Dead Men Left

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Decadence": that Toynbee trade-off once more

Polly Toynbee is getting aggressive:

But for many Labour voters the war appears to take priority; it is a kind of decadence that makes distant things easier to feel passionately about than the messiness of difficult social policy at home.

Akin to being "savaged by a dead sheep", Toynbee's sour bleatings are delivered, as usual, with lashings of good, old-fashioned liberal handwringing about the poor downtrodden urchins wallowing in a mire of degradation. Our virtuous Prime Minister has lifted this residuum, yea, unto the lofty heights of five or more GCSEs.

What cant. Toynbee followed the Dear Leader to Lilian Bayliss school in Lambeth, heralded as a glorious success for New Labour's marvellous education policies. She presents a headline figure for improvement at Lilian Bayliss - from 6% of pupils receiving five or more GCSEs at A*-C, to 24% last year.

What she doesn't bother to mention is that the chronically low 6% figure was achieved in 2002, with the school's head directly blaming New Labour's "naming and shaming" policy for failing schools, introduced within three weeks of the 1997 general election:

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, said recently he would "rather beg" than send his children to the school, even though it is the nearest comprehensive to his home. Last year only 6 per cent of its pupils got five top-grade GCSE passes, but this will increase to 17 per cent when the latest figures are published this month. Gary Philips, the school's head, directly attributes last year's poor performance to the naming and shaming. He claims that it discouraged parents from applying for places and lowered the ability of the 1997 intake, who sat their GCSEs in 2002.

What Toynbee also ignores is how "improvements" have been made at many schools:

Competition between schools desperate to improve their league table positions has left thousands of children on the streets, a situation branded "Dickensian" by a senior government adviser yesterday.

The current system of allocating places is "inimical to fairness", said Professor Tim Brighouse, commissioner for London schools, as many secondaries are left with an unfair share of troubled and under-performing students - the sort of pupils that more successful schools are often reluctant to admit.

Expulsions from schools have increased, year by year, since 1997. It is grotesque to talk up New Labour's achievements in "improving" schools when the deliberate encouragement of relentless league table competition results in 10,000 students simply "disappearing" from the records each year.

However, it's when Toynbee herself voices some vague disquiet that she appears to totally lose touch with reality:

For all its deficits and cowardice, for all its disappointments and missed opportunities, this Labour government remains the most redistributive in my lifetime.

Unless, contrary to all appearances, Polly Toynbee is a child-prodigy columnist to rival even Johann Hari, she is deceiving herself. On the best current evidence (PDF file), this government is presiding over greater levels of income inequality than existed under Mrs Thatcher - even after some evidence of a reduction since 2002. A comparable reduction of inequality, incidentally, was achieved by John Major, though I doubt Toynbee wishes to sing his praises. This is looking merely at inequality of incomes; inequality of wealth, a far more important factor in determining opportunities over a lifetime, has risen unabated. The top 1% of wealthiest individuals, some 600,000 people, increased their share of the national wealth from 20% to 23% from 1996 to 2002. By contrast, the bottom 50%, around 30m people, owned 7% of national wealth in 1996, but only 5% in 2002. All this is without even considering the blunt truth that social mobility in Britain is amongst the worst in the developed world: born poor, die poor is the rule under Blair.

Why am banging on about this? (One example, amongst many.) Because I am tired of the liberal self-delusion that pretends, contrary to all appearances, that in New Labour we have a progressive, reforming government that is true to its roots in the labour movement. The "achievements" are derisory, and always come at a price, as detailed above; the heaviest, however, is that paid by the 100,000 dead Iraqis, concern for whom is now considered "decadence" by whinnying liberal apologists like Toynbee. It is time for the real left to stand up to the usurpers of the labour movement: our tradition is that of solidarity, not philanthropy, and it has delivered vastly greater, more meaningful reforms than any amount of mealy-mouthed cant from liberals.