Purnell sets out his grand vision

In a thoughtful and, at times, radical speech tonight at the LSE, James Purnell outlined why he believes the Labour party must go beyond its focus on equality of opportunity with a series of reforms to the market, state, and society aimed at a greater equality of people’s power. He also found time to criticise the Conservative’s lack of ideology.

Speaking the day before Demos publishes a new paper, ‘We mean power: arguments and ideas for the future of the left,’ Purnell referenced Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities, which Purnell paraphrased as “our goal of powerful people,” and Tawney’s work on the “reciprocal society.” Appearing to break ranks with the new Labour tradition, which was once “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, Purnell said:

“Equality of opportunity is meaningless if certain groups in society always get the opportunity while others never do. A more equal society is a precondition for everyone being able to reach their potential.

“When deciding where public funding and political capital should be spent, we should prioritise those inequalities that prevent people being powerful and society being reciprocal.”

While in a nuanced passage he said:

“We lefties should love markets. When they work, markets put power in the hands of individuals rather than a central organisation … people on the centre-Left shouldn’t just tolerate markets because they are efficient and unavoidable; we should embrace them because they do good.

“However, that is only true if markets work … Following the credit crunch, we clearly need to learn lessons about financial regulation. But we also need to expand those insights to other parts of the economy, and rediscover the cartel-busting credentials of our first term, when we introduced the Competition Act and created OFCOM.”

Setting out a series of policy ideas, some trailed in Graeme Cooke’s Demos pamphlet ‘Society of Equals‘, he married new Labour staples like greater choice for schools with ideas from the left of the party such as a living wage with relatively new ideas such as the state becoming an employer of last resort; making tax breaks for savers “much more progressive”; and primaries for Labour’s candidates. Perhaps most radically of all, he said:

“we could use one per cent of the money spent bailing out the banks to create locally governed endowments to fund the projects that the state shouldn’t and the market wouldn’t.”

Switching from policy to movement politics and the missing “communitarian spirit” which has united thinkers such as Philip Blonde and Jon Cruddas, Purnell cited the work of Saul Alinsky, “the father of the Chicago school of community organising” who inspired Barack Obama:

“Labour has been looking for ways to strengthen community through the state, when the answer was staring us in the face in the form of the Labour movement itself, and the ideas of organisation, reciprocity and political action on which it was built.

“Under the harshest conditions, our forebears came together to care for each other and organise to resist the power of capital. But after 1945 we forgot some of those lessons and neglected the habits of association and organisation out of which Labour had grown.

Since then, little has been done to refresh the social capital of the Labour movement … We treat these trends as if they mark an exogenous and irreversible decline in political participation or social activism – but the opposite is true, as the growth of single issue campaigns and on-line communities show. The people can be organised. It’s just that Labour isn’t doing so anymore. “

In a passage dedicated to the similarities between Cameron’s Conservatives and the early days of new Labour, Purnell said:

“Travelling light in politics has its advantages – it allows you to float on public opinion, to react quickly to the press, to abandon softly held views.  Indeed this may be the source of David Cameron’s tactical strength in opposition but his strategic weakness should he get into government. For Labour, the absence of such an ideology might have helped us get elected but caused … problems in government …

“So, a lack of ideology may help you win power. But it stops you using that power well.”

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