openDemocracyUK

James 'Kiddo' Purnell praising and burying New Labour

The only one of New Labour's young stars with the courage to resign leaves a smooth but deadly calling card.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
16 February 2010

Health warning: How wrong can you be? I wrote this assuming, see the conclusion, that he was positioning himself to be the Labour leader after next!! But he has just (19 Feb) resigned from parliament!!

I went to hear James Purnell speak this evening. it was a Miliband lecture at the LSE (wonder how that happened). It marks the launch of the Demos Open Left pamphlet, Society of Equals (that I've not seen yet).

Purnell is capable. Resignation has done him a lot of good. I especially liked the exchange between him and the Chair, David Held, when Held queried Purnell's call for 'old fashioned' organisation rather than 'high velocity social networking' and Purnell replied with a description of the need to organise that made him sound like Sunny Hundal!

His speech is a reflection on what went wrong and how Labour needs to reform itself that is striking. I'll link to it if it is published, There is no moralising, regret, irony or bitterness, rather a smooth and careful assurance that it was good in 1997 but now it's not. He presented himself as a Third Way version of Mark Anthony, coming neither to bury nor to praise New Labour but to move on. Well, he said "move beyond"! But what could be more New Labour, because of course he was both praising and burying. Its very own gravedigger has emerged from out of the coffin of New Labour like the murderous bride Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill. He loves his creator... to death.

He was scathing about the ideological lightness of New Labour and how disabling this proved (and saw a continuity here with the New Conservatives). Is he forging something more durable out of Tawney and Amartya Sen? He says we have to get the balance right between the market, society and the state, empowering people under conditions of reciprocity nurtured and protected but not run by government...

I suggested his description was too benign. His party hadn't just let its own democracy fall away by mistake, its leadership had driven it out of existence to ensure control over policy. Labour wasn't simply doing too much with the State to compensate for leaving the market unregulated, it was interning people without charge, complicit in torture, people were right to fear its executive despotism.

Purnell has a many gifts and one, which makes him a natural, is a capacity to appear to be answering a question honestly and without hesitation while sidestepping it. I was right! The party leaders should have allowed members to debate issues. Why not? The NEC could ignore them as its responsibility was to formulate policies for the whole country not the party. Yes, the state could do bad things which is why the the market and the society have to be strengthened to counter it. Hmmm, isn't there a phrase about the direction good intentions can take you?

But to this outside observer if Labour is heading for a car crash, James 'Kiddo' Purnell strikes me as much more likely to emerge at the wheel of a replacement vehicle than Miliband, Balls, or Cruddas.

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