Thursday, February 24, 2005

Did things get better?

Last night I attended a think-tank meeting, addressed by crack Guardian team, Polly Toynbee and David Walker. They were promoting their new book, an update of the 2001 assessment of New Labour in office.

Polly- looking more and more like late vintage Marianne Faithful- told us that the government has done a hell of a lot of things, spent loads of money, reduced waiting lists, reduced crime, reduced child poverty, reduced…umm…reduced some other stuff I can’t quite recall. The economy’s done well, and surely Gordo must have been responsible for at least some of it.

David Walker went further. I’d never seen him before, but he turns out to be a Planning Commissar- steel grey hair, thin intense face, and round wire rimmed glasses. He was very proud of all those targets and New Labour statistical reporting systems. “Targeting works! Previous governments have not set enough objectives or provided enough information! An amazingly successful government- the most successful EVER!” He spoke of ‘physical expansion of the plant’, and was about to launch into a couple of hours on production statistics for Volgograd Number 4 Tractor City, when mercifully he was stopped.

Polly reminded us that egalitarian Sweden was a much better place (see earlier post), and that the latest research showed their citizens to be infinitely happier than we Brits. Someone unkindly pointed out that their rates of alcoholism and suicide were through the roof, and of course we know all their brightest young people come to earn real money in the London financial sector.

Still, Polly evidently believes it, and she went on to argue that Labour in a third term would need to be far more explicit about their redistributional intent. So far, they’ve made virtually no impact on the overall distribution, even though they have given significant help to some important groups at the bottom, like the poorest pensioners. They need to pluck up the courage to tell people redistribution is good.

She ranted on about the Murdoch press, the Daily Mail, and by implication all those millions of stupid narrow-minded punters who choose to read them, rather than…ooh I don’t know, the Guardian say. She told stories of ignorant focus groups where people had never even heard of Tony’s pledge to abolish child poverty, let alone his five pledges on badger literacy.

Suddenly and bizarrely Walker told us we should all get more people to embrace the Polly T. I must say I thought it a bit much with Pol actually there, but she seemed totally unfazed. Several enthusiastic nods around the room, and I wondered if I might need to make my excuses.

But instead we moved to a show of hands vote on whether things really had got better under New Labour. Those few of us who voted against were uncomfortably exposed as diehard supporters of nastiness, because by a large majority the audience gave NL the thumbs up.

Unsurprising, you might think, for a meeting addressed by Pol and Dave. Serve me right for going.

Except that this was a meeting of Policy Exchange, the supposedly right of centre think tank set up by Francis Maude, and headed by prospective Tory MP for Hove, Nick Boles. There were several Tory MPs in the audience.

It was depressing- a government that has ramped up tax and spend without doing anything substantive to reform the public services, that has spun and lied, turning millions more of us off democracy, that has abused civil liberties, that has taken us into an illegal war…this government is reckoned by these right of centre thinkers to have made things better.

Oh…groan…no…no…no…

See, they’re self-styled ‘modernisers’, bright engaging metro people who want to rescue the rest of us from the nastiness of Daily Mail World. Naturally they have far more in common with others inside the ‘polity’ bubble than with say my father-in-law, a Bernardo’s boy who was sent to Canada, made his own way in the world, fought for democracy, raised a family, paid his taxes, and yes, reads the Mail.

As I travelled home on the bendy-bus, I wondered if the gang of adolescent yobs intimidating passengers would be better behaved if incomes were distributed more equally.

Or whether some Swedish birch might not be more effective.

Talk about as tears go by.

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