Is this James Purnell’s leadership vehicle?


3:04 pm - July 20th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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Having failed in his attempt to knife Gordon Brown, it looks like James Purnell is positioning himself as the intellectual driver of the left. The think-tank Demos has given Purnell the space to develop an off-shoot: Open Left.

It’s nice to know Purnell has been thinking about “the left” outside the intellectually bankrupt Labour Party, especially given he tried his best to junk all left-wing ideals while in the cabinet. This is the same minister who: constructed a welfare-to-work programme that didn’t actually work; gave the go-ahead to an unworkable plan to force benefit claimants to lie-detector tests; had this silly plan for alcoholics. Don Paskini also tore apart the DWP’s plans for welfare reform here.

But in the spirit of comraderie, and avoiding the temptation to pour cold water over the project just because its run by James Purnell, here is their website. It features a sort of usual suspects outlining some ideas on what it means to be on the left. Do any catch your imagination? They also have a launch event today at 6pm. (via @josephlaking)

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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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Reader comments


1. Richard (the original)

I’ve never been able to take the man seriously, I think it’s the way that when he smiles it looks like his mouth has been caught by a fishing hook.

Anybody know why he hasn’t joined the Tories if he’s so right-wing? Or does he have no fixed principles?

Thanks for the post and adding the link to the Open Left site. We want to kick off an open debate across the family of the Left, starting with our values and principles.

Sunny – would be great if you could contribute your answers to the six questions we’re posing about what it means to be on the left today.

How about it?

http://www.openleft.co.uk/join-the-debate/

Hope others will to…

Looking at the website, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to create a right-wing version of Compass: a leftish platform for people to discuss “ideas” in a fairly vacuous way, largely divorced from policy etc etc, but positioned further to the right than Compass. If Purnell thinks Compass is popular because of the opportunities for debate it offers, rather than because it’s on the very-soft-left where a substantial amount of Labour Party opinion is, I can see why he thinks there’s a need for it.

4. Alisdair Cameron

Anyone else noticed how Purnell is increasingly resembling Les Dawson:
http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2009/6/4/1244156129492/Gordon-Brown-and-James-Pu-002.jpg

I’m finding the tenor of this whole OpenLeft thing worrying, especially as Purnell who is not, and never has been ‘of the left’ is so centrally involved: it’s looking like the entryist bastards who’ve buggered things up for Labour, by destroying it and leftist politics have decided that New Labour is do discredited, they are all going to leave it, pretend they were never part of it, and knock it as hard as anyone. Now they are all members of Labour. New Labour never existed. Blairism never existed. None of the “former” Blairites have to apologise for anything because they were never involved (even if you think you remember that they were).
So what they have done is reinvented Labour….its not of course Old Labour, or the Labour of John McDonnell. It’s, well what shall we call it…its Open Labour, via the Open Left Project

This article is unnecessarily (and uncharacteristically) sectarian – and I think that you have got James Purnell’s motivations wrong.

Labour is extremely politically unpopular, and will probably lose the next election, but calling a party that has been governing a country for the last 12 years intellectually bankrupt sounds faintly ridiculous. James started his political career volunteering in Tony Blair’s office, before he became party leader, and while I disagree with him on many issues, I would say that he has basically stuck to his own political principles.

I very much doubt if this is intended as a leadership challenge; it probably is what it says on the label. I also doubt if James will stand for the leadership when the post becomes vacant – my guess it that he will back David Miliband.

What he says in his CiF piece is that Labour needs some more policy discussion and that this should be conducted in a less sectarian way than previously. I agree with both those statements – and wish they had been made several years ago. If the Tories win power at the next election then we have all got a vested interest in hoping that the largest left-of-centre party in the country does not implode in an orgy of political in-fighting.

Your scepticism is surely well-founded Sunny.

Why is James Purnell leading OpenLeft when he’s not identifiably of the left? Is this an attempt to stimulate serious discussion and engage critical voices outside Labour or is it a vehicle to re-brand a bankrupt strand within the party with Demosian wonk speak and a bit of web 2.0?

