The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain? Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Granta, pp.314, 18.99

Tony Blair gave his record in government ten out of ten, though an ungrateful electorate scored rather less well and his Cabinet colleagues performed even worse. Sadly, they were ill-equipped to grasp his unique qualities of leadership. Milord Peter Mandelson reached broadly similar conclusions. Their instant apologia are meant to be the last word on the subject, living obituaries on 13 years in power.

So what are we to make of the verdict of New Labour’s two most respectable cheerleaders, who offer a ‘not good enough’ six out of ten for their government’s performance? Toynbee and Walker (they sound like an old-established firm of country solicitors — ‘very reliable, y’know’) are not persuaded. Indeed, they are jolly cross, in that Guardian sort of way you know will never come to anything. They find it hard to suppress a rising sense of indignation, asking ‘why not more, much more?’

Why indeed? It’s a bit late to start complaining now. Even a comprehensive assessment of the Blair-Brown record, which this isn’t, could not make amends for the missed opportunities and mulish caution that characterised their government. The authors might be better occupied offering a manifesto for the Ed Miliband era, except that there are no official reports or provincial reportage to help them in their work. The Verdict relies heavily in these sources, along with some ardent socio-economic observation. A Blue Book with purple passages. The pair have been compared to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, which must be very flattering, but who reads the Webbs today?

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Toynbee and Walker take us back exhaustively through the New Labour years, having already done so twice with Did Things Get Better? (2001) and Better Or Worse? (2005). The question mark is always a bad sign. Either they don’t know the answer or it’s just a publishing come-on. They conclude that Britain did indeed change during the Labour years, but not always for the better, and not necessarily because of anything the government did. Arguably, the mobile phone changed society more than Labour did.

Their big test is not how many schools and hospitals were built, but what happened in the lives and minds of citizens. ‘Here, Labour’s impact is much less obvious,’ they write, ‘The social state we are now in is not much different from 1997.’ Their broad judgment is that not enough altered in the fabric of the country, given Labour’s commitments on equality and fairness. ‘You cannot shake off an enervating sense of disappointment.’ Perhaps six out of ten is too generous.

Toynbee and Walker frequently employ the infuriating device of seizing on a hospital, school, factory, family to illustrate their point. It may be the Hatt family of Sydenham, or the Carousel Sure Start children’s centre in Braintree, or the Acme Whistles factory of Birmingham (I’m not making this up), but it does bring the clanking narrative to a halt.

Undeniably, there is much here for the serious scholar of the Blair-Brown era. The authors have assiduously updated their cuttings book and hoarded official reports of the period. At random on p. 17 : a Brown-style orgy of statistics about criminals and jail, followed by the terse judgment: ‘Prison did not work.’ The trouble with this kind of information overload is that you feel inclined to disagree with their instant verdict.

‘We were left perplexed at why a clever and well-intentioned group of men and women achieved so much less than they might have done,’ Toynbee and Walker conclude. One can just imagine them shaking their heads in disbelief that politicians have so much less nerve and ambition than clever and well-intentioned journalists like themselves. Unperplexingly, the answer is that politicians have to win elections. Journalists have the luxury of being right without putting it to the grubby test of the ballot box.

Incidentally, the National Audit Office is quoted approvingly at many points, while no mention is made in the endpaper biography that Walker was the £120,000-a-year Managing Director (sic) Communications and Public Reporting of the NAO when the book was being written. He is merely noted as founding editor of the Guardian’s ‘Public’ magazine, which is true, but not the whole truth. As the late John Junor might have said: ‘I think we should have been told.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Britain, David walker, Labour Party, Non-fiction, Politics (UK), Polly Toynbee, Tony Blair