Purnell’s paradoxes….

Whatever happens following the election there will be a debate within the Labour Party about future direction. James Purnell is busying himself behind the scenes trying to lead that debate and his latest interview on LabourList marks out his desire to be seen as a leading theoretician as opposed to necessarily a party leader.

He obviously wants to move ‘beyond New Labour’ and reinvent Blairism. In the interview Purnell identifies the problems of the past thus:

New Labour should have been clearer that we cared about inequality, but we should also have been clearer about which inequalities we care about.

No,  James that was not the problem, the problem was that New Labour’s critique of inequality is devoid of wider structural vision and ambition. One thing that socialism understood well enough and Blairism pretended not too was that capitalism was and is a fundamentally unequal society and that limits exist therefore to the ‘equality’ that can be achieved. This is something that the struggling public sector worker; who reads in the news about the bonuses that banks pay and compares them to their own pay packet, understands well enough but it has somehow managed to elude our leadership.

Purnell’s vision of ‘active equality’; where people achieve it for themselves comes with a glass ceiling. His theories are devoid of a basic understanding of the interplay of individual and enviroment. It shouldn’t surprise people that the Marmot Review:

supports a widely held view that inequalities of health, education, income and opportunity are all inter-related.

In other words they are structural in nature. However, this simple point blows Purnell’s world-view to pieces. His poverty of ambition when it comes to bold challenges to structural inequality are on display when he talks about a High Pay Commission:

I think a cap on high pay would be illiberal and probably counter-productive. I think the idea of Government – or anybody – deciding what the maximum pay should be is too much of an interference in the ability of society and the market to run themselves.

Note the humorous notion that markets can ‘run themselves’; an idea whose credibility is in tatters. This fundamental misunderstanding of the market runs through Purnell’s discourse especially when he talks about ‘correcting market outcomes’ but he misses the point that in concrete he is unwilling to do that; why else would he oppose a High Pay Commission?

This is the paradox that runs through Purnell’s attempt at a new ‘triangulation’; a paradox caused by a vision of society that ironically is more idealised than the thing it replaced in the name of realism and pragmatism.


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About darrellgoodliffe


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