I suspect it may be the latter, but make a plea to Graeme and the organisers nonetheless: if you really are going to take pluralism seriously, as you claim to be doing, can you please start by refraining from using the term ” the left” as though it were synonymous with “the Labour party”?

Pretty scathing attack on Purnell Sunny. My problem was also his statement to the Guardian on Friday saying he wanted to be as radical on the left as the right – what did this actually mean? Doesn’t spell good things for the left when it should only be half of their identity. Images of General Peron running through my head – pro-trade unions mixed with providing safe haven for war criminals. Exaggerated link obviously, though, Purnell is a Blairite!!

Saving grace for Open Left, it will generate important dialogue from the left such as Jon Cruddas. In spite of his poor effort at Compass the other day – as you noted Sunny – he is still an important voice in the Labour party informing us of its drift into liberalism. Given his geographical location of expertise, a place which should be a Labour safe haven, liberal thinking in the economy has not fared them well, and they have been by and large swept up by the BNP.

In the same interview with Purnell, he discusses Labour’s silence on immigration and other matters which have been sidelined from dialogue, which means policy on it is either in a kind of flux, or is drawn up in simple contradistinction from the Tories – clumsy policy making. Even if we draw some antagonostic conclusions about Purnell, a forum for how the left can conduct themselves – epsecially after it missed its big chance during the banking collapse – will be surely needed.

Go on Sunny, fill the form in for OL.

calling a party that has been governing a country for the last 12 years intellectually bankrupt sounds faintly ridiculous

Eh? There’s nothing ridiculous about it.

It’s surely quite common for parties to run out of ideas after lengthy spells in government.

One question I would be genuinely interested in is what Purnell thought were his successes and failings as a minister, particularly during his time at the DWP.

I think the main failing of Purnell as a minister was that he was excessively interested in what the political class thought, and not at all knowledgable about life for people outside the Westminster bubble. As his article in the Guardian says, the assumptions and prejudices that he was working on were ten years out of date.

So for example, the political class when Purnell took over at the DWP was absolutely fascinated by the question of how to get what they called “the stock” of unemployed people into work, and how to involve the private sector in delivery. So he put his time and effort into preventing the Tories from developing a line of attack about welfare reform, and winning the praise of Fraser Nelson.

But in places like Liverpool, Belfast, Rhyl, Glasgow, Glossop or Nottingham, “the stock” were talking about things like how benefits were too low to live on, the lack of affordable childcare, the appalling service which they got from the people who were meant to be employed to help them, how the jobs available didn’t pay enough to live on, and so on.

If Purnell had ignored the political class’ chatterings and dedicated his time as DWP minister to solving the real problems that people faced, and getting his department ready to help people when the economy collapsed and unemployment started to rise, then he’d be certain to be the next Labour leader and Prime Minister.

So the thing I don’t like about this Open Left project is that he seems to be making exactly the same mistakes all over again – spending yet more time on conversations with the political class in London, rather than taking the time to find out what life is really like for ordinary people and listening to their ideas and priorities.

But Don #9,

isn’t Purnell’s shtick that New Labour after 12 years have spent too much in real life but with no clear agenda. As I said #7, Labour have not spent enough time of late amassing political clarity on issues such as immigration. They are propositioned on policy, and they fall short in their answers due to lack of ideas, in the sense that practice without theory is blind or simply contrarian. And for those ideas to come out of a left-wing think tank, I like the idea of this.

Hi Conor – perhaps you’re right. I’m not being sectarian in the sense I don’t think an intellectual renewal is necessary, and attempts to ask what motivates and unites the left are good.

I’ll have a link about Graeme’s questions. However, I’m sceptical of James Purnell because his plans at the DWP indicated he neither had the intellectual capacity nor the vision to think about the left or had any serious ideas. Plenty of people on this site have deconstructed what he said.

So why in the world should anyone take him seriously? Purnell hasn’t said anything leftwing in his life.

