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Socialism Today 151 - September 2011

Verdict first, then fix the evidence

The Verdict: Did Labour change Britain?

By Polly Toynbee and David Walker, Granta, 2010, £18-99

Reviewed by Sean Figg

THIS BOOK is not a serious analysis of the 1997-2010 Labour government. Polly Toynbee and David Walker do not attempt an over-arching characterisation of the thirteen years of Labour rule, by examining in whose interests it ultimately governed. Instead, the account is selective, fragmentary and biased.

Statistics are splashed around as evidence for either achievement or failure. But the authors treat their evidence in an isolated way without considering how the outcome – good or bad from their point of view – was arrived at. However, this is crucial in reaching any ‘verdict’ on the Blair/Brown years. Because what is not said is often more important than what they do say. The hallmark of this book is ‘the lie of omission’, a dishonest and duplicitous method for any writer.

Toynbee and Walker consider education Labour’s greatest achievement. Figures are provided of increased spending and improved exam results. But the way they deal with Labour’s academy programme is woefully inadequate. Academies allowed schools to opt out of Local Education Authority (LEA) control and come under the management of ‘philanthropists’, frequently businessmen. This ‘reform’ marked out the route for the marketisation and privatisation of education. The Con-Dem coalition is using the framework bequeathed it by Labour to try and take every school out of LEA control, effectively ending comprehensive education. Yet Toynbee and Walker do not discuss this point, which gets to the heart of the character of the Labour government. The only comment they can muster is the assertion that "behind the academies was a fierce desire to raise ambitions in the poorest urban areas", and that they were only "intended to be an extra" to comprehensive education.

In the same way they gloss over the introduction of university tuition fees, a hugely controversial policy. They dishonestly claim that "whichever party had won in 1997, it would have faced the tide of demand for higher education on limited funds. The new government had to choose between further degradation in the amount of support, apportioning more of the education budget to universities, or new income from fees". This is simply not true. Labour chose to pass part of the cost of higher education onto students, graduates and their families. Ultimately, Labour opened the breach in free higher education that the Con-Dems used in November 2010 to triple tuition fees.

This method is used throughout the book. Leaving the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation fully intact is not mentioned. Worse, in one of only two mentions of the trade unions, the authors commend Labour for rescinding the ban on union membership at the GCHQ intelligence services centre. The only possible purpose of omitting the former and including the latter is to create the impression of a union-friendly government. Nothing was further from the truth.

The extensive privatisation that took place is not mentioned despite it being greater than that which took place under Thatcher. Although a chapter is spent discussing housing, no mention is made of Labour’s attempt to privatise the entire council housing stock, through transferring ownership of council housing to allegedly ‘not-for-profit’ housing associations. These were pushed to operate as commercial firms: to borrow on the markets and enter into deals with private developers and contractors, giving them easy profits. Over the last decade, a £40 billion subsidy has been paid to these ‘private’ organisations. Similarly on the railways, an £811 million subsidy was paid to the private train operators in 2006-07 alone.

Toynbee and Walker present the raw statistics for health spending, which increased 7% in real terms every year. Seven chapters later, we are let in on the fact that much of the spending was siphoned directly to big business through the private finance initiative (PFI). Labour-era PFI deals have saddled the public purse with £215 billion in repayments to private companies. But the capital value of the hospitals and treatment centres built is only £55-65 billion. The separation and isolation of these two pieces of information deliberately tries to present Labour’s health policy in the best possible light. The real beneficiaries of Labour rule were the fat-cats profiting from public services.

In 2006, Labour enacted a European directive stopping employers compulsorily retiring workers at 65. Under Labour the proportion of over 65s still working rose to nearly 20% of men and 10% of women. Labour attacked public-sector workers’ pensions, provoking strike action in 2006. But Toynbee and Walker agree with the way Labour viewed the ‘problem’ of increased life expectancy: "The choice was either to save more now or extend working lives". The Con-Dem government uses this argument today to further attack public-sector pensions. It has already provoked one day of strike action by 750,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants. Toynbee appeared on the BBC’s Question Time on 30 June, the day of the strike, but did not openly support the Tory minister putting the same argument to attack the strikers. Her book, however, shows that she supports the coalition’s position.

This episode draws attention to an intractable dilemma facing reformist writers like Toynbee and Walker. The basic position of reformism is that capitalism can be controlled and regulated to meet broader social ends than just the enrichment of the capitalist class. This false view is especially exposed in a period of capitalist crisis. To maintain a reformist position will ultimately lead to accepting the ‘need’ – from the point of view of capitalism, whether recognised or not – to attack the living conditions of the working class. Toynbee and Walker try to iron out this contradiction by posing pro-big business policies as an abstract ‘inevitability’. As the class struggle intensifies, this inherent feature of reformism will be exposed in practise.

The reality was that Labour policy was a continuation of the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher years. In 2001, corporation tax was 35%. By 2008 was reduced to 27%. Capital gains tax was cut from 40% to 10%. Under Labour the size of the financial sector within the economy rose from 5.3% in 2001 to 9.1% in 2008. Manufacturing, on the other hand, was decimated. Between 1997 and 2007, nearly 1.3 million manufacturing jobs were lost and manufacturing’s share of the economy declined from 20% to 12%. But the authors treat these facts in isolation as if there were no connection between the two. When easy profits could be made through financial speculation there was little incentive to invest in productive capacity.

Labour consciously helped the rise of the financial sector. Although the international dimension to the 2008 banking crash was decisive, Labour created a regulatory landscape that ensured it had a catastrophic impact in Britain. Even after the crash, Labour refused to deal any significant blows against the banks, instead bailing them out with the minimum of strings. In this way, Labour helped prepare the way for the assault now taking place on the welfare state by the Con-Dems.

The wealth gap ballooned under Labour. Directors’ pay increased from 47 times the average pay in their firms to 81 times the average. The working class borrowed to maintain living standards. The ratio of savings to GDP in the early 1990s was 12%. By 2008 it was zero as savings were run down.

Another key promise when Labour was elected was to eliminate child poverty, which affected 3.4 million children in 1997. Labour left office with 2.8 million children still below the breadline. Toynbee and Walker admit that "more adults fell into poverty than children escaped it". Typically, however, they throw Labour a lifeline by saying that at least they "slowed down the rise in inequality". In other words, marginal achievements in one area were wiped out by an increase in inequality and poverty overall.

Instead of drawing these points out, we are offered a mishmash of truisms and apologetics. The authors tell us that Labour ministers were "a clever and well-intentioned group of men and women" who had set themselves an impossible task. Apparently, "Labour governments are destined to disappoint their followers because the centre left sets the bar higher and hopes are inflated". We are told that Labour lost the 2010 general election partly for "just having been in power for so long". But the real reason that Labour lost the votes of some four million working-class people between 1997 and 2010 was because many could not see the point in voting for them. For millions more, a vote for Labour was a vote for the ‘lesser evil’. Millions can see ‘the verdict’ that Toynbee and Walker refuse to acknowledge: Labour is a party of big business and the rich.

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