A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Purnell starts the fightback

Well done to James Purnell for his speech yesterday which set out clearly what Labour's values are and was in sharp contrast to the "we're all doomed" message emanating from some bits of the PLP, or Charles Clarke's bizarre attack on the 42 day detention policy.

Purnell said what needed to be said: it’s time to get off the floor, because our ideas are right. In particular he challenged left commentators to stop taking the Tories apparent conversation at face value. Just because David Cameron says he has changed doesn't make it so. They might well find that having taken the bait hook, line and sinker, that the Tories, having detoxified their brand, go right back to right wing business as usual.

Key bits - I make no apologies for quoting it at length because it's good stuff:

"This is no 1995, the year that Labour got 47% in the polls, the moment the 1997 Election result became inevitable.
It is not 1995, for two central reasons. First, the economic challenge is different. In 1995, it was the government that had punished the country economically. It was a ‘downturn made in Whitehall.’ 3 million people had been out of work. Interest rates touched 15%. The government had done something catastrophic to the British people.
Today, voters are spooked by the economy, worried about how worried they should be. But they do not blame the government for creating this situation – they realise it has global roots. What they do want to know is how we will respond.
... Labour’s answer to the questions that voters asked is better than the Tory answer. The Conservative answer is that the State should help you less: that the State is part of the problem. Our answer is that the State should help you more. Their answer is that people become powerful when the State withdraws. Our answer is that the state can give people more power.
Our basic moral intuitions accept that idea of reward. But they only accept it if we all have a fair chance.
And that means tackling inequality.
Today, we are publishing research which confirms that children of poor families are more likely to go without regular exercise, have interrupted educations, and live in poor housing. Their lives are damaged almost from their outset by poor health, low achievement and low expectations.
I start from the cast-iron belief that all individuals have an equal right to a flourishing life.
It is the priority we accord to this goal that places us on the political left rather than the political right. The thing that people forget about New Labour is that it was Labour as well as New.
The founding argument for New Labour was that, finally, there would be a marriage between social justice and economic prosperity. That poverty was never a price worth paying.
Nobody in my party has embodied this for longer, or with greater success, than the Prime Minister. His political career has been defined by consistent argument and action on debilitating poverty. To be a guiding force in a country which has 600,000 fewer poor children than it had a decade ago, is an achievement which would cause a Labour politician of any vintage to swell with pride.
In our frenetic and cynical age, when it is routine to say that politicians care only about survival, it is worth pointing out someone with a defining message based on belief rather than political calculation.
Because this issue embodies something beyond brand management, beyond electoral arithmetic, beyond salesmanship. There aren’t many votes in child poverty. But that doesn’t matter one bit. The child poverty target is a question of belief. Of justice. Of what is right.
When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown committed us to the goal of eradicating child poverty they spoke for everyone in this party. They also hit its nerve centre. The child poverty target links Old and New Labour. The outrage we feel at the waste of lives lived in poverty is what links the Labour party of 2008 with the Labour party of 1908.
The difference today is that we are no longer the only ones talking about poverty. The Tories now say they recognise relative poverty. We should celebrate that – we have won the intellectual argument. The Tories know that they have to say they agree that poverty is defined relative to the rest of society, or be out of step with the mood of the times.
But willing the end is only the first test. The second, and harder test is willing the means. Willing the means, so that when there is a choice about where to spend money, child poverty is at the front of the queue.
And the Tories have to date failed that test. Last week David Cameron published a document titled ‘Making British Poverty History.’ The title would suggest that the Tories share our target. But in the 17 pages of the document the best they can manage is to say that the Conservatives "have set ourselves an aspiration to meet the child poverty targets... "
But having an aspiration without a policy is empty. It’s a bit like someone having had an aspiration to paint the living room this Bank Holiday weekend. They would really have liked it if the room had been painted by today. But they spent the weekend watching TV and the paintbrushes stayed in their cans.
The Tory tactic is clear. Hope that we don’t meet the 2010 target, and that people decide that there is little difference between an aspiration without a policy and a target that is difficult to meet.
Well, there is a difference. The difference is in the hundreds of thousands of children whose lives have been and will be transformed. Yes, it’s a brave target. Indeed, the Guardian once speculated that some thought this “the most impossible, and stupidly defined, target ever constructed in Whitehall”.
But I’d rather have a target that is tough to meet and lifts more children out of poverty than an aspiration which can never be measured and therefore requires no action.
The target is tough, because it is like running up a down escalator. The incomes of poor families need to increase faster than those of the median family if relative poverty is not to grow.
And when governments stop running, poverty increases. Between 1979 and 1997, inequality in the UK rose faster and further than in any other country. Over a period of 20 years, the proportion of children in relative poverty more than doubled. By 1997, one in four children in Britain was poor.

