Purnell spectacularly misses the point
Attacks spin? Check. Says a few nice things about ‘old’ Labour? Check. Is a rat bastard snake oil salesman? You better believe it. Yes folks, it’s conference season again and that means turning the Guardian into a mouthpiece for people like James Purnell to hold up to their arse for whatever noises issue forth, from a cavern whose only rival is the space between their ears. Purnell’s argument? That there’s no real difference between New and Old Labour, and that we shouldn’t attack New Labour because really our principles are all the same, we’re just applying them in different eras.
It’s easy to take this view when the only thing you’re willing to admit as evidence are the headline achievements; “The minimum wage and the New Deal. The Human Rights Act and being tough on crime. The windfall tax and the numeracy and literacy hour.” The enmity of the Unions for attempting to undermine firemen, postmen, prison wardens and local government workers. Outsourcing everything in sight. Living in the same anti-immigrants paradigm as the Tories. Attacks on civil liberties, party democracy and young people.
The difference between “New” and “Old” Labour was not simply one of rhetoric. Each had a programme behind them. The rhetoric was not a self-consciously adopted device separate from the programme; the two were interconnected. The thing that allowed New Labour to play well in the media were the concessions Labour made to media owners, and the promises made to business. New Labour did define itself against Old Labour, and did define itself against the party membership, except where the membership did what it was told, conformed to what was expected.
In simple terms, Purnell is also wrong that the two Labours share the same principles. ‘Old’ Labour, retrospectively defined, is essentially Bennism; this was what Kinnock and subsequent modernisers fought against. Committed to a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people. New Labour – no matters its achievements – was never in favour of this. One set out to be on the side of workers, of organising on democratic principles from the ground up – the other was a masterful rejigging of Fabian paternalism for neo-liberal times.
These two organisational principles created and were created by the demands of each platform within the Party. Yet they are fundamentally opposed; which is why this Labour leadership has had less scruples about seeking support from the Tory opposition to pass laws than it has about negotiating with the ranks of its own MPs. So incompetent has the unquestioning support of people like Purnell been that even when doing the right thing, such as nuclear disarmament, the Party leadership has managed to look utterly craven and opportunistic.
For further examples of such opportunism, we need look no further than Purnell’s claim that we should neither cling to nor criticize the ‘New Labour’ tag. Though Paul makes an interesting case to the contrary, Purnell has only recently begun his apparent transition towards the Left – and this attempt to save something from the wreckage of New Labour carries a strong element of self-justification. It also plays to Jon Cruddas’ idea that New Labour only went sour after 2001 and that it can be repeated: which surely rules out the idea that Purnell is left-wing.
We have seen the path New Labour walked. The best that New Labour’s theorists can do is propose that things might have been different had different people been at the top, had the individuals at the top not forgotten their historical mission, had Labour adopted some different organisational form (though interestingly never including such a power as could stymie and overthrow its leadership). Such philosophic idealism is the wave that will carry Cruddas, Purnell and others like them to power in Labour, as the bureaucracy fears for its future.
The question is, how soon will the rest of us forget their behaviour hitherto whenever their charm and promises begin to be played up by the Toynbees, Kettles, Ashleys and the rest of the commentariat and its goldfish-like memory?