LC briefing: editor’s note

9:24 pm - March 11th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    

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Last year Hazel Blears MP (in)famously said most blogs did little to ‘add value’ to our political culture. If by ‘value’, Blears did not mean bloggers doing research into government initiatives and occasionally exposing them for the gimmicks they are, then she probably won’t be pleased with our briefing either.

Today, coincidentally, David Hencke asks if James Purnell is the worst social security minister ever: I’d say he is in contention for the worst Labour minister ever given how empty his initiatives at the DWP have been. His plans to trial lie detectors to tackle benefit fraud will eventually be exposed as one of those vacuous stunts.

First a bit of background.

A month ago Unity posted a blog here that I had to take down because it contained potentially libelous (though scientifically interesting) material.

After doing a bit of reading around Unity found that the story was much bigger than he had originally thought. So he set upon doing the research, some of which was contributed to by Alex Harrowell, and prepared a briefing document about 60 pages long.

We needed some time to cut it down, skate around potentially libellous material (more on this tomorrow) and get traditional media interested to coincide with the publication of our briefing. Unfortunately, things have moved along quicker than we expected so the briefing will now be published in parts.

As Unity has already said, this may turn out be the biggest story we’ve run to date. It’s certainly the biggest investigation – over four weeks of detailed research, discussions with scientists and academics and hunting down the evidence. I’ve also spent a lot of time poring over the evidence and now have the task of putting this out in digestible form.

Readers may remember we did something similar on Nadine Dorries MP, and her attempts to cloud the debate around the Human Fertilisation and Embroyology Bill.

Once again this is the work of bloggers trying to improve the state of our politics and you can help by adding to it or publicising it.

In the coming days and weeks more of this will seep into the media, and we’re also working to get questions put to the DWP in Parliament.

James Purnell’s plans to force the unemployed to work, were unworkable because they didn’t take into account a recession, as Don Paskini pointed out here. Furthermore, his welfare ‘reforms’ are unworkable according to the evidence.

Now sooner or later, his plans to use lie detection systems to catch out benefits claimants will also fall by the wayside as another gimmick designed to demonise benefit claimants.

Like Tom Harris, the sooner these MPs join Conservative ranks, the better.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Crime ,DWP lie detectors ,e) Briefings ,Economy ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Good luck. Hope this gets the coverage it deserves.

2. Alisdair Cameron

Have followed this story with great interest, and glad to see it getting a push. I’m utterly intrigued now by the hints dropped about some big fish being involved with the contracts, never mind the bogus ‘science’ expose which I think Unity wrote about earlier and which has (thankfully) since done some of the rounds of the Bad Science type blogs.

Cracking work, and yup Purnell is vile, and Harris a patroniser of the first water, too dismissive of wholly valid concerns, because they’re smugly cocooned in the Westminster bubble.

“Good luck. Hope this gets the coverage it deserves.”

I second that.

Interesting little attack on Tom Harris there at the end.

It’ll be interesting to see what you’ve uncovered.

On the other hand it’s rather sad that Labour as a party isn’t held accountable or considered responsible for the policies and/or behaviour of the Labour Government – that so many people feel it’s okay to support the party unconditionally, no matter what.

As long as people are willing to swear fealty to Labour regardless of what they actually do – or is done in their name – the more they can get away with absolutely anything they like, because their voters keep voting for them out of tribal loyalty that’s got nothing to do with the reality of Labour in Government.

“The sooner they join the Tories the better”? So when a Labour minister is terrible it’s because they’re ‘really a Tory’? See, this is how they get away with it, how they completely ignore the Labour members and the Labour base and still manage to keep your loyal support.

I admit, I simply don’t understand.

I am tribally Labour – and yes, that’s how those of us that are tribal think about it. Nothing wrong with that. Even when the Labour Party doesn’t deserve my support it will have it. The worst Labour government is better than the very best Tory government. The most out-of-touch Labour government still has a more authentic connection to the working class than any Tory government. (And as far as I’m concerned the Lib Dems are just a softer, odder version of the Tories, who if anything are more out of touch than the Tories with working class aspirations.)

A lot of Labour members wouldn’t be unhappy to see Purnell or Harris (especially Purnell – Harris is just a self-promoting windbag who realises he can get coverage by being right-wing) join the Tories.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have risen to the bait there. The main point is to expose Purnell’s ideas and discredit them – whether Labour or Liberal I imagine we can agree on that.

7. Stuart Harmon


You quote in the Guardian, the economist Nicholas Stern ranting and raving that we have to do something about global warming and because he does not like the arguments against his view he calls people Denialists.

This is someone who has in the past advised the government on the economy and is a qualified economist.

He did a fantastic job as an economist so we must rely on him regarding global warming.

Hey what ho the good thing about a recession is it seperates the wheat from the chaff.

