Open Left at Demos

by Harry on July 20, 2009

Demos’s Open Left project is unveiled today, first with a series of essays on the Demos blog by the likes of Billy Bragg, Alan Simpson, Polly Toynbee, Phillip Collins and Jon Cruddas [1], and second with an event tonight at the Commonwealth Club. The essays were written in response to a series of questions, including “What is it about your political beliefs that put you on the Left rather than the Right?”, “How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?” and “What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?” It’s headed up by James Purnell (whose own answers to the questions are here), who characterizes it as a three year project “to revive the ideas and direction of the Left at a time of economic and political upheaval”. More essays will be added throughout this week (I’ll link to mine when it goes up). Although one of the commenters correctly observes that the cast of characters is almost exclusively Labour, rather than more broadly left, it is nevertheless a reasonably eclectic group within Labour so far, and I think it’ll be interesting to see Purnell and Collins, for example, in dialogue with Simpson, Cruddas and Toynbee, and more interesting still if the project reaches beyond Labour ranks (I’m not Labour, but I don’t count). Thoughtful CT readers, commenters, and contributors might help further the discussion by going there and commenting.

[1] His wikipedia page suggests that Cruddas visited my department for a while in the 1980’s, in which case he is probably the second most eminent former visitor we’ve had — according to department legend, this guy once shared an office for a whole semester with my retired but excellent colleague Dennis Stampe.



Chris Bertram 07.20.09 at 3:10 pm

The fact that an odious reptile such as James Purnell (google “James Purnell” “Liz Davies” for verification) is heading it doesn’t inspire confidence. Check out his reasons for believing himself on the left:

“Second, I believe that governments succeed more often than they fail.”

The government in which he has served is, of course, a miserable failure at achieving the ends he claims to believe in.


Salient 07.20.09 at 3:20 pm

From Purnell’s essay:

I essentially believe that the Left has the right goals, but too often had the wrong method. We let ourselves think that government worked best when it was publicly-owned and centrally-run. My experience is that government normally works better when the individual has the power, whether to choose between parties in elections, or between providers in public services. The world is too complicated for most of its problems to be solved from the centre.

Aren’t choice and centralization fairly independent of one another?


dsquared 07.20.09 at 3:33 pm

I certainly have a number of comments to make about James Purnell, but I think I’d probably better keep them to myself.


ejh 07.20.09 at 3:47 pm

I won’t be surprised if other commentors here make them for you. I’ll have a pop if you like.


Salient 07.20.09 at 4:00 pm

odious reptile such as James Purnell / I certainly have a number of comments to make about James Purnell, but I think I’d probably better keep them to myself.

Oh. I’ll, umm, take this as compelling evidence that attempting to tease further ambiguities out of his Open Left essay is not a good use of my time. (Thanks.)

So… Is this Billy Bragg fellow as excellent a human being as his Open Left essay would imply?


harry b 07.20.09 at 4:20 pm

Or perhaps we could try to keep things polite, given the reasonably eclectic cast of characters James has assembled?

Salient — as far as I can tell, disappointingly, yes.


dsquared 07.20.09 at 4:25 pm

Salient, with respect to your #2, the hidden principle here is Birtism (Purnell was John Birt’s right-hand man at the BBC). What he means is that there needs to be strong central control of large institutions rather than delegation to individual units (managerialism), and that this control needs to be exercised through a sort of playing-at-shops pseudo-market mechanism. I keep planning to do a long essay about Birt, who I think is a much more interesting and important intellectual and political figure than he’s typically given credit for, but every time I start I realise that I could use the same time to do something either more interesting, or more remunerative, or both.


Tim Wilkinson 07.20.09 at 4:54 pm

#7 (re: #2) –

So Purnell is after central control really – only under a ‘watchmaker’ or Designed Hand model (no tinkering with the works now…or should we be thinking in terms of the clock that periodically synchronises itself via a central signal?) Is the word ‘run’ in ‘centrally-run’ being sliced rather finely?

My experience is that government normally works better when the individual has the power…to choose…between providers in public services.
Regardless of the (de)merits of this opinion, what ‘experience’ can he possibly be basing it on?

More importantly, what about the mention of ‘publicly owned’ he slips in there?