And this by don paskini: So the thing I don’t like about this Open Left project is that he seems to be making exactly the same mistakes all over again – spending yet more time on conversations with the political class in London, rather than taking the time to find out what life is really like for ordinary people and listening to their ideas and priorities.

is spot on. Purnell looks like he’s interested in shoring up his political stock amongst the westminster bubble. But that isn’t the left. That’s a circle jerk of Labour clones who think they’re on the left.

I have more time for Cruddas. But I’ll reserve more serious criticism for when these guys actually come up with some ideas.

Purnell & co need to get a proper, job – possibly shitty – like most of us. Excuse the cynicism but, until all of the UK’s major politicians are, like Purnell, people raised on a diet of think tanks, self-wanking ivory towers and research institutes as they work their way up the party career ladder, there is little hope.

I know it may be utopian. And I know in many other countries most MPs are hardly all steelmakers, bar staff, farmers and call centre workers, but do they have to be so detached from reality?

If Purnell becomes leader, Labour will have officially outToried the Tories as even David Cameron criticised Purnell’s welfare reform bill as being too unfair!

Dear God, no…Purnell can’t ever get rid of his ‘trainee evil genius’ smirk, and even if he doesn’t want to be leader, he clearly fancies himself as some kind of intellectual guru to what will probably be a further dismantling of what the Labour party stands for. Cruddas risks just being the smarter version of Prescott (i.e. offering working-class ‘cover’ for the same old Project). Toynbee just wants More Nice Things while behaving like St Augustine: ‘Oh Lord make Labour radical, but not too much’. And Phil ‘Not the Drummer’ Collins has form for making doe eyes at Cameron while berating Brown for his ‘conservatism’. The could easily end up being the kid brother of the Milburn/Clarke ’20:20 Vision’ website that died on its arse a few years back.

Yes, good comments by donpasinski.

Conor’s point – that Purnell has been consistent since he started on the path to ministerial office doing Blair’s photocopying (with Oxford and several years wonking in between) – in fact points to why he *isn’t* suited to lead a process of renewal: he personifies the out-of-touch professionalised political class, even to the point of having dodgy expenses.

It really is the disease presenting itself as the cure.

(Unlike Sunny, I also have suspicions of Cruddas since his voting record suggests he’s being presented as something he is not, but I’ll leave that to another time)

A lot of what these people are saying (on CiF at least) is about equality. There is very little about power: who has got it, how do they use it, what can we do about it?

16. Stuart White

LC readers might be interested (or not) in something I’ve just written on the Purnell/Cruddas exhange in today’s Guardian here:

http://www.nextleft.org/2009/07/capabilities-or-income.html

Guano@15: I can’t comment on what people are saying at CiF (because I haven’t read most of the posts yet) but (1) it is surely in many ways a relief to hear people on the Labour party wing of the left signing up to ‘equality’; and (2) much of the work at Demos, into which the Open Left project fits, is precisely about the distribution of power – that is their central theme, to such an extent that I worry about them losing sight of old-fashioned things like income (re)distribution. Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are focusing or will focus on power issues in the right way. (Full disclosure: I am on Demos’s advisory council and am participating in another Demos project on ‘A Republican Moment’.)

http://vpcyn.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/i-can-say-one-word-only-twat/

Purnell is a Tory, it is as simple as that. He should do himself a favour and cross the floor. And taking into account I read that piece he put in the Guardian/Observer – and what shite that was.

Cruddas, another supposed left-winger – well, he blew himself out of the water by starting his piece off, James Purnell is right”.

New Labour simply needs to die a complete and utter death – then a left – left of centre party can rise again.

Stuart @16

Yes, I agree with your ‘Sen capabilities theory as thin end of the let’s-conveniently-ignore-redistrubtion-now wedge especially when not understood, wilfully or otherwise, properly’ analysis.

In fact I said much the same a few weeks ago at http://www.bickerstafferecord.org.uk/?p=1049, when Rachel Reeves and Phil Collins were busy wildly misinterpreting him for their nefarious purposes. And of course Purnell’s welfare reform bill is misinterpreted Sen capabilities model in action, with added vindictiveness.

