Book Review: The Purple Book, and moving on from New Labour

11:30 am - September 23rd 2011

by Don Paskini    

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Ahead of Labour Party conference, a new book has been published, which aims to set out the way forwards for Labour.

It proposes a range of new taxes on the rich to help fund a multi billion pound expansion of the welfare state. It calls for tough new regulations on landlords to protect renters.

And it calls for Labour to recognise the failure of the neoliberal ‘what can be measured can be managed’ approach to delivering public services, in favour of promoting the ethos of public service and allowing workers to have the time and ability to build relationships with the people who use their services.

The name of this socialist call to arms? The Purple Book.

While reading the Purple Book, I also had a look at a very interesting piece by Graeme Cooke – a former Special Adviser to James Purnell who is now at the ippr think tank, about how the political challenges which Labour faces has changed since 1995. Amongst other points, this piece echoed the Purple Book’s call for a major expansion of the welfare state to provide more support for people who care for others.

I also saw a blogpost by Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair’s Chief Adviser on political strategy, on the failings of ‘New Public Management’, contracting out and the use of market mechanisms. Together with the work of the Resolution Foundation, run by Gordon Brown’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, these bring together the current thinking on the part of the self-styled Labour ‘moderates’.

Of course, there is a lot in the Purple Book for lefties to disagree with. Having ploughed through hundreds of pages of this stuff, there are a number of themes which emerge:

Firstly, there is a deep desire to define their ideas against the left. The rhetoric is all about the modernisers who are aiming to free the Labour Party from its left-wing, tax and spend comfort zone. This gets pretty tedious pretty quickly, particularly once you look at the gap between the ‘moving on from the big state’ rhetoric and the actual policy content, as we’ll see.

Secondly, there are some big gaps in what gets discussed. The authors acknowledge that there is very little if anything on climate change, transport, energy or foreign policy. The focus is very much on “modernising social democracy in one country”.

Thirdly, the mindset is still very much one of people who are used to being in government – top-down and technocratic. Liam Byrne’s chapter claims to be inspired “more by his constituents in Hodge Hill than by Westminster” (and is then largely based on discussions which he had in Harvard learning from Amartya Sen), but that is the exception rather than the rule.

This is a book by and for Westminster insiders in both tone and content. This results in far too much discussion of elite issues such as primaries and elected mayors.

Fourthly, a lot of the new ideas involve people writing about things which they believe are desirable but don’t really know anything about. So there is a lot about the need to support the private sector, but it is pretty obvious that the authors of these paeans of praise are political hacks whose interaction with the private sector is that they go shopping sometimes, rather than people who have run their own businesses.

Patrick Diamond’s chapter on public sector reform manages not to mention the role of public sector workers. Tessa Jowell’s bits on “community commissioning” are well intentioned, but not very aware of the challenges and trade offs involved. Tristram Hunt’s entire chapter goes horribly and wretchedly wrong once he stops writing about the history of the Labour movement and tries his hand at public policy and political strategy. And the less said about Frank Field’s chapter, the better. The odd bit written by people who are practitioners and know what they are talking about, such as Cllr Paul Brant’s chapter on local government, stand out all the more clearly.

The limitations of all this are mostly clearly evident in their big new idea for public service reform, “Underpants Gnome Mutualism”. This is a three step process – 1. turn public services into mutuals, 2. ???, 3. Profit! So we learn, for example, that if only Sure Starts had been mutualised, then they would somehow have been immune to public spending cuts, and as part of fighting terrorism, the Preventing Violent Extremism funding should be handed over to a non-government mutual.

* * * * * * * * *

And yet, as the introduction to this review hints, in amongst the leftie-baiting rhetoric and underdeveloped proposals, there is quite a lot here to like. A lot of the new thinking by the “Purple Bookers” should have lefties nodding in agreement, and while they’d never admit it, in many cases their analysis concedes that leftie critics of New Labour were correct. Back in 2003 when lefties were campaigning for regulations on bad landlords, Blairite ministers said that new regulations weren’t needed and were “anti-aspiration”. Now Caroline Flint – Caroline Flint! – is leading the charge to regulate all landlords and require them to meet the Decent Homes Standard in order to get housing benefit payments.

