Cause for concern

Better or Worse? Has Labour delivered?

Polly Toynbee and David Walker <em>Bloomsbury, 346pp, £7.99

As Tony Blair hares around the country, verblessly dispensing his vision of "Your family better off" and "Your child achieving more", he seems newly rattled by the possibility of electoral mishap. Inside the Labour Party, there are reportedly fears of a pincer-like movement from two kinds of voter - disillusioned progressives and conservative types who came over to new Labour in 1997. Furious about the war in Iraq and worried about what an "unremittingly new Labour" country might look like, the first group is less inclined to vote Labour than previously, either positively or as a way to defeat the Tories. The second group has anxieties about immigration and crime, fanned by politicians and the press, and seems prepared to accept that the increased investment in public services has not yet resulted in much improvement. Recent opinion polls suggest that they may be about to revert to type.

This is the fault line on which Better or Worse? awkwardly sits. Given that Polly Toynbee is one of the most admired voices in Guardian land, the audit of Blair's second term by her and David Walker will surely sell most copies to the first constituency. Yet by fleshing out such solid achievements as increased public investment, not to mention reduced waiting lists, class sizes and crime, Toynbee and Walker could reveal a great deal to those whose world-view is formed by the eternally cynical Daily Mail.

It is less clear whether their critique will warm the hearts of dismayed Labour supporters. With the exception of one or two ultra-left headbangers, there can be few politically engaged progressives who would not admit that two terms of Labour have produced admirable improvements in our national life. But plenty of us are worried by the way those advances have been bundled up with altogether less desirable policies - and the prospect of a third Blair term surely gives us even more cause for concern.

Unfortunately, Better or Worse? does not get to grips with such misgivings. Toynbee and Walker are hamstrung by their resolutely macro perspective and ultimately positive view of the new Labour project. It is true that more resources have been allocated to the public services. But what of their uneven and malign distribution? There is no mention of the fact that though hospitals built under the private finance initiative may look impressive, they contain on average between 25 per cent and 30 per cent fewer beds than the facilities they replaced. As primary care trusts push more mobile patients towards private treatment centres, local wards are already being closed. When it comes to education, Toynbee and Walker devote no more space to the city academies programme than they do to sport in schools - and, as a consequence, underplay the importance of a snowballing initiative which embodies the idea that rapid improvement entails both private "expertise" and the dilution of equity.

To be fair, the authors do acknowledge some of the controversies that inflame debate on the centre left. About the choice agenda, they write: "Labour MPs feared that choice clashed with equity, as of course it would. Wouldn't the middle classes manipulate choice in their favour, leaving the less well-informed the worst hospitals and clinics?" The former health secretary Alan Milburn, they agree, "would apparently let the private sector provide all health services, leaving the NHS as a commissioner". Finally, however, such thoughts amount to inconclusive caveats, rattling in the book's storm of statistics.

In a chapter on the Iraq misadventure, Toynbee and Walker's desire to steer clear of the most serious accusations against Blair causes them to enter very ill-advised territory. Though the war has undoubtedly tested their loyalty, they claim the Butler and Hutton reports merely showed "that thin evidence had been overused and overinterpreted". There is something very new Labour about that last verb.

It is easy to divine the authors' take on the Blair government from the book's most telling passages. It is of a piece with the view I have heard even from the likes of Robin Cook: that inside the most hardened Blairites, there might beat a redeemably social-democratic heart - if only confusion and reticence did not get in the way. Blair's failure to raise tax rates for the very rich is ascribed to "needless cowardice". The government's ambitions are "too low, its achievements unknit into some compelling or convincing story of a country on a journey towards somewhere".

For many of us, however, the problem with Blair, Milburn, Stephen Byers et al has never been the fuzziness and caution alleged here; on the contrary, they seem to be single-mindedly piloting the UK on a course that is antithetical to our values. Equality is being squashed by the drive towards meritocratic opportunity. Fraternity seems an increasingly faint hope, buried as it is by the individualism en-shrined in those six election pledges.

"Read it before you vote," says a sticker glued to the book's cover. Unfortunately, for all its informational clout, Better or Worse? left this disaffected Labour supporter feeling an undimmed antipathy to the Blairites, and a creeping dread of what might materialise in the wake of yet another landslide.

John Harris is the author of So Now Who Do We Vote For? (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

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