8. Shatterface

I’m tribal – but only towards my class, not some party historically linked to the Labour movement but which is currently related only by a homonym: ‘Labour’ is a PUN, a joke at the expense of the working class.

Tim, not bait – I’m sincerely baffled.

tim f @ 6

I am tribally Labour – and yes, that’s how those of us that are tribal think about it. Nothing wrong with that. Even when the Labour Party doesn’t deserve my support it will have it. The worst Labour government is better than the very best Tory government. The most out-of-touch Labour government still has a more authentic connection to the working class than any Tory government. (And as far as I’m concerned the Lib Dems are just a softer, odder version of the Tories, who if anything are more out of touch than the Tories with working class aspirations.)

So how bad does it have to get? Waterboarding suspected benefit claimants? The problem with the ‘tribal’ argument is that New Labour have repeatedly exploited it to head in the opposite direction to much of its membership and political/electoral support (the alternative, that lots of people really believe in New Labour and all its works, is far too depressing to contemplate). It also means that in the end, little matters such as policy and principles can be (and have been) ditched in favour of being in, and wielding, power – why bother if your worst is always taken to be better than anyone else’s best. Anyone can do the ‘tribal’ thing – but there must be many Labour voters who feel they’ve been played for fools, and for whom tribal loyalty is no longer enough.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have risen to the bait there. The main point is to expose Purnell’s ideas and discredit them – whether Labour or Liberal I imagine we can agree on that.

Agreed. But if the proposals get through (most likely with Tory support), what then? Does the X still go against the Labour candidate in 2010?

PS: I’ll just cross-post from the other lie-detector thread about how it’s also used to tell if someone fancies you.

#9 – fair enough, in which case sorry if I went OTT in #6.

Tonight I’ll do a lengthy comment incorporating a response to #10 which raise some valid points but doesn’t tell the whole story imo.

“libelous (though scientifically interesting) material. ” I can’t imagine what that could be.

I don’t want to join a debate about Labour support – this is perhaps a bad example but there are those in the Tories who are total bigots buy won’t be leaving because Alan Duncan, openly gay, is in the Shadow Cabinet or there are more black and Asian Tories, and so on. The Tories have always been the traditional home of unpleasant views, because they are the natural party of big business and nothing helps you divide and rule the masses like a bit of bigotry.

Labour, on the other hand, was set up by working people through the union movement – many of us still contribute financially to the party itself through the political fund of affiliated unions. The money of millionaires isn’t that forthcoming, Labour is largely dependent on the money of the millions through the trade unions and ordinary members of the party. He who pays the piper calls the tune… The threat of losing the CWU over Royal Mail privatisation – a massively unpopular move, by the way – must be giving senior Labour figures sleepless nights.

Purnell says he sees himself as being in the Labour tradition and denies he’d defect to Cameron’s Tories. We can only take him at his word and patiently explain we disagree with him on certain issues. Certainly, he would be welcomed by Cameron’s Tories, and they’d jump for joy if there was an SDP split in Labour (Adonis, Byers, Clarke, Hutton, Mandelson, Milburn, Purnell) in retaliation to pro-worker, anti-capitalist policies and will no doubt be working to this end. Which is why we must build a progressive coalition against their agenda of spending cuts and corporate welfare: Labour MPs and supporters, social-democratic Liberal Democrats, Greens, socialists of 57 varieties, Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

On this particular expose – kudos to all involved.

Okay, this is a genuine & more measured response to #6 and #10 for anyone who’s interested, and also touches on some of the responses to Chris Dillow’s post on the Labour coalition.

Labour differs from the Liberal Democrats in that it was a party set up as a vehicle for advancing the interests of a section of society. It’s not a party with the explicit aim of advancing a particular set of values of principles, although it has accumulated some during the course of its existence. (However, because they’ve been accumulated rather than being central to the Party’s existence, they are constantly open to revisionism, for example the attempted narrowing of the ideals of the NHS and indeed Bevanism to a simple universalism and the free-at-the-point-of-use principle.)

That appeals to me. My politics are not about the application of a particular set of principles – I’m not a liberal. My politics are about siding with particular groups and supporting them in their struggles.

Labour also has a history of – amid notable successes like the creation of the NHS, the minimum wage, comprehensivisation, the raising of the age of education to 18, etc – failing the working class. That’s in part down to the fact that the Party itself and especially its representatives are proportionally more middle-class than the rest of society (although Labour scores much better than the Tories or the Lib Dems on this front). But it’s also down to the fact that Labour (with occasional exceptions, eg during the mid-80s) have attempted to engage with the entire working class, including reactionary parts of it. Sometimes that leads to horrendous policies. But if like me you see the working class as the engine of progress, you’d rather support a Party that makes that attempt and occasionally gets it badly wrong, than one that engages with only the most left-wing part of that class (many Trot groups) or worse still tries to sidestep the notion of class altogether (Lib Dems).

