British Labour Politician
Described by The Guardian as "young, good-looking and well-connected" or as "young, gifted, and ferociously well-connected" by the Evening Standard, and already tipped by some as a future party leader, James Purnell has been the Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde since May 2001 and is currently the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Born James Mark Dakin Purnell in London on the 2nd March 1970 his father John Purnell was a chartered accountant and his mother Janet a teacher. He received most of his education in France, but returned to Britain to take his A-levels at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, (an independent and fee-paying school at least since 1977) before going on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford and graduated with a first. After university he went to work as a strategy consultant for the media consultants Hydra Associates in 1992, and then in 1994 became a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research on their media and communications project.
It was apparently whilst he was at the IPPR that James put forward the concept of a "converged media and telecommunications regulator" and is therefore regarded as the "man who thought up Ofcom", although having dreamt up this idea, he then left in 1995 to take up the post of Head of Corporate Planning at the BBC. At the BBC he was responsible for the 1996 strategy paper,
Extending Choice in the Digital Age, which set out the BBC's plans to become a multichannel digital broadcaster, but then left in 1997 to go and work for Prime Minister Tony Blair as his Special Adviser on culture, media, sport and the knowledge economy, where together with Ed Richards, he did much of the groundwork for the Communications Act 2003. It was presumably for these reasons that The Guardian regarded James as having been "at the heart of the most influential media policy decisions of the past decade".
James had known Blair for a number of years, having first worked as his researcher between the years 1989 to 1992, when of course Tony was nothing more than a Labour MP with ambition. As it happened, James appeared to have political ambitions of his own and was a Labour member on Islington Council in the years 1994-1995 when he became chairman of both the Early Years Committee and the Housing Committee. It was during this time that one of his fellow councillors at Islington named Liz Davies was chosen as the Labour PPC for Leeds North East, only then to be rejected by the party's National Executive Committee in September 1995. The Financial Times published a story that suggested that this was because of her prior history of "inciting activists to violence". Ms Davies duly issued writs against the Financial Times, and also against the three Islington Councillors who had originally made the allegation, being Tal Michael, Phil Kelly and James Purnell. On the 4th June 1996 the Financial Times admitted the story was untrue and agreed to pay damages and costs. Purnell was similarly forced to apologise and hand over some money.
Of course the real reason Ms Davies was deemed unacceptable was that by this time that Labour MP named Blair had become the Leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and unreformed left-wingers such as she were not regarded as being part of the New Labour plan. In due course, Tony Blair became Prime Minister and recruited James as his Special Adviser. Naturally having the ear of the party leader can be advantageous when it comes to finding a winnable parliamentary seat, and so it proved in James's case, as shortly before the General Election of May 2001 a vacancy arose at the safe Labour seat of Stalybridge and Hythe, and since the sitting member Tom Pendry stood down rather late in the day, this permitted Labour Party headquarters to nominate its own short-list of candidates. Naturally James was on that short-list and sufficiently impressed the local party to be selected as the Labour candidate and duly returned at the General Election with a majority of 8,859. Once in the House of Commons, James served as a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee from 2001 to 2003 and also chaired of the All Party Group on Private Equity and Venture Capital between 2002 and 2003.
Having served his apprenticeship as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ruth Kelly in the Cabinet Office, he then joined the Government as Assistant Whip in December 2004, and following the Labour victory in the General Election of June 2005, was subsequently appointed to the position of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Creative Industries and Tourism in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In the circumstances it was somewhat unfortunate that he had earlier in 2003 written an article in which he described London's Olympic bid as "a waste of £5 billion". This was rather embarrassing as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was now fully committed to supporting what would be the 2012 London Olympic Games, and in any case James was clearly wrong in his assessment of the situation, as it was actually a waste of £9 billion. He was also responsible for piloting the government's proposals to relax the alcohol licensing laws in England and Wales (although whether this counted as part of the 'Creative Industries' or 'Tourism' brief was uncertain). Since these proposals were the subject of certain amount of controversy and opposition from those who believed it would only fuel alcoholism and public disorder, his success in overcoming the critics was deemed worthy of promotion, and in the reshuffle of May 2006 was made Minister of State for Pensions at the Department of Work and Pensions. Placed in charge of pension reform, he wrote a blog about his work (still available at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/pensionsreform/weblog/) and was later named by Which? Magazine as Consumer Champion of the Year for 2007 thanks to his "commitment to consumers in the development of the national pensions saving scheme".
James was therefore regarded as being very New Labour and a solid Blairite, but he was nevertheless chosen by Gordon Brown as one of the new faces in his first Cabinet in June 2007 as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the youngest member of the Cabinet. Six months later in January 2008 he was promoted to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the reshuffle forced on Brown by the resignation of Peter Hain.
