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Socialism Today 125 - February 2009

A timid whisper

Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today

By Polly Toynbee & David Walker

Granta Publications, 2008, £12.99

Reviewed by

Sean Figg

THIS IS a book about the massive wealth-gap that has become an established fact in Britain over the last decade, dense with statistics and research. After ten years of New Labour you can guess what is coming. Since 1997, the top 10% of income ‘earners’ have increased their share of income to 27.3%, leaving the bottom 10% with just 2.6%. The personal wealth of the top 10% has expanded from 47% to 54%. Fifty-four billionaires are ‘worth’ £126 billion. In contrast, 13 million, or one in five, live below the poverty line, which for a childless couple is a measly £11,284 per year. As the authors say, "the UK is sliding backwards… the top 10% of taxpayers got a higher share than they did in 1937, before the creation of the welfare-state".

Focus groups are used in one chapter to examine the views of the rich themselves. One banker comments: "Is it fair or unfair? is not a valid question. It’s just the way it is". When asked about redistribution of wealth, "arguments against… ranged from threat to bluster to attack… whatever, the poor didn’t deserve it". But this does not stop Toynbee and Walker believing the best of these individuals. After presenting evidence of child poverty to the focus groups, they assert: "Once convinced about child poverty and how it can be alleviated, people will change their positions". But to what? As the chapter on the rich and charity correctly states, "philanthropy is no excuse". But most of the book reads as an attempt to persuade the rich themselves to agree to a higher rate of tax.

This attitude underlies a serious flaw: who is this book actually addressing? Most often it is directed to the rich and powerful themselves. Occasionally, it is directed to some supposedly tax-averse middle class. This is despite the authors’ own statistics showing that only 1.5% ‘earn’ over £100,000 per year. Why not address the book to the 90% of the 31.6 million taxpayers on less than £40,000? The trade unions are not even mentioned. Labour Party welfare policies are given a treatment, such as the New Deal, Sure Start and Skills for Life. But it is the potential of these policies that is waxed lyrical about more than the underfunded reality. No mention is made of the Labour policies that created the super-rich playground the book is criticising.

"None of this is revolutionary", is Toynbee and Walker’s understatement when describing the reforms they propose in the final chapter. Most address failings of the tax system and suggestions for closing loopholes. One is to raise the minimum wage. Most are progressive and socialists would support them. But the key questions are studiously avoided. Who will implement these reforms? On this, not a word. Much like in Polly Toynbee’s regular Guardian column, we are touring the dream world of what New Labour could be if only it were not… New Labour! The avoidance of the loans for peerages scandal over several pages supposedly devoted to "making the honours system honourable" is embarrassing.

Nothing in the proposed reforms comes close to encroaching on the root of inequality, the question of ownership and control of the economy. All the wealth enjoyed at the top of society is created by the efforts of millions of working-class people. Why should the vast majority share any of the wealth they create with the parasites at the top? It is only through controlling and owning the economy that the rich are able to heap everything on to their own plates. The focus group justifications about being ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ are so much ideological smoke and mirrors to obscure this simple fact. Whether the provision of public services should be through the public, voluntary or private sector is described as a ‘second-order debate’. On the contrary, New Labour’s privatisation policies are an example of how wealth is redistributed to the top by changing who owns and controls public services.

Toynbee and Walker are not opposed to poverty, they are opposed to too much poverty. They are not opposed to the domination of society by a tiny minority as long as they are not too blatant about it. Too much inequality and the poor will be unhappy. Too much redistribution and the rich will be unhappy. But how can Toynbee and Walker make everyone happy? Like all good reformists they argue that a massive wealth-gap does not best serve society, class does not come into it. They comment that "trust corrodes and social bonds snap when such pumped-up rewards are paid to the few, undermining the confidence and mutual regards on which markets and the economy depend". Who else missed the ‘trust’, ‘bond’ and ‘mutual regard’ between exploiter and exploited?

Toynbee and Walker would like to attempt a balancing act. But, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The distribution of wealth is decided by the weight of contending social classes in the class struggle. Only a strong labour movement can ensure a fairer distribution of wealth in capitalist society. Only socialism offers a political alternative to the ownership and control of the economy by a minority. Reflecting the impressionism of reformism, Toynbee and Walker appeal to the rich, raising a timid whisper, ‘please sir, can we have some more?’ In other conditions they would doubtless implore the working class to not demand ‘too much’. When it comes to the longer-term and fundamental interests of the working class and poor these two writers are not to be trusted!


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