An interesting article Stuart.

When James says: “The left needs to be clearer about the kind of equality it wants to pursue. I think we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income, to aiming for equality of capability” isn’t the obvious rejoinder – yes, but Britain is now more unequal than it was 12 years ago?

The response might be “yes, but that is because of globalisation”, in which case what is Labour’s response to globalisation (12 years ago it was about multilateralism and support for an international rules-based system, but how does that square with the illegal invasion of Iraq and all that nonsense Blair used to spout about ‘liberal intervention)

So where does Labour see Britain in the world and how does it see the issue of inequality in a global context? (and please don’t just tell me about the aid budget)

It seems to me (not living in Britain) that this whole debate is a little parochial.

The Cruddas response – we need to look at wealth as well as income – and the Miliburn response – we need to tackle the ‘stickiness’ of social mobility through reforms to the educational sector are good as far as they go (although given that Labour has actually been in power for the last 12 years, it is fair to ask why it has failed to make so little progress on either issue?), but all three of them seem to think that you can ‘solve’ the issue in a purely domestic context and it should be perfectly obvious that you can’t.

I’m afraid I think New labour will not die for a few more years people like Purnell will keep it going until in the end somebody says look unless we start again regain the grass roots we will never get back into power. it will be to late for me I’ll not be alive in fifty or sixty years time.

Being disabled Purnell was a bloke I hated sadly we have another one in charge now, I wonder how long she will last

Purnell is a moron. The fact he is a major player in contemporary British politics and former minister is simply another dreary indication of how appalling the mainstream British establishment really is.

22. Chris Baldwin

“it looks like James Purnell is positioning himself as the intellectual driver of the left.”

Er… OK…

Lordy these people are so depressing:

Cruddas:

“First of all, we need a policy of tax fairness. It is scandalous that the poorest twenty percent pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than the richest twenty percent. It isn’t envy to demand that the wealthy pay their share. Secondly, free, high quality nursery care should be provided as a universal right. We know from the experience of Scandinavia that nothing is more effective in breaking the link between social inheritance and life chances.”

Entirely failing to note that the poor paying these higher rates are a result of indirect taxes: umm, indirect taxes which are much higher in Sweden than they are here (and corporation tax is a great deal lower there).

Peter Hyman:

“What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?
Improved literacy – because if you can’t read properly the life ahead is so much duller, so much narrower, so much less successful.”……”I am teaching the Black civil rights movement to GCSE students this year.”

You’ve got that literacy thing finally licked then, have you?

Polly:

“Life on the left means trusting that the better side of human nature can prevail against selfishness and greed. ”

Anyone who actually believed that would simply leave people alone, allow markets to work, voluntary cooperation, rather than enforced by the State cooperation, to flourish. After all, why would you argue for higher taxes if you really believed that the better side of human nature will out?

Frances O’Grady:

“It is not natural or inevitable that half the world goes hungry;”

Inevitable, no, but it’s certainly the natural state of things. Look at history, the vast majority of the species has been on the fringes of hunger ever since we first got going.

I really don’t think that this sort of vacuity is going to get anyone enywhere.

24. Edwin Moore

Tim says it for me. I doubt if in years to come, there will be a Mr Casey sobbing ‘Poor Purnell. . My dead king.’ (Aye I know it’s Parnell)

Mr Purnell’s caravan may move, and the dogs will doubtless bark, but I don’t think his procession is travelling in the real world.

25. Charlieman

In the mid-1990s, UK soccer was in crisis owing to corruption in player transfers. Brown envelopes of cash taken from the gate meant that less money was available to the game. UK politicians intervened, notably David Mellor, supported by a few Labour advisors. Including James Purnell. Purnell was a participant in many debates about reform of UK soccer at that time.

When the Premiership was founded, much more money flooded into football. The brown envelopes got thicker, and the corruption game continued. The politicians demonstrated their uselessness by allowing dodgy estate property dealers to run clubs. (It is worse than that today, of course.)

Purnell had his chance to reform UK football and completely blew it. Now he asks us to trust him, on past record, to reform UK politics?