The Purple Bookers want to reduce tax relief on higher earners’ pension contributions, and instead prioritise helping people on low incomes to save for retirement. They want a land use tax and to allow local referendums on raising the higher rate of tax. The centre piece of their policy agenda is to make childcare and social care affordable for all. Their support for the “relational state” which cares about people rather than numbers is an implicit rejection of the cruelty of the Work Capability Assessment.

For all the big talk about the vital importance of fiscal responsibility and support for the political strategy of not opposing George Osborne’s deficit reduction plans too vigorously, the Purple Bookers have very little idea of what they think government should stop spending money on. There are a couple of half-hearted bits about abolishing the Communities and Local Government department and transferring its functions to local authorities, and creating one Department of the Regions instead of different departments for each of the devolved nations.

But there are no serious plans to scale back the range of activities which government funds. Indeed, if you add up all the proposals put forward in the Purple Book, the Purple Bookers plan to increase public spending on the welfare state, and pay for this by taxing the rich more.

Similarly, Graeme Cooke’s analysis of the changing ideological landscape and future political priorities refers to the need to prioritise full employment, address stagnating wages and build more homes – exactly the same priorities as those set out by Labour leftie Owen Jones in his piece on winning the support of working-class voters.

There are two competing impulses at the heart of the Purple Book.

The first is for this to be a symbolic statement, designed to impress elite opinion-formers about Labour’s “seriousness”, and fight the good internal fight against the left. It uses buzzwords such as “mutualism” as rhetorical devices rather than out of any understanding of their role, and has the odd obnoxious jibe at people who receive state benefits or are otherwise “undeserving”. This is what we might call the ‘Peter Watt’ impulse.

The second impulse aims to come to an assessment of what New Labour did wrong, how things have changed over the past decade and a half in the world beyond Westminster, and how Labour needs to change as a result. If Matthew Taylor wants to develop an alternative to New Public Management and McKinsey; if Tessa Jowell is serious about more services being delivering by community groups rather than private companies and Graeme Cooke wants to develop the public service ethos, build more homes and aim for full employment; if Gavin Kelly wants to secure a greater share of national income for people who work by hand and by brain; if Liz Kendall wants to expand the welfare state and Rachel Reeves to tax higher earners to pay for decent pensions for low paid workers… – then there’s a lot for us lefties to support and contribute to the development of.

But there is more common ground then the spin would suggest between Labour’s moderates and the left. We can’t expect them to admit that they were wrong and we were right, but we can show them that many of the ideas and priorities which they are calling for are ones which we share and know a lot about how to implement in practice.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments

Really interesting post. For the record though you say:

‘and has the odd obnoxious jibe at people who receive state benefits or are otherwise “undeserving”. This is what we might call the ‘Peter Watt’ impulse.

I only ever make the point that many voters feel negatively to those in receipt of welfare. It certainly doesn’t mean I agree to the sentiment. It was a good line though!

Thanks for this, Don.

I’m only a third of the way through the Purple Book, and while it’s intermittently sensible, I find that I can’t take the overall argument seriously, insofar as almost literally the last people you’d go to for advice about how to decentralise the workings of the British state are former New Labour ministers and their Special Advisers, who seem to make up the bulk of the contributors, i.e., precisely those people who spent a decent chunk of their adult lives specifically honing the dispositions and skills that would lead them to flourish in an over-centralised political environment.

Now, I suppose you could say this lot are gamekeepers-turned-poachers, or something like that, and that those who know most about what’s wrong with the current set-up are those who are most familiar with its workings. I don’t think that’s an especially plausible idea (we’re talking about people like Alan Milburn, after all), and the book (or, rather, the first 120 pages of the book–I can’t comment on the rest of it yet) doesn’t read as if that is the case that it’s trying to make: the decentralisation theme is often invoked, sometimes with a rhetorical nod to great figures from the Labour past like G. D. H. Cole, but there isn’t really anything that you could call a tough-minded engagement with the issues that it raises.

