Toynbee and Hutton on fairness and the left

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 31 August 2011 in Diary
Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee gives the previous Labour government 'six out of ten' but admits the alternative is worse

Labour's 13 years in power gets six out of ten from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, she declared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this weekend.  Her latest book, co-written with David Walker, delivers their verdict on Labour’s 13 years in office in rather more detail, readily acknowledging that the more they see of the alternative to Labour government, the more they pine nostalgically for the good old days of Blair and Brown.

One of the more bizarre claims that Toynbee made was that “Labour weren’t very good at blowing their own trumpet.” She is talking about New Labour, right? The same New Labour that went to unprecedented lengths to look after its image? The same New Labour that hired Alastair Campbell to head up the most formidable PR machine in British history? The same New Labour that came out with endless soundbites like – let’s see now... - “no return to boom and bust”? I’ve heard many things in my time, but the notion that New Labour’s reputation suffered because the party wasn’t good enough at PR is about the most ridiculous.

Changing tack slightly, Toynbee went on to argue that the real problem is that a) 80% of our press is right-wing, and b) the left-wing press does not get behind Labour in the way the right-wing press gets behind the Tories. This all sounds slightly less preposterous, although the figure of 80% seems extremely high to me. I would like to hear Toynbee’s definition of right-wing! Presumably that figure includes several newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch that, ironically enough, did throw their weight behind New Labour?

The point about papers like The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent that have a broadly centre-left editorial bias but which avoid aligning themselves too closely with any particular political party is a valid one. Toynbee’s explanation for this was rather novel though. With a slightly mischievous look on her face she told us that “left-wing people are more intelligent, and just generally better people” than right-wingers. If only they were a little less idealistic and independent-minded they might be a bit better at winning elections was the implication.

Admittedly there’s nothing particularly new about the left asserting its intellectual superiority over the right – almost 150 years ago John Stuart Mill called the Tory party the “stupid party” – but I’ve never heard this used as an explanation of why the Conservatives are better at winning elections before. I have to say I rather like the idea that there’s an inverse correlation between the average IQ of a party and its ability to win elections. There has to be some consolation for the runners-up.

Will Hutton is a perfect example of just the kind of intelligent, independent-minded left-wing commentator that costs Labour votes according to Toynbee. But he does write tremendously thought-provoking books. His latest one, Them and Us, outlines his vision for a “good capitalism.” At its core is one concept: fairness.

But fairness, as he points out, is a word that both left and right have appropriated in the past (and still do in the present), and they define it in markedly different ways. To the left, fairness traditionally means “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” On the right, the “hunter-gatherer, investment banker view of fairness” prevails: its central tenet is “I eat what I kill.” Hutton offers an alternative to both of these versions of fairness. He sees “proportionality” and “due desert” as the key elements that make up fairness. His preferred definition of fairness comes from the young Marx: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.”

Equality of opportunity is also an important element of fairness, Hutton-style. He sees it as crucial that we all share in each other’s “brute bad luck or brute good luck.” For example, 8% of men have the prostate cancer gene, and 8% of women have the breast cancer gene. It’s only fair, says Hutton, that we all pay into a scheme that ensures that those of us who have the misfortune to be in the unlucky 8% get the best treatment money can buy. Equally, inheritance taxes are fair because they allow the many to share in the “brute good luck” of the few who happen to be born to wealthy parents.

The extent to which Hutton’s vision is really a capitalist one at all is debatable. Certainly he’s not a fan of free markets and he believes that anyone who still believes that financial markets are hyper-efficient and in need of light touch regulation only after the financial crash isn’t intellectually credible. So, needless to say, he’s not George Osborne’s biggest fan. He says “markets need architectures ... constructed by the state.” I suppose if he can re-define fairness, why not re-define capitalism too.

I’m also slightly sceptical about just how original Hutton’s ideas are and how out on a limb he really is. It seems to me that his undoubtedly valuable contribution fits quite neatly into the “third way” or “middle way” tradition of social and political thought that has existed in various forms for at least the last century. If anything though, that makes his vision more compelling, not less.

Tags: Edinburgh Book Festival, Guardian, Independent, Labour, Left, Media ownership, Observer, Polly Toynbee, Right, Will hutton

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