Inevitable, no, but it’s certainly the natural state of things. Look at history, the vast majority of the species has been on the fringes of hunger ever since we first got going.

No it’s not the natural state of things – as Amartya Sen pointed out, and others have when they actually do some research on why starvation, poverty and famines occur. It is usually through administrative incompetence or someone denying them those resources. people dont go hungry because there isnt eough food in the world

Inevitable, no, but it’s certainly the natural state of things. Look at history, the vast majority of the species has been on the fringes of hunger ever since we first got going.

I can’t believe someone as obviously intelligent as Tim Worstall is still peddling this crap. It’s the inevitable state of things, and what?

As Sunny says, there are more than enough calories in the world for everyone, it’s a matter of distribution.

Before you explain that these people would be fed, if only they were part of the global eocnomy I would like to say no. Capitalism creates and reproduces poverty. If it didn’t then there would be no such thing as Creative Destruction, it’s the destruction of livelihoods that went with old mode of production.

A lot of the poverty in the world is residual, from subsistence farmers or the underemployed slum dweller. But a lot is created by people thrown out of work, or through “administrative incompetence or someone denying them those resources.”

“as Amartya Sen pointed out, and others have when they actually do some research on why starvation, poverty and famines occur. It is usually through administrative incompetence or someone denying them those resources. people dont go hungry because there isnt eough food in the world”

As anyone who had actually read or understood Sen would point out, he does mention, indeed insist, that this is a modern phenomenon. Famine was, for millenia, a result of there being too little food for the population. You know, this thing that Malthus was right, just up to the point that he published?

Sen is pointing out “that this is no longer true” and that famine is “now” more about insufficient resources to purchase the available food than it is about absolute shortages of food.

As ever Sunny, try reading your economists with a tad more attention to detail, will you?

” Inevitable, no, but it’s certainly the natural state of things. Look at history, the vast majority of the species has been on the fringes of hunger ever since we first got going.

I can’t believe someone as obviously intelligent as Tim Worstall is still peddling this crap. It’s the inevitable state of things, and what?”

Can you read? Seriously?

I start with “Inevitable, no,” and you translate that into “It’s the inevitable state of things”?

Jeebus, get a grip…..

I’m sorry but I disagreed that the natural state of things has anything to do with the modern world (I don’t think I helped myself by conflating two different meanings of inevitable, the natural state of things and how things must be). I object to the idea that a “natural” state has to have any bearing on how the modern world is shaped.

A pristine state of nature has never really existed, so it seems odd to discuss it when talking about modern poverty. In pre-modern societies goods were distributed in a much more equitable way, few starved unless all were starving, as a rule. Today you can have massive extravagance meters away from desperate poverty.

30. Left outside. The aristocracy lived considerably longer than the serfs in the Middle Ages.
The nephew of William The Conqueror owned 10% of England’s GDP which would make him relatively wealthier than Bill Gates. In pre revolutionary France the aristocracy had the right to imprison and even torture peasants without a trial- no Habeus Corpus. What made England different was that it was more equitable than continental Europe .

27. Control by the state produces starvation – Ukraine in particular and many parts of the Soviet Uniona in 1930s, China under communism , Ethiopa under the communists. Pre communism , in Ethiopa there was normally at least one province which could supply food to the one hit by famine. After state control was introduced , then the whole of Ethiopa was affected by famine. State control reduced the bread basket of the steppes to famine in the 1930s.

Sunny

What a depressing response to one attempt to open up some ideas space. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to, as Don has done, question or challenge current/future policies, particularly if they could be at odds with an ideas framework being articulated.But the assumption of bad faith seems pretty unproductive and pointless factionalism, and suggests an unwillngness to engage on the content of ideas about the left.

To say “the intellectually bankrupt Labour party” is lazy. I personally think it is wrong. There are lots of debates in and around the party: they are, in my view, more engaged and more serious than most of those on the right – certainly when it comes to issues of inequality. And it is clear that many voices are seeking to link Labour debates with debates outside the party. Fabians, Compass, Purnell/Demos, Livingstone/ProgLondon, Progress, ippr, Soundings, coop and others are all trying to do that in different ways.

