Polly Toynbee’s caterwauling
La Toynbee is a curious specimen to behold among the politico-journalists of the world. If you read her writings from about six months ago, you’d never know she’d been a member of the SDP. If you read her writings today, you’d never know she was a Brownite. Regardless of when you read her writings, you realise that she is now and has always been completely facile: just the sort to fit in with the atmosphere at Comment is Free.
Her ode to postwar progressive optimism is no exception, though blessedly short. La Toynbee is asking why the world came crashing down on Tom Harris so hard when he mentioned what great things we all have in life and wondered what we all have to be so miserable about. Like a good little liberal, Toynbee recites the wealth-disparity unhappiness link and tags city bonuses and the right-wing media.
Haven’t we had people doing this particular stand up routine since Seebohm Rowntree and his conquest of poverty? We’ve added to the routine since then, what with the growth of an industrial-scale media and the ‘waxed-wealthy’ from betting on the futures of futures, but isn’t that just the same morality tale that we’ve been getting first from the Liberals and then from Labour for just over a hundred years?
The article is notable by its complete lack of depth. Basically it’s a restatement of the contradiction which underpinned Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown. Labour must be a force for equality but Labour can’t be a force for equality lest it render us unelectable (er, again). It doesn’t progress beyond that to actually offer a solution for how Labour might break the paradigm set for it by the media.
Which is about right, given that one potential solution was what Polly Toynbee ran away from when she ditched Labour for the SDP. It’s also born of something approaching apathy. Polly declares, “There never was a better time to be alive for this European generation, freer to shape their own destinies, freer to be themselves.” Which is bullshit but at least it’s gratifying bullshit and sounds good.
The generation that I’ve grown up with is trapped precisely by the freedom which La Toynbee celebrates. Social roots snapped by the rapidly accelerating pace of modern life, with time only to engage with an extremely small sliver of the information deluge most of us retreat into the comfort of teenage sex, alcohol, jobs, marriage and kids. Our homes revolve around entertainment, whatever that is for each of us.
We’re essentially free to do what we want, if we have the intelligence, if we have the money, if we have the time, if we have the interest and so on and on, through endless qualifiers which are as much determined by things external, obscured by their constant presence, as they are related to our free choice. We could have a revolution, says the capitalist, but look around – if people wanted it, it would have happened! This belies a very different truth.
Don’t for a minute discount the re-emergence of precisely that postwar optimism which La Toynbee says we need, however don’t think that the only obstacle in the way is choice. The workingman’s club and the colliery band may be dead and buried but the spirit which drove them hasn’t passed, it’s just comatose, buried as much by the cowardice of Union leaders and Labour politicians as by anything else. It’s reawakening will not be caused by a recession, but that might herald it. The matter goes to the foundations of capitalism.
Low-pay, poor terms and conditions, temporary work, the declining social safety net; each of these things are a trumpet call to battle such as have not been heard for twenty years. We might laugh and declare that UNISON couldn’t organise rubbish pile ups-in the street if it tried, but the lumbering dinosaur is slowly moving, pulled along by a tide that has been sweeping the world even before the latest price rises. I temper my enthusiasm, however, by acknowledging Jon Rogers’ critique of the union leadership.
Nevertheless, if we’re to begin building that postwar optimism, we have to start somewhere. Let’s start by supporting the local government workers when they go on strike. Alistair Darling has already drawn a line in the sand, to declare that from the boardroom to the street, wage rises must not breach inflationary standards. This is the deployment of fiscal restraint when Darling knows that the only people for whom it can be enforced are the public sector workers gearing up for battle with the government.
The goal of these workers is as much political as economic: one can shake off the New Labour yoke, but unless one carries the political demands as a banner, that yoke will simply morph into a Conservative one, all the weightier for it. ‘Modernisation’ is a political project, rather than one simply wedded to economic efficiency, thus our answer to it must be political. For all the anonymous ‘red-baiting’ leaflets of UNISON conference, I’m still hopeful that we are seeing the first faltering steps towards that end.
Then we’ll really see what side Polly Toynbee is on.