Is James Purnell using Sen?

9:50 am - July 23rd 2009

by Paul Cotterill    

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Amartya Sen and his capabilities model is all the rage in cabinet, and ex-cabinet. Gordon Brown’s read all about it, Liam Byrne’s been quoting Sen in the Guardian, and now James Purnell’s been using him as the basis for his attempt to portray himself as a leading left thinker, ready to lead Labour and the left out of the electoral wilderness with his new best think-tank mate Jon Cruddas.

So what are we to make of the adoption of a piece of thinking which dates from the 1970s, and set out most famously in Sen’s seminal 1979 Tanner Lecture ‘Equality of What’? Like Stuart at Next Left, I’m not a little worried about how Sen’s being used and abused.

I’m not worried simply because New Labour has a patchy record, to say the least, on equalities and the distribution of of anything much, but because there is a real danger of Sen being deliberately misinterpreted and misused as a further means of cutting back on public services aimed at the poorer in our society.

The danger is, quite simply, that as the Sen-isms are rolled out, the bits about the need for people to be able take control of their own life will be highlighted, while the bits about the need for the state to take pro-active steps towards ensuring that everyone in society necessary functional ‘capabilities’, most often related to economic circumstance, will be quietly set to one side.

The risk is that Sen’s work will be corrupted and used as a basis for drastic cuts to welfare state, for example, on the basis that people really should be capable of looking after themselves.

Yet, this is decidedly NOT what Sen argues. In his Tanner lecture he is quite categorical about the relative importance of his then new capabilities model:

‘It is not my contention that basic capability equality can be the sole guide to the moral good. For one thing morality is not concerned only with equality.

For another, while it is my contention that basic capability equality has certain clear advantages over other types of equality, I did not argue that the others were morally irrelevant.

Basic capability equality is a partial guide to the part of moral goodness that is associated with the idea of equality. I have tried to argue that as a partial guide it has virtues that the other characterisations of equality do not possess.’

If Sen himself is reluctant to make too much of a model which was developed with disaster relief and rehabilitation in mind much more than the modern welfare state, then perhaps we too should be wary.

Maybe, just maybe, the adoption of the capabilities model is not because it has any overall validity as a guide to leftist public policy, but because it’s a convenient rationalisation for a move away from fairly basic socialist principles. As the Yorkshire Ranter has suggested, the causal link between political philosophy and the government’s ‘operational code’ is a tenuous one at best; if the causal link exists at all, perhaps it’s the other way round.

After all, Purnell has form. The Welfare Reform Bill he pushed through while in Cabinet can be seen as the contortion of the capabilities model in action, as a drive towards the dismantling of welfare state universality in favour of assessments about how individuals can best cope with poverty and unemployment.

And maybe, just maybe, Sen is useful to Purnell not as his guiding political philosophy, but as a boost to his career credibility.

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Equality ,Labour party ,Reform ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Sigh, why don’t we ask people on the Welfare state what they think?? Or will this continous concept of seeking to help the underpriviliged be left to people who refuse to ask ‘welfare’ people what the think?

How empirical.

I’m on welfare, I’d love to have a real job hence I joined up for the New Deal, Pathways to work, and now work fare. My Job center had a great idea, I find my own job tell them and they put help into place. Thats no kidding down I go to have my meeting, I was told what we do here is help you find your own job by leaving you alone. And they did leave me along I’ve not heard a bloody word from them for six years.

I went down to Remploy interworks, I sat down to listen to the employment adviser moan that employers do not want disabled people, she moaned so much I left. I then went to the Shaw Trust who told me we will try and help you, but employers are not interested.

So whats gone wrong well simple really I’m in competitions with the unemployed, I’m in competition with Immigrants.

Before New labour if I wanted to work, I’d be shoved off down to the local NHS or tax office or other government run group to work perhaps doing sod all. But Blair said the private sector had to take the strain, and on the whole they do not wish to get involved.

I’m in a wheelchair have serious other problems from a spinal lesion.

Jobs on offer to me, Taxi driver, even though I’m banned from driving any public vehicle or any vehicle which takes public who pay.