Salient 07.20.09 at 4:58 pm

Salient—as far as I can tell, disappointingly, yes.

I guess the “No True Leftsman” fallacy category lives on.

I especially liked the last paragraph, for that peculiar definition of the word liked that gets reserved for bad logic: “However, in a time of great mistrust and cynicism about our political institutions, it is strong, clearly defined principles that will grab the attention of the electorate, not mere better presentation.”

The word “mere” has an awful lot of work consigned to it, there.


Phil 07.20.09 at 5:01 pm

Sorry, Harry, but I don’t think there’s anything polite to say about Purnell, and certainly not about Purnell staking any sort of claim to the word “Left”. David Osler is quite good on this; he concludes:

In short, Purnell is pledged to spend the next three years trying to define himself as something that he is not and never has been, for purposes largely of self-promotion. I naturally wish him luck.


engels 07.20.09 at 5:03 pm

Oh gawd. As if I didn’t have enough reasons never to vote Labour again.

One choice sample plucked more-or-less at random — Peter Hyman (‘Political strategist to Tony Blair 1994-2003 and now Deputy Headteacher’) on Thatcher:

At least Thatcher was attempting to change things. The one philosophy I could never understand was conservatism – why would anyone spend their life trying to defend the status quo.

“At least Thatcher was attempting to change things.” Amazing. And it does seem to encapsulate a certain mind-set rather brilliantly, doesn’t it? And what changes we have seen over the course of this government: the shredding of the UN charter on the orders of George Bush’s White House, the dismantling of the system of free higher education in the name of ‘personal responsibility’, the continued re-shaping of the benefits system according to blueprints devised by the New Right, trashing of centuries old liberties in the name of a never-ending war, the privatisation of practically everything under the sun with the sole exception of RBS’s bonuses and James Purnell’s fridge magnets. But what really ‘angers’ a man like Hyman is ‘the nonsensical traditions from Britain’s past – an absurd honours system, largely unreformed House of Lords, archaic House of Commons, unmodernised civil service’. It’s a sad day when a significant part of the energies of those who are–unlike Hyman–actually on the left are taken up with–contra Hyman–precisely defending those mildly progressive parts of the status quo which haven’t yet been ground under the wheels of Hyman and Co’s neo-liberal juggernaut, but that is where we have been for some time.


mart 07.20.09 at 5:16 pm

It’s this kind of stupid that really put me off New Labour:
My experience is that government normally works better when the individual has the power…to choose…between providers in public services.
I don’t know how many members of the public these guys actually know, but very few people actually want to *choose* these things. You see it with the current healthcare debate in the US too – it’s all about a market/quasi-market when all people really want is a decent GP/nearby hospital. There are other (not very convincing, IMO) arguments one can make for private-sector involvement in public services, but the “consumer” choice one is just dumb.


dsquared 07.20.09 at 5:55 pm

#12: yes, this particular fallacy is the specifically Birtist contribution to managerialism. It is a great shame [1] that Sir John only produced “The Harder Path”, rather than following his original plan of publishing his autobiography in three volumes (Life, Work and Management Theories) so I could have a definite reference to this.

[1] for some values of “shame”, obviously, presumably his publisher considers it a financially disastrous bullet dodged.


Substance McGravitas 07.20.09 at 6:00 pm

So… Is this Billy Bragg fellow as excellent a human being as his Open Left essay would imply?

In concert he seems like a sweetheart. Here he is singing along to a Billy Bragg parody.


Aaron Swartz 07.20.09 at 6:03 pm

dsquared: I, for one, will chip in for remunerating that essay (apparently the going rate in the US for such things is less than a dollar a word — a bargain!). I loved John Birt in The Thick of It and the question of whether Birtism makes sense seems very interesting and relevant.


bert 07.21.09 at 12:09 am

There was a John Birt character in The Thick of It. But that was really late-period Birt: Blue Sky Thinker in Tony Blair’s Forward Strategy Unit. The joke was that he a) had the Prime Minister’s ear, b) was up his own arse, and c) tended to get outmanoeuvred on policy when it came to the crunch. AFAIK not a million miles from the truth, as I was just reading.
At the other end of the timescale there’s the John Birt in Frost/Nixon.
And in between is the one I think dsquared is talking about – head of the BBC for most of the nineties. That’s the source of the interest. He’s a model of a certain type of public sector management: organigrams, consultancy reports, lots and lots of targets.

