM poll in The Guardian showing the Tories with a record 20% lead over Labour will increase the pressure on Gordon Brown.

Conventional wisdom – backed up by the results to date of the latest LDV poll – suggest the Prime Minister is safe for the moment. And at least part of the reason for that is the absence of a popular alternative – perhaps David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman or Jacqui Smith might do a better job. But no one in the cabinet has yet demonstrated they have anything like the chutzpah that would be needed to turn around Labour’s dire poll ratings.

So I was intrigued by John Rentoul’s leadership speculation on The Indy’s Open House blog today bigging-up Work and Pensions minister James Purnell, and highlighting his recent speech to Labour’s Progress Challenge in which he launched a more plausible attack on the Tories than Mr Brown’s ‘clunking’ efforts have so far mustered:

There is one aspect of the Tory sales pitch I agree with. Cameron has said many times that we shouldn’t judge him on where he’s come from but where he’s going. Absolutely: I couldn’t care less where he went to school or who his parents are. It’s where he’s going that worries me, not where he’s been.
Because I don’t think, in his heart of hearts, he knows who he is any more. At every stage in his life David Cameron has just drifted with the orthodoxy around him. The answer, for him, is always blowing in the wind.
So when people say he’s really right wing they’re almost right. He was really right wing once. He wrote the 2005 manifesto, after all. But then the wind changed direction so he turned with it. He loved free markets and Thatcher when all his friends did. He no doubt believed the same as Norman Lamont, when he worked for him.
He bears, as was said of Lord Derby, the imprint of the person who sat on him last. And we were the last people to sit on him. His team worked out that New Labour was popular. This was attractive to Cameron: looks like a new orthodoxy. Better join up.
This is the real charge against the Tory leader: that he has no settled convictions. He just has bits and pieces along the way. And you can’t lead if you are confused.

It is not just the attack on the Tories which is better. So, too, is his expression of a coherent vision for Labour, albeit one that borrows heavily from the well-thumbed manual Ideology-lite Pragmatism for Beginners:

The correct position on the use of the state is an agnostic one. If it helps solve a problem, it’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, it’s not. And there is no doubt that, in welfare, if you eschew use of the state for ideological reasons, you’ll find yourself in big trouble.
Without state action there would be less money spent on tax credits. That means there would be more children in poverty. There would be less money spent on pensioners, in the name of reducing means testing. So that would mean more pensioners in poverty.
It’s no wonder [the Tories] won’t sign up to our target to end child poverty. It would already be 1.7 million worse if we’d just continued their policies. It would be even worse if we adopted their policies now.
The point is that we are developing the right partnership between individuals and the state, not throwing all the responsibility onto one because we are committed to reducing the other.

There is much here which could be faulted, not least the very New Labour idea that ‘what matters is what works’: well, true, but it’s not a bad idea to think through if it might work in advance. And an even better idea to recognise that it’ll be more likely to work if it’s not controlled from Whitehall.

But, hey, I’m a Lib Dem. That I disagree with Mr Purnell is beside the point. At least I get his point. At least you can feel his speech has a narrative arc. At least it doesn’t read like it’s been stuck together with sellotape.

None of which means that Mr Purnell will, or is even likely to, succeed Mr Brown. But Labour should at least hire his speech-writer for their next leader.

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No comments

Think they’ve sacked the speech writer, innit?

by Chris Paul on June 25, 2008 at 12:54 am. Reply #

He follows the essential dishonesty of the working tax credit system, which is that it papers over the cracks of unsustainable low-skilled, low-paid work, which this country cannot rely on.

It also, as we are well aware, discriminates against single people, whilst doing nothing genuine to help couples with children apart from shuffling around their money, when they should be supported in gaining such qualifications as will allow them to command higher wages in the marketplace.

He also does not address the issue of worklessness, which is masked by immigration but won’t be when many immigrants, having made a quick buck (& good luck to them) return to their native countries as times get hard.

A more coherent, brave narrative should be spelled out, but Purnell is too wedded to New Labour’s socialism plus big corporations (ie. not truly liberal) to do anything.

by asquith on June 25, 2008 at 7:15 am. Reply #

…And most important;y Purnell is a fresh face not really tainted in the public eye by too much association with Blair or Brown. I have said it before…if i was Labour i would try for a hard-six, ditch Brown and go with Purnell…

by Darrell on June 25, 2008 at 8:12 am. Reply #

His criticism of Cameron for blowing with the wind is nothing new. Remember Chameleon Cameron?

by boldkevin on June 25, 2008 at 9:35 am. Reply #

There is something faintly ridiculous about Labour and Lib Dem politicians scurrying around trying to find the best angle to attack Cameron. Those who have worked closely with Cameron know that he has a very well developed sense of what direction he wants to lead the country in. Far from “blowing with the wind”, Cameron has actually built his position on slowly but steadily progressing in a single direction. I fear that Parnell is no better than the many other NuLab aparachiks who spend an inordinate amount of mental energy trying to play politics and outmanoevre the Tories when they should be concentrating on running the country.

From what I hear, Parnell is a bright boy. But he should use his talents to fix the country and then, maybe, people might start to come back to Labour.

And of course it is more than a little ironic that the speach Rentoul lauds covers precisely the ground that Cameron has been charting out. When he says:

we are developing the right partnership between individuals and the state, not throwing all the responsibility onto one because we are committed to reducing the other

he is correct but is being highly disingenuous. NuLabour have been busy building up the state at the expense of the smaller units within society and this balance certainly needs to be readressed back in favour of individuals and small groups. But Cameron is the one who has developed the rigorous policy framework to achieve this, and Labour are still busy pulling the other way.

No wonder Brown called for the head of the speachwriter

by passing tory on June 25, 2008 at 10:01 am. Reply #

Isn’t the speechwriter the same guy who called for Labour to become New Liberals?

by Simon on June 25, 2008 at 10:38 am. Reply #

No, he looks too much like Anthony Newley…

by wit and wisdom on June 25, 2008 at 1:06 pm. Reply #

I’m probably going to get into trouble here for not paying attention, but who the hell is James Purnell?

by Martin Land on June 26, 2008 at 8:04 am. Reply #

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