Oh, Polly Toynbee – whatever would we do without you?
It’s been a long time since I read a column more distant from reality than the latest Toynbee offering in the Guardian. It’s a dispatch from a different world – a world in which everyone agrees that Government spending and borrowing should continue to rise indefinitely. On Polly’s apparently exclusive edition of Earth, if we must grudgingly acknowledge that the election happened then it seems to be universally agreed that the electorate made an inexplicable and awful error.
It’s a selectively edited version of reality. There’s faux shock that Osborne should be planning a new Budget, “tearing up” his own plans from the Spring – with no apparent recognition that Coalition meant a different set of priorities and a different process for making decisions than a Conservative majority Government.
Then we hear, as per the Labour lines to take from December, the absurd claim that returning spending to a similar share of GDP as in the 1930s must mean a “return…to a prewar, pre-welfare state, bare-bones government”. As the IEA bluntly laid out, this claim is utterly misleading – instead, Osborne would be spending a similar amount to that spent by Toynbee’s beloved Gordon Brown in 2001.
Clothes are rent and hair extracted over the prospect of slimming down Whitehall, as though the purpose of the State was to maximise its payroll rather than to perform particular functions – and despite the clear success of the Maude agenda despite all the Left’s dire predictions over the last few years.
There are careful exclusions of key facts, to patch over the holes in the argument. Take for example the question, “How will Michael Gove and Theresa May cut prisons and police again, as court delays lengthen and prisons burst at the seams?” Well, Polly, they’ll cope because crime has fallen drastically and continues to fall, regardless of the scaremongering, a fact that I’m sure was simply missed out by accident.
Worse, there are even contradictions from one paragraph to the next. While not acknowledging the Conservative commitment to spend £8 billion more on the NHS, the author does extend sufficient charity to acknowledge that “all but the NHS, overseas aid and schools will be cut”. But mere sentences later Osborne’s radical devolution programme is condemned on the grounds that “councils may wake up to find that all they have had devolved to them is the axe and the blame – not just for social care but now for the NHS too.” Er, what NHS axe? Didn’t we just learn that the NHS will be exempt from cuts?
It would be easy enough just to point to the holes in this rather worn argument, but there is a greater issue here. Labour, and the Labour Left in particular, are indulging in a dedicated re-enactment of Conservative failures in Opposition. If the insistence on ideological stances that voters not only don’t share but often actively dislike wasn’t sufficient to win votes this time, that can only be because you weren’t pure enough, or didn’t repeat it enough. If further purity and repetition don’t succeed, then we must start to look furiously at the people to work out why they aren’t living up to the demands of our campaign. We all know the drill from those grim years.
Ultimately I pick out this particular Toynbee column because it is essential reading to appreciate the opportunity which now presents itself to us. The necessities of Government in tough times brought out the Left’s worst instincts and hobby horses. Good strategy on the part of the Conservatives (the Welfare Cap, for example) helped to encourage the Opposition to fully indulge all those temptations. Having done so, the Left remains utterly confounded by its ensuing defeat - and many of them show few signs of changing tack any time soon.
While the Coalition wasn’t perfect, and Conservatism still has a long way to go to secure its future long-term, the fact remains that we won the election and Labour lost. A large swathe of Labour’s backers genuinely seem to believe that happened by freak accident or some sort of voodoo behind the scenes. Ed Miliband, George Eaton reports, is advising his colleagues that the fault wasn’t in his policies or his pitch to the nation, but in the failure of Labour voters to turn up – as though it were possible to somehow divorce the idea of failing to inspire the electorate from the idea of running a bad campaign.
Hold the faith, repeat the mantras and blame the people seem to be Labour’s three rules for 2015. How often does a new Government get the gift of such a chaotic Opposition? We must not pass up such a chance.