Lorry drive even though I cannot get in the dam lorry. Perfume sales lady in boots. Window cleaning they thought I could clean the bottom windows.

This is no joke the Jobs I get offered are the jobs a normal person does with legs, when I ask what do you have for a disabled person they say nothing you have to fit in normal every day work, I cannot for god sake I cannot walk.

The fact is I’m expected to get up and walk, and the fact is it will not happen, but hell under the new rules I can get JSA which is half the amount I’m getting now saying the government a fortune..

1 – “Sigh, why don’t we ask people on the Welfare state what they think?? Or will this continous concept of seeking to help the underpriviliged be left to people who refuse to ask ‘welfare’ people what the think?”

You might be interested to have a look at the ‘Get Heard’ report – – which did exactly that. Some of its findings:

Poverty is stressful – it undermines health and well-being;
The attitudes of society and Government towards people experiencing poverty must change and be supportive and positive as many feel stigmatised;
The benefits system must be reformed to really help people experiencing poverty:
People on benefits want to work, but are afraid of losing their safety net, even though benefits are low, because employment is often unsustainable;
The benefits system should be both ladder and safety net: it must be more efficient and flexible, and provide more transition support for people in precarious, low-paid work;
The benefits system needs to be more secure, and social attitudes need to become more positive to those who cannot work;
Parents must be appreciated and better understood:
Parents experiencing poverty need more recognition for the hard work that they do, and policies must support parents’ efforts to provide the best for their children – many parents feel under pressure and are afraid that their children will be taken into care if they ask for help because they are poor;
Reform services so that they really work for people experiencing poverty:
Policies and services need to be more effectively joined up;
Involve, listen to and talk with people experiencing poverty:
People experiencing poverty believe they have a right to be involved in the design of policy, and that the Government must listen; there must be greater involvement of service users in policy and service design.


I suspect your use of ‘sigh’ at the start of your comment reflects your pre-determination, on visiting the LibCon site this morning, to have a dig at a do-gooding, holier-than-thou leftie like me, rather than try and get to grips with the actual matter at hand.

No matter, though.

In fact, I agree with your substantive view that people on the receiving end of welfare need to be much more involved in its design and delivery, and I’m grateful to Don for his reference to the research which does in fact ask people, and support asking people, about their own experiences. He’s more on top of this stuff than I am nowadays.

Indeed one of the main criticisms of Sen’s model is that it demands a technocratic assessment of what ‘capabilities’ are, and is therefore out of keeping with the participatory assessment (which when implemented tends towards to lead toward consensus on universality of entitlement) that you require.

To be fair to Sen (and this is the reason I quote the bit I do) he recgonises this and says his model can only ever be part of the answer (and I agree with his criticism that egalitarianism can depersonalise). My point is that Purnell et al. do not, for the reasons I suggest, seem keen to acknowledge Sen’s own acknowledgement of his model’s only partial usefulness.

In respect of Robert’s ‘story’, again I agree with the substantive point. A contorted capability model enacted (as per Welfare reform) is more likely to push Robert towards taxi-driving, if he is at all ‘functionally capable’ of that employment, but it shoves all the emphasis onto Robert’s need to adapt, not the ‘system’. Sen never intended that to happen (and Byrne in his Guardian interview at least acknowledges some of that).

So we all agree then?

5. Laurie Penny

@1 well, precisely. Nice to see @3 that some research at least has been done!

Thank you for helping me to learn something. No prizes for guessing that Sen’s emphasis on proper welfare *distribution* might not be so quickly taken up, ey?

Worth noting also the ‘Working Together to Reduce Poverty and Inequality’ conference, which brought together civil servants from a range of government departments with people who had personal experience of poverty and workers from anti poverty charities.

Reports at and

Purnell is neither a leftist nor a thinker (nor is Byrne for that matter); he’d be much more at home schmoozing over the bruschetta somewhere in Islington moaning about those nasty unwashed poor people who won’t take jobs flipping burgers rather than listening to, and taking on board, the very real concerns addressed by Robert and Don above.

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