Greasy Pole: Weasels at Westminster
“Ambitious” is a chameleon word, adapting itself to demands and conditions. An ambitious doctor may nurture an obsession to cure ravaging diseases. An ambitious sociologist may set out doggedly to unravel misconceived theories about the causes of crime, depression, homelessness. But…an “ambitious” estate agent? An “ambitious” tabloid hack? An “ambitious” politician?
James Mark Dakin Purnell is the Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde. Succeeding to the seat in 2001, he was swept into the Commons by an electorate not then recovered from the hysteria of the 1997 slaughter of Tories and the raptures of Tonylove. Purnell’s was a well-worn path to Westminster; a “first class” degree at Oxford (Balliol College) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, an Islington councillor, part-time holiday researcher for Tony Blair and then, after a couple of intimidatingly titled jobs, the dizzy heights of speech-writer to Prime Minister Blair. Being by then known as a “media expert” could have done him no harm but some may have reflected that twenty years before he could, with the same type of background, have fitted comfortably into the pattern of those other Oxford Firsts who, weighing up their chances, opted to favour the Tories with their talents. In the 2005 election, as the experience of Labour government induced a more stark realism in the voters, Purnell’s majority was reduced but still held firm at 8348 – although, as the Labour vote crumbles away, even his seat cannot be considered to be entirely safe. But Balliol graduates are renowned for their superiority so there is reason to believe that his survival and future have been carefully planned.
Firstly, there is his experience in government, from more junior jobs in Creative Industry and Tourism (in which he “liberalised” alcohol licensing laws) and Culture, Media and Sport (which enabled him to offer to bemused Labour delegates vacuous speeches which included both the words “culture” and “community” without acknowledging any historical dependence between them). And then, in January 2008, replacing the sacked Peter Hain in charge at the massive, challenging and unhealthy Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) – a promotion described by TV’s Andrew Marr as “from threatening the BBC to threatening the unemployed”. Purnell had in fact done a previous stint at the DWP, which had earned him a commendation in Which magazine as Consumer Champion of the Year – something the unemployed may soon wonder about. He was given the testing job of opening the recent Budget debate, although a measure of his standing in the party was that this was to conspicuously unpopulated Labour benches. And now he is being spoken of as a possible replacement for Gordon Brown as Labour Leader – which cannot be entirely because the MPs are desperate about their security.
Purnell’s future may depend on his success or failure in carrying through what Labour’s welfare guru Frank Field, among others, once called “thinking the unthinkable” – to so “reform” the benefits system as to virtually force the unemployed (including the incapacitated) back to work. Purnell is in no doubt about his contribution to this. In his interview with Andrew Marr he promised : “For people who can work, we’re going to require them to look for work, we’re going to get a million people off capacity benefit into work, 300,000 more lone parents into work…so it’s a major reform of the system”. This “ major reform” is planned to include roping in all claimants of incapacity benefit, who will have to submit themselves to a rigorous assessment of whether their claim fits in with what the government thinks should be incapacity. If it doesn’t fit in they will be provided with something menacingly called “extra support” to get them into work. And what if they still don’t toe the line? Purnell replies: “For those who don’t play by the rules, there will be clear consequences from their behaviour”. Those who are not on Incapacity Benefit but simply unemployed will be tested for their suitability for training; if they refuse to attend for this they will also face clear consequences – a reduction in their benefit.
On 28 February, presenting something going by the resounding name of a Commissioning Strategy, Purnell proudly announced his own contribution as a minister to the unemployed statistics – “headcount reductions” (more precisely known as sacking people) of DWP employees leading to “increased productivity” of 11 per cent (more precisely known as making those who are not sacked work harder). And he summed up “Beveridge would be familiar with our goals, but not the methods by which we deliver them”. Beveridge is not, of course, available to comment on this piece of historical distortion.
Purnell is not the first government minister, and he will not be the last, to blame the unemployed for being out of work and to ascribe unemployment to the eagerness of the workless to luxuriate on meagre state benefits instead of to the intractable vagaries of capitalism’s economic system. He is not the first to try to bolster his own ambitions and to try to conceal his own impotence by diverting popular anxiety and prejudice about a problem onto handily identifiable scapegoats, if at the cost of driving them deeper into apathy and despair.
So how does his own behaviour compare to the standards he sets for others? In September 2007 it was arranged for the five local MPs to pose for a group photo at the construction at the new Tameside General Hospital, But only four turned up for the photo; Purnell was 20 minutes drive away when the shutters were clicking and by the time he arrived the others had left. So a separate photo of him was taken and digitally added to the group shot, which appeared in the hospital newsletter. But a vigilant local editor noticed the deception, which meant that Purnell had some explaining to do – at which his customary confidence seemed to have deserted him. Grilled by a news presenter on BBC North West he squirmed as he doggedly insisted that the whole matter was a “misunderstanding”, the deception was done without his knowledge. However the interviewer just as doggedly reminded him that his own press office had said repeatedly that he had consented to the doctored photo. This was a trivial matter compared to other New Labour deceptions – some of which Purnell will have to promote as a loyal minister and MP – such as cash for honours, bribes to sell arms to the Saudis, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction due to take off in a few minutes. But it illuminates the obsessive trickery bound up with capitalism’s politics and, for Purnell, must raise the question of how many other “misunderstandings” should he own up to?.
Perhaps to avoid such distressful episodes in future Purnell has engaged an aide – Phill Collins, who is not the famed multi-millionaire warbler of pop songs but an aspirant who recently upset a local Labour Party by sulking when he was not joyfully selected to stand as their MP. But the prospects of a constructively harmonious partnership between Purnell and his adviser are not good for they seem to have crucial differences on important matters. Purnell rates Gordon Brown as a leader who “has the strategy and determination to be a great Prime Minister” while Collins thinks “Brown doesn’t need a speech writer. He needs a magician”. On the wider issue of whether Labour has a future Purnell sunnily informs us that it “is not a tired government. This is a government which is excited about the reforms that we are bringing in” but Collins thinks that “Labour’s future, after three terms, looks bleak”. This confusion is a matter for Purnell and Collins to reconcile with their claim to have a clear-headed, consistent remedy for capitalism’s inhuman anarchy. Meanwhile, it will be instructive to keep an eye on these two Westminster weasels – ambitious, ruthless, calculating but not yet clever enough to avoid the pitfalls which expose them for what they are and the system they represent.