Purnell is a heretic, and he’s in the wrong party

August 2, 2011 10:31 am

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James PurnellBy Ryan Thomas

It seems that few figures in the Labour Party attract more revulsion than James “I’m centre-left, honest” Purnell, the former cabinet minister whose recent foray into the public eye is to call for radical changes to the welfare state. Given Purnell’s apparent status as one of “Labour’s brightest and best thinkers”, his ideas gain currency in the media and blogosphere, provoking discussion and debate on their merits.

Purnell’s latest initiative it to argue that Labour needs to “regain the initiative on welfare.” To do so, he has cleverly devised a “centre-left agenda” for welfare. This agenda revolves around the scrapping of free bus passes for some pensioners and the winter fuel allowance too. How is this a centre-left agenda? What is centre-left about it?

Already, Josh Eades has taken to LabourList to man the barricades, arguing that “the mere flirtation with the words welfare and reform are enough for some to dust off the old communist manifesto and start beating those who realise the need for reform about the head and neck.” However, it is perfectly legitimate for those within the Labour Party who believe in the principle of universality to react with anger to Purnell’s ideas and to oppose them vigorously. To do so is not to reflexively reject “reform” but to reject the direction of travel of these reforms.

Purnell wants to reconceptualise the welfare state as a “protection state”. In support, Josh Eades argued that “the welfare system exists to protect the most vulnerable in society, to catch them when they fell through the safety net.” However, this is quite ahistorical; the welfare state introduced the principle of universality, the noble idea that all Britain’s people, whatever their hometown, background, wealth, status, or creed are entitled to live their lives in dignity. When we start quibbling about who deserves entitlements and who does not, we fall back into the trap of the means test, the very thing that the welfare state was designed to destroy (not to mention that administering the means test would be a drain on scarce resources).

We should enthusiastically support the universal principle of welfare and challenge right-wing media distortions that in doing so we are supporting the comfortable over the vulnerable. To ask, as Eades do, “does Lord Sugar need winter fuel allowance?” is to miss the point altogether and betrays an obsession with considering things from the perspective of the top strata of society. The Lord Sugars of this world are few and far between and the money spent on winter fuel allowance for Lord Sugar and his ilk is a drop in the ocean.

The free bus pass in particular is a wonderful creation, a symbol of our commitment as a party and a country to give something back to those who have paid into the system over many years and enable them to travel across their town and beyond to run errands, visit family and friends, and so on. It helps the elderly live a dignified retirement, retain a sense of independence, and fight off feelings of isolation. It is an easy topic to get starry-eyed about, but if there’s anything we should be unapologetically romantic about defending, it is this.

The idea that we should reform welfare by cutting services for the elderly is morally objectionable. To casually dismiss things that are so important to the elderly and the vulnerable up and down Britain reflects somebody who is not only out of touch with centre-left thinking but out of touch with reality and lacking in empathy. What differentiates Purnell’s ideas from Cameron advisor Steve Hilton’s, who called for the abolition of maternity leave? Why is Purnell continuing to claim to be of the left?

Liam Byrne is quite correct to say that “Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front.” We’re behind because we’re backpedaling to keep up with a very nasty, right-wing agenda. We can get back in front by reasserting the principles of universality, dignity for all and equality.

To quote Harold Wilson, “Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” It is a sad reflection of how far we have travelled from our principles that ideas like Purnell’s can find currency in our party, indicative of a party that is no longer clear about what it stands for, who it represents, and why it exists. The cry of “you’re in the wrong party, mate” is an easy reflex, something I am guilty of myself. But I am afraid it is all too appropriate here. The reason Purnell is treated as a heretic is because his ideas are heretical. They have no place in the Labour Party and the charade of pretending to be of the left while coming out with some very right wing views should come to an end.

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