Dsquared mentioned centralised control, which is certainly true, but there was also a lot of contracting out, for better or worse. The Media Guardian lot this week all agreed with each other that the reason Graham Norton’s Saturday show is so unendurably dire was that – unusually – it’s produced in house. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine today’s BBC without him.


Ben Alpers 07.21.09 at 2:22 am

Back in the summer of 1998, I saw Billy Bragg play the first Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, OK. After the concert, he wandered over to the nearest bar and joined a bunch of us concertgoers for a few beers. He certainly seemed like a great guy! He was still there when it was time for my wife and I to head back to Norman.


dsquared 07.21.09 at 6:48 am

In fairness to Birt, he ought to be given credit for the BBC website; he was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the internet, and it is financed basically with money he saved from other budgets. Although I am not a huge fan of a lot of what he did, it can certainly be argued that there was only one really important decision for a media executive to make in the 1990s, and he got it right.


bert 07.21.09 at 1:17 pm

Important point there, Daniel.
Where he saved money, he got to deploy it elsewhere.
Not a luxury other public sector managers tend to have.
It’s the advantage of a hypothecated income stream.
I remember ITV making some kind of an effort establishing an online presence. There were some interesting signs of life coming out of ITN. Then the dotcom crash happened and their budgets disappeared overnight. Subsequent efforts to catch up the ground they lost (buying Friends Reunited!) have been a bad joke.
By contrast, the BBC was able to plan their internet investment far more coherently, with a dependable multi-year timeframe. (Something that doesn’t seem to have been disrupted when BBC Technology got spun off – to Siemens? – and the contracts outsourced a few years ago.)
That kind of independence is something the incoming Tories – and, apparently, ex-BBC NuLabour archetype Ben Bradshaw – now seem determined to reverse.


dsquared 07.21.09 at 1:45 pm

Yes, very much so; and of course Birt could have eaten his own cooking and outsourced to a private sector portal but he didn’t.

(Interestingly, the “Golden Age” of the BBC came about as a result of a bit of unintended class warfare – Tony Benn, when he was Postmaster General, assumed that colour television would be a luxury good only bought by the super rich, so he set the colour licence fee very high in order to carry out a bit of redistribution. In fact, colour TV takeup was much faster than expected, leaving the BBC with a massive unexpected windfall.


mart 07.21.09 at 2:11 pm

Slightly OT, but #19,#20, what are your views on the future of the licence fee?


bert 07.21.09 at 4:18 pm

B&W heat of technology!
If only all the unintended consequences of Tony Benn were that benign.

#21: I imagine the baseline will be some kind of a bailout for Channel 4, currently suffering from the biggest advertising recession in coke-addled memory. A slice of the licence fee, in return for which they’ll replace some repeats of Property Ladder with right-on religious programming. Beyond that, it’s not hard to imagine a Conservative government being forced to raise general taxation, and attempting to spin it with a cut in the licence fee. The World Service should also be worried about its direct grant from the Foreign Office.
How severely the BBC is trimmed I think depends how long it takes for the wheels to come off the Cameron government. A period of dominance a la post-Falklands Thatcher could be very good news for Murdoch. Thankfully I think the window before things turn is going to be quite narrow. Europe is a slow-motion multilane pileup we can already see starting to play out. I find it hard to credit the central role that’s been given to George Osborne, given that he’s a bleating nonentity. Give Cameron a small majority, and he’ll be found out in no time. And we’ll be on to the brave new dawn of Miliband and Purnell, hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, criticising after dinner…


Stigand 07.21.09 at 6:51 pm

#12: ” “My experience is that government normally works better when the individual has the power…to choose…between providers in public services.”
I don’t know how many members of the public these guys actually know, but very few people actually want to choose these things.”

At the risk of defending Purnell, aren’t you and he are saying slightly different things? Many of the advocates of choice in public services argued that only a few people had to be willing to make use of their right to choose for services to improve. (This line was widely used in the debate over NHS Independent Sector Treatment Centres.)