The Minister for Controversy
Apart from being sued for libel and putting his foot in it at least once, James has been no stranger to controversy during his short career to date. For the sake of completeness, it would be worth mentioning in passing the fate of his former researcher and the manager of his 2001 election campaign, one Paul Diggett, who was convicted in January 2004 of the possession of child pornography, some of which had been downloaded from James's own computer, although this of course, has no bearing on anything whatsoever. More pertinent would be the story which appeared in the Daily Mail on the 23rd January 2007, which reported that when James put in an appearance on BBC's Newsnight in October of the previous year to discuss the government's pension proposals, he was at the time having a 'fling' with the programme's producer Thea Rogers, and indeed whisked her off in his chauffeur-driven government car immediately after the programme for a romantic meal. Although the BBC held an internal inquiry which cleared Thea Rogers of any wrongdoing, there were those who felt that James was given a surprisingly easy ride by Jeremy Paxman on the programme and that there was an obvious explanation why this was so.
More embarrassment then arrived in the shape of the fake photo row of September 2007. James had been scheduled to turn up at the Tameside General Hospital for a photo-shoot to promote a new hospital development. His fellow MPs David Hayes, Tom Levitt and Andrew Gwynne all turned up in time, however James was twenty minutes later and missed the photo call. The Tameside and Glossop Hospitals NHS Trust simply decided to leave a gap in the original photograph and then take a photograph of the latecomer in the same spot very shortly after and photoshop the two together. In retrospect it can be said that the biggest problem with this 'merged' photograph was that it was such an obvious fake, that no one was fooled for even one second. In any event this led to James being dubbed the "cut-and-paste minister" and was an obvious source of embarrassment as only two weeks previously he had made a speech in which he'd criticised the BBC and other broadcasters for "jeopardising public trust" as a result of a number of scandals involving fake phone-ins, faked footage and the like. The Trust claimed that James had "kindly consented" to this subterfuge, whilst James said that he hadn't and that it was all a "mix-up", and claimed in his defence that in any case he'd thought that the photo "was for internal NHS use only" and hadn't realised it was going to be issued to the local press; as if there was a difference between trying to fool the public, or just those members of the public who happened to work for the NHS.
Of course none of the above has effected his suitability to serve in the Cabinet. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
James has decided that the recommendations of The Freud Report
, Reducing Dependency, Increasing Opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work
delivered on the 5th March 2007, should be implemented in full. Described as the "biggest shake-up of the welfare state for 60 years", these proposals will effectively privatise large parts of the benefits system as private sector companies are brought in to find jobs for the unemployed and the sick.
James lists his interests as film, music, theatre and football (he supports Arsenal FC). He is known to use the networking website Facebook where he said to have 117 'friends'. He met his girlfriend Lucy Walker whilst he was at Oxford University, and although they were engaged at one time, this had been broken off by the time he was having his fling with Thea Rogers. He is apparently now back together with Lucy, who is an independent film-maker.
- ‘PURNELL, Rt Hon. James’, Who's Who 2008, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
(http://www.ukwhoswho.com/view/article/oupww/whoswho/U41835, accessed 27 Jan 2008)
- James Purnell MP - Your Voice In Parliament
- Liz libel latest
- Sarah Challands, Paedo shame of ex-Labour politician, Stockport Express, 21/1/2004
- Matt Wells, Purnell's progress, The Guardian, May 23 2005
- Matthew Tempest, Profile: James Purnell, The Guardian, June 28, 2007
- Jasper Gerard, Gordon's arty party people, The Observer, Sunday July 1 2007
- The cut-and-paste minister - how hospital faked photo of visit by Labour's rising star, The Evening Standard, 28.09.07
- Andrew Pierce, James Purnell in fake photo row, Daily Telegraph, 01/10/2007
- Just who is James Purnell? 24 January, 2008
- John Harris, Sweet baby James, The Guardian, January 24, 2008
- James Chapman, James Purnell Profile: Rise of the sideburned schmoozer, Daily Mail, 25th January 2008
- Profile: James Purnell, BBC News, 25 January 2008
- Andrew Porter, Millions forced to work in benefits shake-up, Daily Telegraph, 27/02/2008
It should be noted that the Daily Mail's story on the Purnell-Rogers 'fling', which appeared on the 23rd January 2007 is no longer available online. This is presumably because the publishers of the Mail later paid out "substantial undisclosed libel damages" to the very same Thea Rogers for printing another story in February 2007 which falsely claimed that she was 'stalking' a presenter named Asad Ahmad.