John Rentoul: Toynbee is wrong on poverty. But when Cameron backs her, Brown should worry

The overall gap between rich and poor has closed under Labour
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The Independent Online

On the subject of inequality, Polly Toynbee is quite infuriatingly wrong. That is why David Cameron's endorsement of her is so dangerous to her hero, Gordon Brown. Anyone can see why Cameron signed up last week for the idea of relative poverty (dictionary definition: normal human compassion). It helps to distance him from the hard, uncaring strand of Thatcherism, and it tries to reclaim the party's "one nation" tradition.

But the more subtle purpose is to portray Labour's attempts to alleviate poverty as wasteful and ineffective. The numbers of people in "deep" poverty have actually gone up over the past decade, Cameron complained on the Today programme, with just the right tone of Pollyish indignation. "It's a staggering fact," he said. "Over the last 10 years Labour have tried so hard and spent so much money on this issue yet deep poverty has got worse."

This squawking depends on a cleverly selective use of statistics. And Cameron has someone who is not only good on the politics of the issue but can crunch the numbers too. Greg Clark entered the House of Commons only last year. Earlier this month, Cameron promoted him to his front bench.

Last week, his paper for the party's social justice policy review did two clever things. One, it made The Guardian front page lead by preferring Toynbee's metaphor of the caravan crossing the desert to Winston Churchill's safety net. The media strategy reinforced the political point, that what matters is everyone in a society moving forward together, rather than setting an absolute minimum below which no one should be allowed to fall.

The other clever thing that Clark's paper did, though, was to find a statistic with which to mount a Toynbee-ist critique of the Government's record. Amid all the charts showing overall poverty has fallen under Labour, one graph suggests an increase in the numbers of the poorest, those in households below 40 per cent of median income, rather than the official poverty line of 60 per cent.

If this is right - they are Clark's own calculations based on official figures and I do not know of other research that supports it - then we ought to be concerned, and grateful to Clark for pointing it out. But we should not lose sight of the big picture. The trouble is - and here is the nub - that the big picture is almost hidden from view. And Toynbee is one of those helping to conceal it.

It is at this point that this column brings you a world exclusive, the best-kept secret of this Labour Government. Extraordinary though it may seem, the most recent official figures show that income and wealth are now spread more equally in this country than when Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Whatever wrinkle Clark has found, the overall gap between rich and poor has narrowed under Labour.

This is so contrary to the conventional wisdom that I need to cite my sources in full. Office for National Statistics data on "The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, 2004/05" show the most equal distribution of post-tax income since 1987. Meanwhile, HM Revenue and Customs figures (series C, 2003) suggest a more equal distribution of marketable wealth than in 1997.

In her Guardian columns, however, Toynbee consistently writes the opposite. In September, she accused Blair of refusing to admit that "growing inequality" makes the problems of dysfunctional families worse. In July, she said that "wealth inequality is growing fast, year on year. Money is not trickling down but gushing upwards".

She is not the worst. Far from it. When the subject of the new Conservative line on poverty came up on BBC 1's Question Time last week, David Dimbleby told the audience as a fact that "the gap between rich and poor has increased under Labour".

To be fair to Toynbee, another consistent theme of her columns is the complaint that Blair and Brown are too frightened by the Conservative press to boast about all the good work in alleviating poverty that the Government has done.

She has a point. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been so evasive about equality for so long that they may not even be aware of the figures cited here. They should be proud of them. They should be printed on the back of Labour membership cards instead of the vacuous words of the 1995 Clause IV of the party's constitution.

But it might help if the grand dignitaries of the left-wing conscience got their facts right. Toynbee at least understands quite how difficult it is to narrow the gap between rich and poor in an open economy such as Britain's. But in complaining that Labour has not done enough about poverty, she risks being co-opted by Cameron.

Yes, Britain became a much more unequal country in the 1980s, and the reversal under Labour is modest by comparison. But helping Cameron to portray modest success as failure is not the way to ensure the best policies on poverty in future.

Is Cameron serious in his new-found enthusiasm to exalt that which is low? At the moment, I am with Toynbee. I would expect Gordon Brown to deliver better policies to lift people out of poverty than Cameron would. But surely the wrong way for egalitarians to respond to Cameron's advance on to their territory is to say that he doesn't mean it.

Most of the British left is so suffused with pessimism that it believes Labour governments always betray and Tories are always dishonest, thus underestimating both Labour's achievements and the Tory threat. As Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society general secretary, said when Cameron was elected Tory leader, Labour should be celebrating. He added: "Long-term political change is embedded when you convert your opponents."

Cameron is a convert. Labour ought to have both the confidence to realise it and the humility to understand that this makes him a formidable opponent. When his "Built to Last" statement of aims and values was published eight months ago, no one took this passage seriously: "The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich."

It was a more radical commitment to redistribution than anything in Labour's Clause IV. Whatever doubts there are about Cameron, there should be none about his determination to place himself at the compassionate centre of British politics. His embrace of Toynbee, a Brown cheerleader, should convince the likely next prime minister that the threat to him at the next election is very real.

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