Of course, there is no obligation to engage with that from outside the Labour party. But while there is a great deal of campaigning and pressure politics – on environment, civil liberties, political reform and other issues, I have not seen any serious or credible attempt to create a progressive governing strategy which would not need to engage with Labour at all. (Even if you magic Labour away, several of the challenges of constructing broad enough coalitions to make progressive change possible remain, or return in different forms).

There are a number of useful things which (in terms of debates around the party) quickly become apparent around the Labour Party.

1. Debating first principles is often useful to clarify political and policy debates, and the time and space to do so is too rarely found. And for the broad Labour centre-left and left, it quickly becomes clear that there is a lot of agreement on some foundational principles about equality and fairness, though there is and has always been internal debate about what this means and how to pursue it. But there are no significant strands in the Labour Party opposed to a significant role for income redistribution, for example.

2. It often also becomes apparent that the political debates in the party are not where most political commentary puts the factional dividing lines. This is important, because without disrupting these assumptions, all internal debate is badly caricatured and misrepresented as heading towards some factional civil war, and the fear of that is one of the factors which constrains the more open public and criticial debate which is essential now.

Usefully, there are now significant voices in the party arguing that the idea of Labour as a broad coalition must apply to being open and comfortable with internal pluralism and disagreement. (Our ‘change we need’ pamphlet called for a culture of ‘glasnost’!). There will always be some ‘true religion’ advocates who have a view that only a particular version of New Labour is electorally viable, or that their particular version of ‘true socialism’ can brook no disagreement: it is useful when those voices are challenged.

3. Moreover, where we can agree on broad underlying principles, it demonstrates that many (though not all) internal policy debates have often been about issues of degree more than about directionality or core objectives, and/or about (relatively) second order issues – eg governance structures of foundation hospitals, or about how to apply certain principles (eg choice/empowerment) in a way that meets an egalitarian test, rather than an argument in principle about choice good/bad in and of itself.

This has two effects. Firstly, it sometimes narrows the range of disagreement. For example, New Labour did undertake a good deal of additional taxation for public spending, redistribution, etc though it did not have a successful public articulation of this. Few on the left of the party oppose any notion of contributory principles in public or welfare provision, even where there might be a sharp critique about the government’s welfare proposals.

Secondly, it can make for a much more effective policy interrogation against Labour principles, because it becomes a more serious debate if it becomes necessary to take other views seriously, rather than simply caricaturing them as beyond the pale, or ill motivated. Dealing with opposing arguments on the basis that they are sincerely motivated is a good principle for political debate, including with opponents, and perhaps especially for disagreements within our own broad side.


There is naturally rather more agreement on foundational points within a broad party family than across a more diverse progressive front. But that might mean there is a case for more attention to core principles among the broader liberal-left too.

While the broad range and plurality of the civic liberal-left outside party politics is its strength, one associated weakness is the relative lack of space and attention given to discussion of whether there are foundational principles across different progressive constituencies, strands and campaigns, and whether these could inform strategies for change.

It is difficult to do this without quickly reverting to specific policy campaigns and controversies and partisan positions.

At present, it seems to me that equalities, liberties and equality strands of the progressive liberal-left lack a sense of what common frame they might share.

That is likely to make it more difficult to find common ground around any particular major issue – eg role and limits of state, priorities for public spending.

So debating the issue of equal capabilities and/or other approaches to equality and liberty might help to explore how far different strands of the liberal and egalitarian left can come to a common view over issues like the legitimate scope of government. LC is probably among the very best hub spaces which exist, I don’t think much of that debate has yet taken place either here or elsewhere

32. Edwin Moore

Trying to think of something constructive to add.

I think we’d all agree that we need to be careful about what we regard as ‘natural’, especially in social terms. Fletcher of Saltoun argued against the Union and for an independent Scotland, but did so on the basis that it was ‘natural’ to enslave other human beings – including fellow Scots – in order that the ‘natural’ state of things, ie the comfort of FOS and his braw chums, be maintained. (FOS is a hero for the SNP, but his arguments are cold in the ground.)