And those bits where the contributors talk about bits of political theory–negative and positive liberty (Tristram Hunt), or equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity (Alan Milburn)–are just embarrassing, and further reinforce my sense that the Purple Book isn’t an especially serious contribution, but more a repackaging exercise for the cadre of the Labour Right in the era of austerity and the wretched Big Society.

Peter – thanks, that’s kind of you. I didn’t mean to imply that you felt negatively about people who receive welfare benefits. It was an unworthy and uncomradely aside!

Chris – keep going, it gets better…I agree that the Purple Book doesn’t work on its own terms, for the reasons that you mention. But I think it is an interesting window into where the common ground which the Labour Party could gather around might be.

Should also mention that after I finished writing this, I read Hopi’s Renewal article, which from a different perspective comes to many of the same conclusions about the limitations of the thinking of the Purple Bookers:

It’s worth mentioning that one of the reasons Hopi’s article is so good is that it raises exactly the question the Purple Book authors most need to be talking about, as they try to move on from the New Labour train-wreck, but systematically ignore (at least on the evidence of the first third of the book).

And it’s free, unlike the bloody £9.99 Purple Book, which *doesn’t have an index* (yet another sign that we aren’t really supposed to take it seriously).

Firstly, there is a deep desire to define their ideas against the left.

I briefly ploughed through Graeme Cook’s pamphlet and this is what I thought too.

For all the rallying cries that we should move on from 1995 – a lot of this sounds like its still from that era, where the key concern is to make sure the far left is sufficiently kept at arms length. But those days are gone and those battles are over. Why carry on trying to triangulate like the past?

Anyway, otherwise an excellent review – which I would have asked you to cut in half if you hadn’t published it directly 🙂

Really good post Don, and all the better for its length. (Does this mean I should submit my 2000 word essay to you rather than Sunny?)

It’s worth mentioning that one of the reasons Hopi’s article is so good

Well, it isn’t really. Its sum total of positive suggestions seems to me to be nil. Which doesn’t bother me, insofar as I’m not expecting anything much (if at all) from the bowels of the Labour Party establishment. Twas not ever thus.

Plenty of interesting talk going on outside those narrow circles though.

I’m not sure the sum total of positive suggestions is the right metric to be using in evaluating Hopi’s piece.

That’s a view, but it does seem to be aa metric he’s employing to evaluate what other people have to say.

If the view is “it’s a breeze to read”, then perhaps it is, and if it’s “lands some good if gentle blows on some people who merit them” then perhaps that too. But it’s not a fountain of creative and original thinking.

I’m sure part of the reason I like the essay more than you do is that Hopi’s an old university friend, and also that I’m more sympathetic to this kind of internal Labour party discussion stuff than you are, and in that context it’s good to see such a staunch Blairite as Hopi raise the kinds of questions about New Labour political economy staunch Blairites have generally spent the better part of fifteen years avoiding.

But there’s another relevant context, too, which is that me, Don Paskini too, and probably also several of the other people that have been nice about Hopi’s essay today, have recently been reading parts or all of the Purple Book. And if you’ve been reading the Purple Book with greater or lesser degrees of irritation, as I’ve certainly been doing, what’s refreshing about Hopi’s essay is precisely that he isn’t making positive suggestions–he’s saying (to his audience, which is mostly found on the right-hand half of the Labour Party), look, *these* are the things we need to be talking about *before* we can start putting together edited collections of books of wanky wonkery like the Purple Book.

And most of what he’s saying is sensible, and though a lot of that may be obvious to people outside the Labour bubble, he’s focusing on just the things that people inside the Labour bubble often confuse themselves or deceive themselves about enormously.

So that’s why I think it’s a useful contribution to the discussion.

11. Mike Killingworth

A few other points:

(1) There ain’t no money, and there ain’t going to be any for a generation. Globalisation has made the safety net unaffordable – look at what happened to pensions in the Irish Republic, for example.

