Polly-Wally Doodle

Did Things Get Better?

Polly Toynbee and David Walker <em>Penguin, 274pp, £6.99</em>

ISBN 014100

Sometimes I get a kick out of Polly Toynbee. When she uses her Guardian column to stand up for abortion rights, or for science against animal rights, she can get me quite excited. But, as the song says, then she goes and spoils it all, by saying something stupid like: "Tony Blair . . . born leader's willingness to use deadly force . . . breath of fresh air . . . extraordinary promises blaze like beacons . . . on the verge of remarkable success . . . on his monument they will etch the profound change he made . . . deserves a gold star." There is plenty of that in this book. We might call it Polly-Wally Doodle.

It is remarkable how so many of our smart thinkers seem to lose a large proportion of their critical faculties when they find themselves in the presence of the Labour government. In Did Things Get Better?, Toynbee and David Walker have adopted Downing Street's obsession with targets, "auditing" new Labour's achievements by trawling through every deathly spending statistic and impenetrable policy initiative. After such a painstaking labour of love, did anybody expect them to answer "No"?

Toynbee and Walker are, as we say these days, critical friends of new Labour. They complain about the government's timidity, its failure of nerve on the euro and proportional representation, its "craven people-pleasing" and the way it "stooped to kiss the bullies' boots" of the right-wing press. But most of all, they criticise Labour for failing to sell its achievements to the public.

Where others see new Labour as a triumph of spin over substance, Toynbee and Walker believe that Labour has actually achieved quite a lot, but that there has been a "serious spin deficit". Gordon Brown, for instance, has done the poor proud with "clever pension and poverty policies. But just try explaining them snappily on a billboard or in a soundbite."

The underlying message is that voters, those "ungrateful . . . ill-informed and apathetic" wretches, their minds "poisoned" by the Sun and the Mail, are incapable of appreciating what Labour is doing for them. Time and again, the authors criticise the government for "failing to educate the British people" - about the need for higher taxes, European integration, fewer cars, more wars - as if we were a class of infants sitting at teacher Blair's feet (with the people from the Guardian in the role of Ofsted inspectors).

Despite her disappointment, Toynbee sticks with new Labour, in the end, because she takes an essentially Manichaean view of politics, in which everything comes down to a simple choice between good and evil. She wants Blair to play the role of Buzz Lightyear, doing battle to the death with William Hague, the evil Emperor Zurg, even though neither of these bland, centrist politicians fits the bill.

She longs for new Labour to "draw the ideological line" between it and its enemies, "the Tories and their bully boys in the press". The phoney war that Toynbee is fighting with the "forces of conservatism" explains why she got so excited about the petrol protests last year, which finally gave the government a visible enemy whom she could call on Blair to crush. (Hague plays a similar game when he denounces "the liberal elite", the only member of whom he seems able to name being . . . well, Polly Toynbee.)

Did Things Get Better? concludes that the answer is "Yes", but that "they could get a lot better still" if the government was bold enough to do more, to be more "progressive" by intervening forcefully in everything from football to the BBC. Some of us see an alterna-tive progressive criticism: that the government has already done far too much. In an age of something-must-be-done politics, it seems that Whitehall must have a policy on everything, a scheme, special committee, zone or tsar to solve all of our problems. The result is an intrusive and authoritarian regime.

The authors note that, as Labour's "feast of schemes" grew, "even counting the array of initiatives was a feat". While the Tory government led with the Dangerous Dogs Act, new Labour proposes to legislate in response to every news event, from the adoption of two babies over the internet to the handling of dead bodies and human organs in hospitals. One need not be a raving right-wing libertarian to suggest that things might be better if we had fewer laws rather than more.

Despite their hopes of greater things to come, Toynbee and Walker ultimately settle for less - much less - from Labour. They complain that, in the run-up to the 1997 election, "even the campaign song was chosen for its unambitious theme; D-Ream's 'Things Can Only Get Better'". And yet, when it comes to assessing the government's New Deal on jobs, they change their tune. "Some found this harsh; what use is a part-time, insecure, badly paid Macjob, they asked? Better than nothing, was the convincing reply."

So there it is: "Things Can Only Get Better Than Nothing." Perhaps they should put that on the election posters this time.

Mick Hume is the editor of the online publication Spiked

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose