Peter Hoskin

James Purnell’s third way

James Purnell's third way
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Guess who's back.  Yes, James Purnell, the man who tried his best to topple Gordon Brown last year, has emerged from the relative obscurity of the backbenches and Think-Tank World to set out a new prospectus for the Labour party in today's Guardian.  David nodded towards it earlier, but it's worth looking at in a little more detail.  Why?  Well, because it's an indication of how things could go for the post-election Labour party.

The first thing that strikes you is how Purnell tries to defuse the controversy of his resignation last year.  "What?" you might think, "resigning from Brown's government is controversial? Sane, more like."  And, yes, I see what you mean.  But the fact remains that, inside the Labour party, there are folk who think Purnell was motivated by nothing more than hatred of Brown the man – as far as they're concerned, it all seemed too personal.  So here we've got an opening paragraph which says not only that "Gordon Brown will lead Labour into the next election," but also that "he's a remarkable man".  What follows isn't uncritical, of course.  Far from it.  But he's certainly trying to make some sort of peace with his party.

There are more passages which read as though Purnell is building bridges to the wary Labour masses.  Think he's too far to the right of the party?  Then howabout: "[Gordon Brown] deserves credit for preventing this recession becoming a depression. David Cameron would have flunked that test."  Think he's too much of a metropolitan, Blairite go-getter?  Then: "We believe that Thatcherism was an often wicked period of our national history that celebrated greed, inflicted unnecessary pain and failed to govern for the whole country."

But most of these quotes fit into a wider attempt to reconcile a range of leftist ideas and ideals.  When Purnell talks of markets, the state and society, it's in terms of both their limits and their potential.  There are references to Labour heroes like Keir Hardie and R.H. Tawney.  The New Labour project is charged with not being "confident enough where it was right, or sceptical enough where it was wrong".  And he even borrows Cameron's post-bureaucratic language about society not being the same thing as the state – but rapidly adds that the Tories stole all this from Labour in the first place.  This is real broad-spectrum stuff, and it makes for a pretty dense newspaper comment piece.

I don't think it quite gels together – and it's certainly not the kind of politics which most CoffeeHousers would vote for.  But it's clear that Purnell is trying to rise above the Blairite-Brownite divide which has dominated Labour for the past 12 years or more, and create a wider coalition within the party.  And while this may not be enough to make Purnell the next Labour leader – a role The Spectator once suggested he might occupy – it's this kind of approach which could prevent Labour from descending into a civil war between, say, Team Balls and Team Miliband in the event of an election drubbing. In which case, don't bet on it catching on.