Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Purnell Sets Out his Stall

On this day fourteen years ago, a young new Labour leader promised a 'crusade for national change'. Today the press discusses a 'welfare revolution' proposed by a young Blairite, tipped by some to be a future Labour leader. James Purnell(pictured), does not lack for confidence or presentational chutzpah but his green paper will not endear him to many upon his leadership ambitions depend. Many voters perceive 'deserving' and 'undeserving poor' and unfairly tend to apply the contempt they feel for the latter upon the former as well. That is why being tough on 'welfare scroungers' is guaranteed to win plaudits from rightwing tabloids at the very least.

According to Purnell, his aim is to: simplify four benefits into two; introduce sterner medical tests for the 'Employment Support Allowance' which replaces incapacity benefit; dislodge a million from incapacity benefit by 2015; persuade single parents to train for jobs even before their children are of school age; oblige those unemployed for a year to do a month's community work and those umemployed for two years to do so full-time. Drug addicts, moreover, of which there are 200,000 on benefit, will have to undertake treatment to become eligible for benefit.

Will all this work? I doubt it but politically, as Polly Toynbee observes today, it 'neutralizes' welfare reform in reflecting the Conservative inclination and, maybe, 'shoots their fox' to use the old expression. She also makes the point that placing the 'marginal cases' back to work is not easy. Purnell is confident the animus against the 'underserving poor' will win support(damagingly for his leadership ambitioons, he already has it from the Conservative's front bench) but, as Toynbee points out, these marginal cases are often:

the odd, the indefinably helpless, the non-communicators, the traumatised, the great array of human hard luck cases whom employers run a mile from. See those who queue outside urban post offices on benefit days - is that where you would go to recruit for staff? The government should help them into mainstream life for their own sake as well as for taxpayers'. But if not Labour, then who will remind voters that any society always has fallers who need picking up: the shirkers who need a push are bit-part players.

In addition I see three other problems:

1. The timing is not propitious as the imminent recession will make jobs hard to come by, if not impossible in some parts of the country.

2. The minimum wage, likely to be the level at which any likely jobs will be offered, is scarcely any inducement to benefit recipients. Raising a family on such a wage is virtually impossible.

3. Organising 'community work' is not easy. Hedged around with health and safety rules and resented by some unions it can cost almost as much as it contributes and, allowing for absenteeism, sometimes more.

4. Labour's left-leaning wing will not be likely to offer enthusiastic support to a fresh faced youngster who reminds them too much of Tony Blair.

Blair made his name by promising to be 'tough on crime etc'; he was but never ever looked like removing our concerns. James Purnell, may not solve the intractable problems of 'welfare to work' either. The strategy of appealing to 'Middle England' votes, moreover, won't win over the swathes of his own party required to put his ideas into practice. But I'm fairly sure, after following his progress and listening to him on the Today programme, that, along with one David Cameron, youing Mr Purnell is using Tony Blair as his template for success.

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