And while we on this site would regard a lot of things as ‘natural’, eg the right of human beings to be sexually diverse, that is a state of nature not recognised by many of our contemporaries.

“Inevitable, no, but it’s certainly the natural state of things. Look at history, the vast majority of the species has been on the fringes of hunger ever since we first got going.”

Perhaps I should expand upon this a little. “Natural” meaning what has happened for the vast majority of human history and pre-history. We’re extraordinarily lucky to be living at a time when we’ve found at least a partial solution to that depressing Malthusian state (Sunny, go and look up Malthus again please).

Technical and technological advances led, previously, to short term higher living standards. These led to higher birth rates (or more likely, higher survival rates in those born) which led to an increase in population and thus per capita living standards fell back to around and about their previous level. This is a rough and ready description of a Malthusian economy.

We (take your pick, Europeans, W, Europeans, the British, whatever, the reasons why it started here are still debated and no it most certainly wasn’t skin colour) started to break out of this around 1750, with the stirrings of the Industrial Revolution. As has been pointed out, Malthus was actually right about the way the world worked right up to the time he was writing about it. But since 1750 technological change has been hugely faster and thus so has GDP growth. Indeed, that growth has been, for two and a half centuries, vastly faster than population growth in the industrial countries. Thus we’ve had steadily rising GDP per capita.

That’s what has made the “natural” state not inevitable. Sometime around 1750 we planted the seeds of a system which enabled us to overcome what had previously been inevitable.

Me? I would argue that it was some combination of freer markets and capitalism that did it. Others might want to argue other causes. But it is worth noting what it is that makes capitalism different as an economic doctrine. It’s the only one discovered so far that produces, over long periods of time, a rise in the general standard of living for the average member of that economy. No other economic system at all has managed that for 2.5 centuries.

Which leads to a possible answer to that thought that it is not inevitable that half the world goes hungry: no, indeed, it isn’t. Once that half of the world adopts the economic system that has removd hunger for the other half of the world they won’t be hungry, will they?

Capitalism made us all as rich as Croesus by any historical standard. It’ll work for everyone else too.

34. councilhousetory

Tim W:

”As anyone who had actually read or understood Sen would point out, he does mention, indeed insist, that this is a modern phenomenon.”

Indeed and his examples are India during WWII, China under Mao and Ethiopia in the 80s. He’s talking about the modern age, where apparent plenty meets incompetent, venal or unjust governance.

I haven’t got the article to hand, but I remember that Sen provides evidence that in the case of Ethiopia, there was one area where the people were starving (and being filmed by westerners), whilst in another area of the country there was a food surplus (not being filmed by westerners).

And on the topic. It is amusing to note the foaming at the mouth of some of the posters above, who seem unable to remain calm for two moments at the mention of the name Purnell, to realise this is not about Purnell, but Cruddas.

Famine was, for millenia, a result of there being too little food for the population.

I was talking about the last 500 years or so – which is primarily what Sen is interested in in, not some famine about 2 million years ago. You bore me with your straw-man arguments Worstall. Especially given the original point was about the current state of things, not what happened ages ago.

Anyway, on to more intelligent responses:

Sunder: To say “the intellectually bankrupt Labour party” is lazy. I personally think it is wrong. There are lots of debates in and around the party: they are, in my view, more engaged and more serious than most of those on the right – certainly when it comes to issues of inequality. And it is clear that many voices are seeking to link Labour debates with debates outside the party. Fabians, Compass, Purnell/Demos, Livingstone/ProgLondon, Progress, ippr, Soundings, coop and others are all trying to do that in different ways.

Well, I don’t think a comparison with the right is really useful – I can’t imagine there being any sort of interesting and intelligent debates on the right for as long as I’ve been reading politics.
These days the intelligence of conservatives in the UK comes down to how good they are at whining about BBC bias, whining about immigration, whining about public sector pay, whining about political correctness, whining about… you get the point.

