Do you remember Frank Field’s famous statement when Minister of State in the then Department of Social Security to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform? A year later he left the first Blair government. What followed were years and years of White Papers and consultations, a succession of Work and Pensions Ministers using the department as a springboard for ‘better’ things, and few substantial changes to our approach to welfare (for this read tinker rather than reform) while the welfare state continued to grow. As a result the welfare bill ballooned and a new generation of people have been left to fester with little hope of a bright future ahead.
This week James Purnell, the former Labour MP and cabinet minister who is now chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research, set out a new approach to welfare based on the old principle that people should only get back what they put in. He admitted that Labour’s concept of fairness was warped and didn’t sit comfortably with the majority who have to work for a living and often struggle to provide for their families. Furthermore he admitted that some benefits would have to be sacrificed in order to go down this path. Purnell had some ideas of where savings could be made, such as scrapping the Winter Fuel Allowance, but on the whole didn’t want to be prescriptive instead hoping to initiate a debate in this general direction.
In putting across these ideas it was like a breath of fresh air circulating in the political room. Purnell has a rare gift for a politician that he actually sounds like a human being. Unlike many of his peers he never appears supercilious or bumptious, instead making his arguments in a way that connects to ordinary people and explaining what impact his ideas may have on them. It seems slightly contradictory to write this as Purnell is every inch a modern politician – finding himself in the Cabinet at the age of 38 via a career of policy wonking, a spell as a journalist and a special adviser. However, particularly when he debated the subject on Newsnight with Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss and think-tanker Vidhya Alakeson, his open approach to discussing the merits of his proposals allowed him to shine. While Truss made petty party political points and Alakeson whined how minority groups would be worse off, Purnell quietly outlined why a new approach to welfare was needed and why the majority would be better off – because it was fair. He did this without bandying around statistics as politicians usually do in these situations but, instead, gave specific examples which matter to people.
Purnell may have been calling for a return to Beveridge but this is also a great opportunity for the country. If, at last, some of these arguments are being made by influential figures in the Labour Party then, finally, the coalition government may just be able to think the unthinkable. It isn’t just the subject area he was raising, or how he chose to communicate his ideas (a Times op-ed, a film of Newsnight, briefing to key papers and a speech) but also the manner in which he went about this task. Of course I wish that this kind of radical thinking had been more to the fore when he was a cabinet minister, but this doesn’t stop me making James Purnell my communicator of the week.