I’ve only just got round to reading yesterday’s Labour List interview with James Purnell, the former Cabinet member who keeps popping up in the media to remind us that he still exists and to try to prove that he’s a brainy hope for Labour’s future.
In the interview Mr Purnell is talking about inequality and is asked to give his thoughts on the possibility of a High Pay Commission. He replies:
I think a cap on high pay would be illiberal and probably counter-productive. I think the idea of Government – or anybody – deciding what the maximum pay should be is too much of an interference in the ability of society and the market to run themselves.
I was somewhat surprised to see Purnell express distaste for “illiberal” measures. As Work and Pensions Secretary he spent much of his time promising to get tough on welfare claimants, talking about “penalising” people who did not try hard enough to find jobs, instigating crackdowns, etc.
And of course he was for many years part of a Government that pursued numerous policies decried in Guardian editorials as illiberal (i.e. ID cards, terrorist suspect detention without trial, ASBOs).
Some of these policies I support, some I don’t, but that’s not the point. When it comes to discussing Labour’s approach to economic inequality I think it’s a bit of a cop out to get scared of illiberal ideas.
If we are supposed to be socialists/social democrats (I suspect Purnell is very enthusiastic about the ideologically bland term ‘progressive’ and describes himself as such with great vigour) then this means we put the interests of the many before the few and shouldn’t get our knickers in too much of twist over illiberalism.
Being frightened of excessive interference with “society and the market” has meant that after many years of Labour Government we are still in a situation where a tiny percentage of the population own a hefty great chunk of the nation’s wealth while 4 million children are living below the poverty line.
If a Labourite wanted to convince me that a High Pay Commission would be a very bad idea, I would want to hear other, more practical arguments being put forward.
For example, if a Government clampdown on high wages meant there would be a significant exodus of business talent and investment which would harm the UK’s economic performance then this would obviously make me think twice about the proposal.
Or if the Labourite produced some polling evidence suggesting that introducing the High Pay Commission would harm Labour’s electoral chances in key marginals then of course it would clearly be problematic.
But criticising the High Pay Commission idea as illiberal does not do the trick. It instead betrays a ridiculous lack of selfawareness considering the illiberalism that is accepted in other policy areas and it suggests a lack of genuine committment to tackling inequality.
I still find James Purnell thoroughly unconvincing.