The Purple Book and the new age of rainbow coalitions

Urging a 'revising of New Labour', The Purple Book refuses to acknowledge the mistakes of the Blairite era. What it does show is that Britain is in a new age of 'colour politics', where flux and confusion reigns as we struggle to find an alternative to market fundamentalism.

The Purple Book, ed. Robert Philpot, Biteback Publishing, September 2011.

Political colours are all the vogue at the moment. We have had Red Tories and Orange Book Liberals. And now we have the latest manifestations, Blue Labour and Purple Labour.

The last two are signs of some intellectual activity in British Labour, as it tries to come to terms with the post-Blair/Brown era.

Blue Labour is associated with Ed Miliband’s favourite guru, Maurice Glasman. It emphasises community, authority and the need for the state to provide some solidarity in society.

Purple Labour is the creation of ‘Progress’, who have this week published ‘The Purple Book’ which brings together 22 contributors including a whole pile of former ministers and special advisers representing the Blairite political classes, plus Douglas Alexander.

The Purple bookers drawing on Policy Network research argue that voters feel three things about the state of Britain. They are frightened of the concentration of power in the economy; still see advantages in the market economy; and have a lack of faith in the role of the state to protect people from the storms around them.

From this comes their prospectus, according to ‘Progress’ director Robert Philpot, of ‘the continued relevance of New Labour’ and that the best future for progressive politics is a ‘revising of New Labour’.

This assumption from the last political establishment takes them down some blind alleys. There is for example, no real understanding of life after the Blairite bubble, or any sense of contrition for the mistakes of thirteen years in office.

Falling living standards, backward social mobility, record inequality and sky-high personal debt levels might be difficult to solve, but it would be good to address them. All of these were exasperated by New Labour light touch regulation and its Faustian pact with the masters of the universe.

There is a lack of personal and collective responsibility running through ‘The Purple Book’. The crimes and misdemeanours of New Labour are glossed over, with most of its limitations blamed on the Brown blip. It is like the Tory old guard reminiscing still about the good old days of the great dame, and still seeing politics through the prism of the high 1980s.

It is also a phenomenally narrow world, still seeing politics and change as about Westminster - missing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and not recognising that there might be an English dimension. They are still focused on the high politics of capturing the British state for supposedly progressive ends.

At the same time there are some interesting aspects to this book. Robert Philpot talks the right language of envisioning ‘new centres of governance, power and wealth creating’ as an alternative to the state and corporate power.

The long proud traditions of decentralism, self-government, mutualism, GDH Cole’s guild socialism, are all invoked as soft left mood music, but they are not explored or renewed beyond the proverbial nod to John Lewis.

There is a historical silence in this. New Labour did some good and some bad things, but it has to be seen in the context of the compromises of Labour in power. No Labour politician ever addresses the fact that since 1945 there have been four main periods of Labour Government, but only one has managed to reduce inequality. That was the 1945 Attlee administration, but its record is mostly due to the levelling effect of the war.

There is a contemporary evasion on the power of corporations and the challenge this poses to all our politicians. Voters are aware of the grotesque over-reach of big business, yet politicians with their corporate capture by the new elites of wealth are struggling to keep up with voter anger.

Instead, the Labour modernisers see the corporates as their new friends. Alan Milburn writes in ‘The Purple Book’, while pocketing £25,000 per annum advising Pepsi on healthy lifestyles. Jacqui Smith, disgraced Home Secretary, pops up after fiddling her expenses as if anyone should take a single word she says seriously! And an analysis of localism is provided by those nice people KPMG with no qualification or explanation that they are a vested interest group.

Many will dismiss the Purple people and claim they are Labour’s Orange Bookers: a fifth column in a progressive party carrying the baton for market fundamentalism. Yet at least the Purple and Blue people debate shows there is an element of life and energy in the shell-shocked, bruised entity that is Labour; one that is trying to either invoke the legacy of New Labour and continue the revolution, and the other develop a post-Blairite agenda.

This new age of colour politics is one of flux, confusion and searching for alternatives after the era of market dogmatism. The future, given the challenges we face, won’t be clear-cut, but messy, a kind of rainbow politics and colours. There is at a British level the prospect of a Traffic Light Labour of red, amber and green, and in Scotland a similar coloured catch-all SNP, with the future for both being a radical, liberal, green politics.

There is at this crucial point in politics, interesting debates and ideas fermenting in Labour and the Tories. These may not be up to the scale of the crisis we live in, namely, the end of the illusions of laissez-faire capitalism, the disconnection of economic growth from all but the top 1% of income groups, and the hollowing out of our democracy.

However, compared to north of the border at least a debate has begun. We have a battered Labour Party sitting unsure what to do facing an uber-confident SNP which finds itself governing in hard times when the largesse has been turned off.

We seem to be shifting from a Labour one party politics which did not encourage debate and ideas to an SNP-dominated age, where it is not yet clear where new thinking will come from.

We need to address ‘The Purple Book’ point about how we create new centres of governance and voice, and at the same time challenge the accountancy-actuary view of the world from the Crawford Beveridges and Richard Kerleys that all we can hope for is a mistitled ‘radical change’ of charging, outsourcing and privatising in some knock-down firesale. A genuine Scottish debate would challenge such self-congratulatory corporate groupthink and see it as part of the problem it is.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com