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Purnell: social conservatism and Labour

So James Purnell has joined the list of Ministers and ex-Ministers ‘setting out a vision’ for what will soon become the post-Brown political landscape. In a remarkably frank article, Purnell offered a bold vision that, were it to gain serious traction, would undoubtedly prove divisive, particularly amongst the metropolitan left that has become so dominant in the Labour Party over recent years.

In his analysis of contemporary left-wing thought and practice, Purnell urged the Party to ‘go back to the values of the early Labour movement’, and in so doing find the inspiration, not to mention the ideological resources, for a revivification of the Labour’s flagging fortunes. Indeed, going further, and openly deriding the cold utilitarianism of New Labour governance, Purnell decries the fact that the ‘The words are managerial, the values administrative and the vision technocratic.’

Now, for many on the left, particularly those that might take Purnell’s words to be a barbed analysis of their own political meanderings, the instant response will no doubt be to dismiss him as a closet-conservative, as if this alone is enough to pour scorn on the wisdom of his proclamations. And, in his cautious rejection of authoritarian statism, and his consistent appeals to tradition, to historic values, and to the lessons of history, the charge may well have some justification. The error, however, is surely in thinking that these characteristics make Purnell a foreigner to the cause. What the metropolitan cabal at the head of the Party fail to recognise, as Purnell clearly does, is that there are genuine socially conservative roots at the heart of traditional Labour thinking, and of those communities that have traditionally voted for the Labour Party.

In essence, then, Purnell is dusting off a form of social conservatism that has fallen into disuse on the left in recent years, whilst simultaneously remaining committed to key left-wing critiques of social and economic inequalities, seeking to demonstrate that the two need not be wholly alien from one another. Purnell is clearly confident that such a move would bring the Party back toward the beliefs and expectations of the nation beyond the cultural cloisters of Islington and Westminster.

Accordingly, in a neat demonstration of precisely this, Purnell says, ‘While there are deep conservative elements in the Labour tradition, and we should honour them – particularly in relation to the ethics of work, loyalty and love of place, family solidarity and a respect for the moral contribution of faith – we do not accept the distribution of assets as they are, we do not accept that inherited mega-wealth is deserved, and we do not accept that our rulers are always other people.’

This first half of this statement will, of course, send shocks of horror surging through the vociferous left-liberal metropolitan classes that see in social conservatism the distillation of all that is regressive and uncivilised in contemporary society. I suspect that Purnell calculates this as a risk worth taking, in order to broaden the appeal of the Party beyond the Guardian reading bien-pensants and the rapidly diminishing tribal voters so disillusioned with cultural and social achievements of the New Labour project. In essence, Purnell is seeking to redress the cultural deficit, to bring back in from the wilderness that much neglected traditional voice, and in so doing he is hoping to start speaking the language of the ordinary people Labour need to vote for them.

When looking at the conservative elements Purnell lists as core to the Labour tradition, the unflinching honesty of his article, and indeed the potentially divisive nature of it, becomes clear. On the ethics of work, for example, Labour are finding it a struggle to find a coherent path through the increasing body of evidence and opinion that the welfare system has played its part in dis-incentivising work. Generational worklessness has blighted communities up and down the country, and whilst it would be overly simplistic to pin this entirely on welfare, there yet remains a noticeable silence in the face of the excellent work done by figures such as Iain Duncan Smith MP at the Centre for Social Justice. Certain bolder characters on the left, such as Frank Field, have been willing to grasp this nettle, though beyond individuals there are few signs of any stomach for this particular fight.

On loyalty and love of place, it would hardly be controversial to suggest that this administration has brought with it a culture disdain toward patriotic expression, in which national and civic pride is looked down upon as vaguely anti-social and potentially divisive. Equally, the uncritical embrace of multiculturalism is proving a hindrance, as it comes under unprecedented attack on both a social and an intellectual level. For many, the mere elevation of ‘diversity’ as a transcending characteristic is in reality no more than a demonstration of the unpatriotic temperament of many on the intellectual left, a ‘progressive’ way of saying ‘we don’t really believe in anything at all’.

On family solidarity, in addition to the unintended yet pernicious effects the welfare system has had on family structures, one might evidence the disproportionate fury of many on the left at the suggestion that the couples’ penalty be removed from the tax system. The left all too often seek only to react to the consequences of damaging social trends, without ever offering a convincing response to the charge that these trends can be socially harmful and ought therefore to be addressed. On this note, as Tristram Hunt has convincingly argued, the metropolitan left have pursued an ideological approach to family that has had profoundly unprogressive consequences, and if the promotion of people like Dr Katherine Rake is anything to go by, then one would be forgiven for thinking that this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Finally, on the moral contribution of faith, one could scarcely deny the proliferation of an aggressively secular civic space that, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, treats faith as an eccentricity rather than a core aspect of peoples’ lives. Whether it be Harriet Harman’s divisive Equalities Bill, or the inability of Jewish communities to define their own membership over and above the definitions of the secular state, one can hardly dispute the charge that religion has proved a difficult conversation partner for a government so committed to social liberalism. Indeed, involving different faith communities has often become a PR exercise concerned with demonstrating ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’, even whilst these very terms are the watchwords under which orthodox religious practice and belief is legislated against. This government has managed to gain a reputation, fair or otherwise, of being anti-Christian, and of having created a ‘Catholic vote’ – tags like these will take a long time to shake loose, and the effects will no doubt be felt at the ballot-box.

All of which demonstrates either Mr Purnell’s courage or else his witlessness. However, one is tempted to assume that, as this is a barely disguised rallying cry, Purnell recognises the deficiencies in these areas and is seeking to alleviate them. The question is, will others follow his lead?

UPDATE: two interesting and not wholly unrelated blog posts, one from Working Class Tory here, and the other from Peter Hitchens here.

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