Monday, July 20, 2009

What might have been

As James Purnell launches his new think tank project, having seemingly learned nothing from his undistinguished ministerial career, it seems an appropriate moment to look at how things might have been so different. So let me present, from Paskini's alternative history files:

The Guardian, editorial, Saturday 8th May 2010:

As the dust settles on the recent elections, one man above all can claim credit for Labour's remarkable fourth general election victory. Seemingly certain to be Labour's next leader, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell has seen his fortunes rise along with those of his party over the past two years.

It is worth remembering that when Mr Purnell first took over at the DWP, the Conservative Party's demands for punitive 'workfare' policies and greater involvement of the private sector in the delivery of welfare services seemed to have captured the public mood. At that time, he was derided even by some within his own party for claiming that the main task of his department was to prepare for when unemployment rose sharply. His decision to create an advisory panel of people who had direct experience of poverty to shape the policies of his department was widely mocked and was memorably described by one Daily Mail columnist as 'Putting the scroungers in charge of the asylum'.

But as the world economy slumped into crisis, even his fiercest critics, such as Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, have been forced to acknowledge that Purnell's approach has been vindicated. The introduction of free childcare for all working parents, one of the advisory panel's first recommendations, has seen employment levels amongst parents rise even during an economic downturn. And the support available to unemployed people, provided by Jobcentre Plus and local voluntary groups, is a model which has been copied around the world.

Early analysis of last Thursday's election results show a significant increase in the turnout, particularly amongst those on lower incomes. George Osborne's much repeated comments that halving child poverty 'would have to wait' and that public spending cuts were 'a higher priority for me' were ruthlessly exploited by Labour strategists.

In marginal constituency after marginal constituency, the Labour vote was swelled by the support of those who had, in some cases, never voted before. It was Purnell who first identified that reducing child poverty was not only a moral imperative and essential for boosting the economy, but also the key to building an election-winning coalition. As he predicted in the pages of this newspaper last year, in every marginal constituency, the majority of the winning party was smaller than the number of families living in poverty.

The Conservatives will be devastated after their fourth successive defeat, particularly after holding such large leads in the opinion polls. Their much derided policies for reducing unemployment, based on a discredited report by a city banker, certainly contributed to the scale of their defeat. But it would be unfair for Lord Freud to bear all the blame, as the past two years have not been kind to those who believe in smaller government and unregulated markets.

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirming that he plans to step down in a year's time, and with the economy growing again after two years of recession, the future looks very bright for Mr Purnell. And deservedly so.


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