There’s been a lot of debate about the James Purnell film on Newsnight last week. Often the debate has misunderstood what Purnell said. I think it’s worth going back and looking at the film again and being clear about his view.
Newsnight Click to view
His opening line is “When I was a cabinet minister we spent more money on welfare because we wanted to reduce poverty. It was one of the things that everybody in the Labour govt agreed about. But when it came to the last election, one of the reasons that we lost is that traditional Labour supporters no longer backed the welfare state.”
In the film, Purnell demonstrates that the welfare state created by Beveridge has changed so much that it no longer has the love of the white working class. By contrasting this with the love of the NHS, he demonstrates that this is not a dislike of taxation, but a particular dislike of this one institution.
He draws our attention to the change in the Welfare State since 1945. In its inception, we would contribute in return for insurance against hard times, but now our money is given away to those who don’t work and often haven’t contributed, and we see little or no return for our own contributions; the stingy state pension being a good example. Purnell wants to get back to the Beveridge idea of benefit in return for contribution.
He suggests a job guarantee for those on benefits for more than a year, with an end to Job Seekers Allowance, if they don’t take it. Apparently it works perfectly well in other countries.
He accepts that change would be expensive and suggests we could pay for this by ending Higher Rate Tax Relief on pension contributions. This would save a whopping £7b a year. The reason this Tax Relief was introduced was to encourage people to save, however it is commonly agreed that people who earn £100k a year would chose to save regardless of the tax advantage. So it is a break for the rich, with no advantage for the country. In my view it makes perfect sense to restrict this relief to the Standard Rate of tax.
Purnell also suggests an end to the Free Travel Card for pensioners, the free TV License, and possibly changes to Child Benefit. This is what fired up the indignation of Labour bloggers and I tend to agree. I worked on Oona King’s mayoral campaign when she made a similar suggestion and gave Ken’s side a stick to beat her with. We found ourselves issuing all kinds of clarifications and denials when we should have been campaigning.
The fact is that the free bus pass is more than just a travel arrangement. A few times I’ve had elderly friends tell me, “I got my free bus pass in the post today”. Everyone knows what this mean. There is no need to say, “I am now 65. I am a pensioner”. There’s something about the rights of passage into the autumn years that is marked by this arrangement. No one likes to hit 65 years of age, but the receipt of a gift from the state seems not only to act as a milestone in a person’s life, but provides an opportunity for positive philosophy. For this reason, I’d advise against removing this benefit.
In his film, Purnell opens up the analysis to the wider view of the white working class of the Labour Party and I found myself once again agreeing with something. For years, I’ve been getting doorstep hostility from the white working class, who would say, “What do you ever do for us?” or “You only represent them!” meaning the Bangladeshis. I’ve never disputed this; I always thought they had a good point, and have written about this on Labour List. http://www.labourlist.org/labour-list-dan-mccurry-confronting-racism In his talk with Peter Kellner, Purnell discovers that it’s much wider than immigrants. Kellner tells him that natural Labour voters came to think that Labour reflected “special groups. Immigrants, the poorest, single mothers, public sector workers. It was not seen as a party for the generality of the white working class Britain”.
And this is why his film was so important. The naffness of Blue Labour has given way to a substantial and tangible debate. The bloggers who dwell on the detail to condemn the whole are mistaken. According to Kellner, it’s not the electorate who got it wrong, it was the Labour Party.