You may disagree with the argument, but it is compatible with your observation that most people don’t want choice.


mart 07.21.09 at 8:46 pm

@23: I suppose you’re right in that they’re not completely incompatible statements, but whilst I think the main argument here is the advisability of the “more choice” strategy in the first place, as this is politics we’re talking about here, the advisability is very much tied to how many people are persuaded by the policy.

Now I’m blagging the economics a bit here, but my understanding is that a market in which only a few people actually bother making choices is not necessarily functioning very well, and is unlikely to deliver great results for everyone else concerned.


Guano 07.22.09 at 5:33 am

My concern about this “power to choose between providers of public services” theory is that it focuses on individual choices but says nothing about collective choices and how they get made. The risk is that the important collective decisions get made by a managerial class with little transparency and accountability while giving the public the opportunity to make trivial individual choices.


Jock Bowden 07.22.09 at 6:45 am


What do you mean by “collective choices” and why can they only be made through state-provision?


Dr Zen 07.22.09 at 8:56 am

I wish Bragg could avoid getting conned by centre-right turds who see “Left” and “Right” as nothing more than labels like the “Blues” and “Greens” of Byzantium.


Alex 07.22.09 at 9:13 am

Forgive me if this is ignorant, but I thought that ISTCs were essentially wholesale elective surgery operations that subcontracted for the NHS, which doesn’t have any obvious consequences for “consumer choice”.

Regarding Benn, he also invented the automated distribution warehouse

Regarding Birt, I have a feeling I systematically understated the importance of some of these people – didn’t everyone? I recall being astonished to find that my 68er professors at Vienna University actually quoted Anthony Giddens and apparently considered him a genuine thinker, as opposed to the vacuous media prof the Guardian Diary had taught me to believe he was.


Guano 07.22.09 at 9:21 am

Collective choices are the macro-level choices about, for example, how many hospitals are needed, where, in what size hospital with what services. Individual choices provide only weak signals to inform this kind of decision. If people are choosing Hospital A because Hospital B has a poor reputation, it is usually already known by decision-makers that there are problems at Hospital B and they don’t need to wait for the public to tell them. The result isn’t always that services are improved at Hospital B; what often happens is that Hospital B gets closed because nobody is using it. And for many places, and for many services, there aren’t realistic alternatives to choose from.

Individual choice isn’t the only way in which the public can influence the supply of services: there are the democratic methods of voice and direct influence. My concern is that peole like Purnell are talking about individual choice instead of voice and direct influence, rather than in addition.


ejh 07.22.09 at 10:34 am

My view of Anthony Giddens is forever fixed by having worked briefly in the warehouse which stocked his Sociology, thousands and thousands of the bloody enormous things in picking bins and on pallets. There are surely people who still, when they hear the term “Tate Gallery”, think immediately “pile of bricks” – and that’s what I think of when I see the name Anthony Giddens.


ejh 07.22.09 at 10:39 am

Re: comsumer choice, the point (or one point among many) is surely that in a market economy, where people are enthusiastically making choices, the market responds by throwing money at production and improvement of the type of goods they’re buying. It doesn’t just shift a proportion of a fixed quantity of resources from unpopular good A to popular good B, it does much more than that. And without that, the goods-improvement, customer-choice mechanism just doesn’t function properly.


bert 07.22.09 at 11:41 am

Good link at #28, Alex.
To connect a dot or two, ICL had absorbed the remains of LEO, the teashop-based granddaddy of enterprise computing. It had been spun off/outsourced, had thrived briefly, then failed. A might-have-been British SAP or Oracle. Pinning down the reasons for the failure involves rehearsing all the old arguments about postwar decline. For my money, the size of IBM’s domestic market clinched it. But IBM also got all kinds of help from the US government.

Would a more Benn-style industrial policy have improved the outcome?
The French experience with Bull suggests not.
But who knows? British Leyland collapsed; Renault thrives. There are any number of counterfactuals to argue over.


Guano 07.22.09 at 12:33 pm

By chance the latest Private Eye has a small item about a report from the consultancy company Ernst and Young sugesting that patients should be encouraged to move from one General Practioner to another so as to create an internal market for health service providers. The problem is that there are already other better mechanisms for monitoring the quality of service of GPs, and continuity of care by one practice improves health care.

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