On the left – I meant the intellectually bankrupt Labour government – I should have been clearer. On the left generally though I’m not that convinced either. There are the same old arguments made by socialists, there is Ken Livingstone – once a champion of big corporations in London now telling everyone how much he hated them when in power, there are some attempts by Compass to talk about left communitarianism but not very successfully.

Hell, the Fabian/JRRT report was the most interesting thing for quite a while.

You and I were both there yesterday – did Purnell say anything new? Nope. That debate could have been had 10 years ago.

Now, I don’t mind debate taking place but frankly they don’t have an original position to start with! It’s just a restatement of what’s already been said.

“I was talking about the last 500 years or so – which is primarily what Sen is interested in in, not some famine about 2 million years ago.”

Still wrong. Sen is talking about the last 100, 150 years, when decent transport networks were in place.

37. Alisdair Cameron

Sunny’s right: this is simply “the project”/New labour changing its clothes. And councilhousetory, FWIW, I reckon its Cruddas who’s the window-dressing/front-man: he appears left(ish) by demeanour, but look at his voting record, and allegiance to the project. Still all thinktankery/wonkery, still hugely disconnected from the masses.

So no, I’m not convinced we’re going through some intellectual revival. That would be more valid if there were genuine differences in positions and people discussed them openly.

FWIW, I reckon its Cruddas who’s the window-dressing/front-man: he appears left(ish) by demeanour, but look at his voting record, and allegiance to the project

Alisdair, I’m not entirely convinced by this. I think in some case the voting record is skewed because the opposition puts forward votes to embarass the govt, or a degree of loyalty is required.
On wonkery – well Cruddas has been going on about grassroots campaigning longer than most current crop of Labour MPs, and ran an impressively grassroots Hope Not Hate campaign in his area. He does grassroots, but as he rightly said yesterday, he also wanted to intellectually enquire why the left is in the shit. And the left is indeed in the shit if Ken Livingstone/ProgressLondon and OpenLeft are among the best examples we have.

40. Alisdair Cameron

Sunny,

the left is indeed in the shit if Ken Livingstone/ProgressLondon and OpenLeft are among the best examples we have[of intellectual inquiry and/or being of the Left].

With apologies to Sunder and to Graeme, you’re spot on.
Too timid and tainted by New Labour, too remote from the masses, have burned their bridges with too many grass-roots/constituency types. Too focus-group centric, afraid to nail colours to the mast, so hiding behind wooly platitudes, with no substance.

Either Labour can fragment into various groups, as appears to be many people’s desire, or it can start a discussion that will explore whether there remains the common ground to sustain the Party. In my view, that is a worthwhile intention, so I applaud the work of this project for starting that discussion before it’s too late.

James Purnell has just done a webchat on LabourList where he goes over some of his own views on what the Left means in modern Britain, and answers readers’ questions. For those who are interested in seeing the discussion, it can be viewed here:

http://www.labourlist.org/live_chat_with_james_purnell_on_what_it_means_left

How can anyone who regards them self to be even left of centre can give Purnell the time of day is beyond me.

He brought in lie detector tests for the poor and those who needed to claim benefits, for Christ’s sake!

I am aghast at the left. Fairness, equality, lifting people out of poverty and the liberty of the citizen. Educating our young to the best of their ability, providing healthcare to all, providing welfare to those who need it, provide an environment for our elderly to live out their years in peace. I am sure I have missed something – but Purnell stated that there are goals but NuLab didn’t know what those goals were nor how to achieve them – Purnell is a Tory in a red rosette!

Sunder – on and in all those discussion groups how many are from coucil house estates, how many disabled, how many are piss poor – so much so someone would have to travel ‘upt’north’ to bring them into those discussions?

You can talk to a sheep as much as you want – but ‘taint banner sheer itself.

Famine was, for millenia, a result of there being too little food for the population.

I was talking about the last 500 years or so – which is primarily what Sen is interested in in, not some famine about 2 million years ago.

A millennia is a thousand years, not a million.


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