(2) There is little if anything that we can produce, whether goods or services, that can’t be produced at a fraction of the cost somewhere south of the Tropic of Cancer. No government of whatever leaning can influence this fact.

(3) There is a strong viewpoint in the Tory Party that thinks they should let Scotland and Wales go in return for a permanent majority in England.

(4) It is more than likely that there will be a GOP landslide across the pond next year, and it will be followed by a Tory three-figure majority in 2015. At which point the real political divide will open up inside the Tory Party, with Cameron and the other old Etonians on one side and the likes of Priti Patel MP and Paul Staines on the other. And, as the Tea Party has shown, in economic hard times there’s a big space for a Hard Right kulturkampf. I know Sunny thinks I’m being alarmist to suggest that people who right for blogs like LC are putting their personal safety at risk from the next generation of ultra-rightists, but I suggest he reads 24 hours’ worth of comments over at Smithson’s place.

I haven’t read the Purple Book. I have some respect for some of its contributors, less for others, but either way it’s not at the top of my reading list. Really, I think Labour’s rebuilding will happen from the bottom, not the top and that involves reasserting our identity as the party of working people and the trade union movement. To do that, I think we may need to accept that the “modernizing” project as a whole was a mistake. I don’t mean revisionism, of the kind Labour practised under Kinnock and Smith, but the idea that we had to throw off our old identity (all the while expecting to keep all our old support) and adopt a ‘third way’ ideology that was really rather vacuous compared to the old right social democracy it replaced. Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 led people to conclude that it was New Labour that had won us the election, but I think that conclusion was erroneous and from that have sprung a lot of our problems.

I want to read ‘the magenta book’, or perhaps ‘the mauve book’.

Seriously though, what right have these arse biscuits got to claim what used to be quite a cool colour for their own?

For the record I though this was a great review and I’m glad it wasn’t cut. I’d actually like to see more politics/foreign policy books reviewed here.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Book Review: The Purple Book

  2. Don Paskini

    my review of #purplebook now on @libcon

  3. Hopi Sen

    RT @donpaskini: my review of #purplebook now on @libcon > interesting stuff.

  4. Andreas Paterson

    Great review of the Purple Book by @donpaskini loved the phrase "Underpants Gnome Mutualism"

  5. Lewis Atkinson

    my review of #purplebook now on @libcon

  6. Fernanda Jackson Book Review: The Purple Book | Liberal Conspiracy

  7. Jessica Asato

    A thoughtful critique of the Purple Book from @donpaskini: Don't agree that primaries or mayors are 'elite issues' tho

  8. Stuart White

    Book Review: The Purple Book

  9. sunny hundal

    This review by @donpaskini of Purple Book & new @IPPR booklet is an excellent look at future direction of Labour party

  10. Matthew d'Ancona

    This review by @donpaskini of Purple Book & new @IPPR booklet is an excellent look at future direction of Labour party

  11. Chris Goulden

    This review by @donpaskini of Purple Book & new @IPPR booklet is an excellent look at future direction of Labour party

  12. Lucy Proctor

    This review by @donpaskini of Purple Book & new @IPPR booklet is an excellent look at future direction of Labour party

  13. Moonbootica

    Book Review: The Purple Book, and moving on from New Labour | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  14. Mehdi Hasan

    This review by @donpaskini of Purple Book & new @IPPR booklet is an excellent look at future direction of Labour party

  15. H. O.

    RT @libcon: Book Review: The Purple Book, and moving on from New Labour

  16. Chris Brooke

    @crookedfootball — it's just a brief exchange between me and @ejhchess

  17. Chris Brooke

    @crookedfootball — it's just a brief exchange between me and @ejhchess

  18. Justin Horton


  19. Moonbootica

    @crookedfootball — it's just a brief exchange between me and @ejhchess

  20. Dan Davies

    I agree with @donpaskini 's except that it's more 1. shout "yay mutualism"! 2. ?? 3. mutualism happens 4. ?? 5. profit!

  21. Don Paskini

    I agree with @donpaskini 's except that it's more 1. shout "yay mutualism"! 2. ?? 3. mutualism happens 4. ?? 5. profit!

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