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The Open Left project – allowing dissent?

15/02/2010

James Purnell

As well as my tweets from the lecture, here are some thoughts on James Purnell’s Open Left talk at LSE tonight.

One of his main arguments, basically a reassertion of Third Way ideas, was that powerful individuals and a good society with a high level of reciprocity could go along together. He chose to use different language from the government he left, and it is perhaps pertinent that he didn’t use the word ‘responsibility’, a favourite of both the Labour and now Conservative leaderships.

Purnell talked of the need to revitalise the Labour movement throughout the country as a way to accomplish Communitarian ideals, and said that associations would play a key role in creating the reciprocal society he is asking for. He also shifted away from talking about using these organisations to deliver public services, and said that they should be empowered because they were good in their own right- indeed he was the first politician I’ve heard to say the government should be able to work with those organisations who actively campaign against the government. He also wants Labour politicians to be able to campaign locally somewhat independently from the central party. Allowing dissent in this way is something that’s been missing from all parties’ adjustment to localism, and most discussions of (my own research topic) social capital creation in public policy.

As well as creating space for civic groups, he suggested a guarantee of a job after one year of unemployment, community banks to loan for community projects and a cap on lending interest rates. Although disappointingly he argued that new social networking technologies were not useful for creating the reciprocal society he wants, most of his ideas seem determined to revitalise local communities and economies.

All of this was premised on the ideas of Amartya Sen and R. H. Tawney, especially social capabilities and how to achieve real freedoms, and on an idea of producing ‘active equality’ by tackling injustices and empowering people, not just redistributing resources.

We’ve heard similar from New Labour before, but allowing dissent and the real building of reciprocity in society are good things, if they actually happened. Purnell is clearly willing to act independently of his party, not just by walking out of government but also by voting with the Lib Dems on electoral reform last week. This independent thinking seems likely to also help Labour in the long term.

Update: Purnell has now said he won’t be returning to front-line politics, and has released an edited collection with Graham Cooke at Demos on the theme of power.

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One Comment
  1. Hi Chris,

    Good to see you blogging (dissemination, knowledge transfer etc). Keep it up.

    Hope you’re well,

    – David.

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