James Purnell was in the process of making quite an impact when he was promoted out of DCMS, not least in allegedly reintroducing the word excellence to the daily lexicon of petty bureaucrats everywhere. (Just as an aside, I was looking through Raymond Williams’ Keywords recently - as you do - and neither ‘excellence’ nor ‘quality’ is discussed. ‘Standards’ is though…)
Purnell came to speak to the National Council and Executive Board and was straightforward, frank and clearly committed to the arts, culture and social justice. I rather warmed to him, and was sorry to see him go off to DWP so soon. (I was especially sorry when he seemed to fall into cack-handed Daily Mail-appeasing workfare proposals, but that's another subject.) Anyway, earlier this year he find himself on the back benches in a classic example of an assault that ended: ‘You and whose army?’ ‘My army…oh, where have they gone? Damn…’
He has now reappeared heading up Demos’ Open Left project, ‘a project aimed at renewing the thinking and ideas of the political Left … an open conversation across the Left about the kind of society we want and how we can best bring it about’. There are a small number of artists featured on the site so far, with their ideas of what it means to be on the left. Some are obvious – Billy Bragg being no surprise – others less so. I’d never clocked Anthony Gormley as an artist of the left, for instance, though some of his work obviously has a real interest in ideas of self and community. His essay is typical of many in being kind of interesting, but also disappointing for anyone expecting an articulation of a vision for social change encompassing the poor and excluded. I struggled slightly to find the socialism in his essay, as in some of the others, but perhaps that’s not really the right thing to look for, even in its mildest or most liberal forms.
The Open Left project should also be read in relation to Demos’ set of essays, What Next for Labour? Beneath the howls of despair (it was written about the time James Purnell was drafting his resignation) are some really important ideas and debates. A stronger emphasis on ‘a stronger sense of the social — of communities, civic associations and social institutions…. a politics of social life’ sits alongside voices emphasizing the empowerment of individuals, usually in the context of the state withdrawing from ‘interference’ or ‘regulation’. You can feel this dichotomy running through cultural policy, for course, although interestingly cultural policy is more or less absent here.
Whether this moves us beyond right and left (now, and arguably always, tribal terms as much as anything else) and perhaps past worrying about the S word and its presence or absence, especially given the rather new thinking from the Red Tory zone of Thinktankland, that is at least interested in the social, we shall see.