If we hadn’t started running in 1997, that gap would have grown. Even if the Tories had started walking up the escalator in 1997, and uprated all their policies in line with inflation, child poverty would have grown. In fact, it would have risen by a further 1.7 million.
It would have risen because the nature of economic change was making the problem worse. The salaries of the skilled were, and are, rising faster than the wages of the unskilled. As we closed the economic gap with other countries so we opened up the economic gap within.
So it’s not just that the target, when it was set, was a long way distant. It was receding all the while.
No government with an eye on the main chance would ever have set such a target. This was not a target set with next day’s headlines in mind, it was a target set with the next generation in mind.
But it has spurred us on. We could fill 20,000 classrooms with the children who are now above the poverty line.
And we have announced further measures to lift a further 500,000 children out of poverty. Households with children in the poorest fifth of the population are on average, £4,500 a year better off, as a result of measures introduced since 1997.
It’s a good record, one that stands comparison with any government. But it’s not yet good enough and the target is there to remind us of that.
We need to redouble our efforts. We need to do more through the tax and benefit system. We need to do more to tackle the poverty penalty. And we need to give people the chance to get on.
We know that ending child poverty will not be easy, and nor will it be achieved just by investing more in the tax and benefit system. Over the next few months, we need to show that there is energy and momentum behind the task. I’ve set out some of our ideas today. But that is just the start. As announced in the budget, the Government is developing the details of £125 million of pilots to provide new solutions to tackling the roots of poverty. This must be the biggest anti-poverty experiment ever conducted.

That is not the mark of a tired government. It is the mark of a government that has a real energy, because it is confident that its answers are the right ones to the questions the public are asking.

That ideological confidence is the way out of this week’s political setback. The Tories are paying lip service to our policies because they know their old answers are out of tune. But our challenge is to show that their policies would not achieve the goals they now say they share.

My argument today is that the goal is simple. To create an Open Society, the kind of society that is best placed to take the opportunities of globalisation.

An Open Society for everyone in Britain – giving them the chance to climb as far as their ambition takes them. But with that ladder rooted on the solid ground of a fair chance for all. That is why child poverty matters, and that is how we can make the best case for it."


Blogger susan said...

I think John McDonnell's May Manifesto offers a rather more succinct way out of Labour's problems and I think you should also take gardening leave because this post is beyond parody. You just don't get it, people have HAD ENOUGH of New Labour, james Purnell, Gordon Brown et al. They are not listening to you any more......

9:47 am, May 07, 2008

Anonymous Ted Harvey said...

I gotta agree with you 100% Luke. We need stuff of the quality and pragmatic honesty like this from James Purnell. I for one will be using it as a reference piece.

10:16 am, May 07, 2008

Blogger Ravi Gopaul said...

Interesting piece but still has the hallmark of burying one head in the sand.

Triangulation was a useful tactic in the past but the knock on effect is our base support has withered which is why we are doomed unless we show a change in direction.
I could say this until I'm blue in the face we know the Tories are bad and are faking their new social conscious; unfortunately the public cannot see a risk to what has been achieved in 11 years because in their eyes the Tories are just the same as us. Politically they are probably right. Over the past year the SNP and others have capitalised on taking up our ideas (Old Labour) leaving us precariously close to a Liberal like oblivion.
This has not gone unnoticed by the leadership; I think (by reading in between the lines) he (Purnell) has signalled there will be a retreat on some of our most neoliberal agenda but I don't see us marching in a leftward direction so ultimately we are toast (that is unless the PLP give Gordon the boot).

11:58 am, May 07, 2008

Blogger Merseymike said...

I thought Purnell's speech showed how fundamentally disconnected he is.

For a start, it doesn't matter if the Tories have genuinely changed or not - the fact is that they appear to have done so. David Cameron comes over as a reasonable, moderate Tory who doesn't have a problem with contemporary values. Trying to portray him as on the hard right is laughable - particularly given that his views are barely to the right of people like John Hutton.

It isn't 1995, because then, the Tories were in Government, and were tired and discredited, with an unappealing leader. Now, its Labour in that position. So, trying to present Labour as 'new' in any way is daft.

Now, I accept the Fabian view of the role of the state - but sadly, that has now been discredited because of the Governments authoritarian meddling and micro-management which has made public sector workers, in particular, very cynical, and has not convinced then that Labour is able to work differently. Yes - the State can give power, but to do so, it needs to stop intervening in unnecessary ways, such as the deadening weight of the target culture

And the thought that you can do something about poverty without redistributive taxation policy is moonshine. The Brown emphasis on means-tested benefits has failed. Go and actually look at the estates and terraces of Liverpool Walton or Bootle and ask yourself whether these child poverty figures mean anything at all?

There is nothing here to inspire, and plenty to make one realise that perhaps the only answer is a spell in opposition.

1:31 pm, May 07, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree- it's an excellent speech and Purnell (and presumably his advisers!) has done a really good job at defining some key policy differences rooted in different values while staying in the moderate social democracy camp.

Annoyingly i was supposed to go and see the speech yesterday but had to work. Feel really like I missed out now!

1:43 pm, May 07, 2008

Anonymous Rich said...

Sorry Luke you should listen to what MerseyMike is saying. Labour are truly doomed.

8:58 pm, May 07, 2008

Anonymous Rich said...

Latest Poll out today suggests Labour have fallen in the polls even further. Now 30 points behind....lol.

Give up and call an election.

10:49 pm, May 07, 2008

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...


the poll you refer to doesn't seem to be reported anywhere. Can you post a link to it?

7:43 am, May 08, 2008

Anonymous Rich said...


It's in the Sun, A Labour tabloid as well. You should be very worried.......

8:52 pm, May 08, 2008


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