It’s not just history. Even now there is an unbreakable link between Labour and the working class – expressed institutionally through trade unions on which Labour rely for funding, and expressed on the doorstep by voters who still look to the Labour Party to advance their interests. They expect a Tory government to fuck them over, but they’re disappointed when a Labour government does that. And that basic orientation – who you look to to get things done for you – is important to me. If I’m going to side with that group of people I ought to be looking in the same direction.

Yes, many of these voters feel betrayed, and yes, many of them have right to. That is nothing new – all Labour governments have disappointed to some extent; not even the ’45 government changed the fundamentals. (I do accept criticisms that this government is more right-wing and different in its value-set to all previous Labour governments; I still think it’s in the tradition of Labour governments, however.)

Is tribal loyalty damaging to politics? Actually, I don’t think so. Around 25% of the country is tribally Labour (I can’t source that, sorry). That is nowhere near enough to win an election, so yes we’ve got to court other voters. We can’t rely solely on our core. But that core defines our starting point.

It’s also not true to say that Labour has relied on its traditional vote not having anywhere to go and neglected it in pursuit of the other voters it needs. That 25% is not identical to our traditional vote (although a proportion of our traditional vote makes up the bulk of it). Labour is acutely conscious that turnout matters, and turnout is lowest amongst our traditional vote. Election strategy in 1997 revolved around moderate rhetoric to avoid pissing off swing voters, a huge effort on the ground to turn out traditional voters and squeezing the Lib Dem vote. 2001 and 2005 worked on similar principles, but we found it more and more difficult with all three groups. The idea that Labour isn’t acutely aware of the importance of motivating our traditional vote is a nonsense, and that has meant policies as well as organisation.

I’m actually very cynical about politics and politicians. I don’t imagine any party (that goes for small parties with no chance of getting in, too) would act as anything but a proxy for big business & the ruling class. But degrees of power are important, and the Labour Party is forced to make more concessions to the working class than other parties because its roots & sources of funding are in the working class, because its core vote that is crucial to its survival in the bad times is a working class vote and because the section of its vote where motivation to vote makes the biggest difference is resolutely working class. That won’t change over time. The Liberal Democrats have roots in nothing but a set of abstract principles (sometimes, on a local level, not even that). The way in which those principles are interpreted will change with the zeitgeist – nothing is certain.

This argument may seem fairly negative. So it’s worth pointing out that I also support the Labour Party because on a local level they are by far the best of any party in power anywhere in the UK. Look at Camden’s Labour Group bringing in free school meals, or Oxford bringing in a living wage for all employees. Look at council after council across the country where Labour want all the funding to go to the most deprived areas, and Lib Dems want it to be spread evenly across cities or boroughs. Everywhere I go on a local level Labour reflect my politics better than any other party in power.

tim f – an interesting post…but that still begs the question of where New Labour fits into your explanation. You’re right to state: ‘We can’t rely solely on our core. But that core defines our starting point’ – but it’s arguable that New Labour took the opposite position: the starting point was to run against the core and what it was assumed to represent. In that respect, you could always tell when Blair was in trouble, because he would make nice with the Labour party for just long enough to get him through his troubles until he could resume the business as usual of ignoring the party and its membership and dragging both further towards the right. In other words, it became less ‘a Party that makes that attempt and occasionally gets it badly wrong’ as one which stopped even trying except when it was occasionally politically expedient to do so (or when it needed money from the trade unions – what price the Warwick Agreement on a ‘wholly publicly owned’ Post Office now?).

As for the emphasis on Labour at a local level, I remember reading Polly Toynbee making the same argument (in fact she makes it every year in the run-up to the local elections) – all it shows is a greater disconnect between the examples you cite and, say, Purnell wanting to waterboar– sorry use lie detectors – on benefit claimants. Lots of Labour people probably share your view that ‘Labour reflect my politics better than any other party in power’, if only on a ‘least worst’ basis – but New Labour have been past masters of pissing the chips and telling supporters it’s vinegar.

So: either it’s the mixture of hope, success and disappointment as usual with Labour governments, or New Labour marks a decisive break with that tradition, which would explain the depth of disillusion and hostility it receives from people who would otherwise gladly give the Labour party their time, money, support or votes.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: LC briefing: editor’s note

  2. sunny hundal

    I’m coming for you James Purnell:

  3. Andrew Roche

    RT @pickledpolitics: I’m coming for you James Purnell:

  4. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: LC briefing: editor’s note

  5. sunny hundal

    I’m coming for you James Purnell:

  6. Purnell’s Lie Detector - Some things the Guardian didn’t mention. | Ministry of Truth

    […] may also have picked up, from Sunny’s note at Lib Con, that we’ve had to jump into telling this story a little sooner than we’d hoped to, and […]

  7. sunny hundal

    Who remembers Purnell trying lie-detectors to catch "benefit cheats". A real man of the people:

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