'Look, I'm really sorry for this but we've got you here under false pretences,' says Polly Toynbee at the start of her talk with David Walker. The co-authors of The Verdict (on Labour's governance) and Dogma And Disarray (on the coalition) have racked their brains but not found any reasons to be cheerful. Instead it's all doom, gloom and political despondency. There is, we learn, much reason to be despondent and consequently the show's topic – seemingly the entirety of the current political climate – is too broad for its hour-long running time.
Walker and Toynbee's initial argument is that Cameron's Tories – 'the most ideological government since Atlee' – have engineered 'a coup... or more accurately a con' in which they are shrinking the state irreversibly without a democratic mandate. The pair's arguments ramble across a traditional stomping ground: the NHS, welfare, 'social cleansing' (one assumes an oblique reference to relocation of tenants in London boroughs). It's impassioned stuff and their script is tightly structured with the two taking it in turns to deliver each new point or list of woes.
A sharper edge starts to emerge as the pair claim that the Tories have actually flouted not only a social democratic consensus that survived even Thatcher, but also conservative tradition itself. Whereas Edmund Burke said that conservatism sprung from an attachment to place, Walker argues that this is becoming irrelevant as the modern Conservatives create a hyper-mobile society in which the whim of the market severs local roots. Like most points in the speech, however, it is quickly left behind. And as a result, the event often feels like a taster menu of political opinion without a defining shape or purpose.
The breadth of their shared knowledge is far more helpful during the Q&A. Toynbee in particular gave judicious and generous answers on all sorts of topics. Labour, she claimed, are doing much better than people think (they could, she said, have just collapsed in opposition), although she wishes they were bolder. She tentatively predicts that the party will announce a social building project of ‘something like a million new homes’ ahead of the next election. She wishes Ed Miliband had the ability to turn his academic approach into 'popular programmes that people can understand and identify with'. She practises what she preaches: although there's plenty of academic ideas in this talk, there's a humanity and a warmth to it that's very compelling.
'In this city, in this month, in halls like this, tremendous things happen', Walker told us during that Q&A. He means that through art and culture conversations start, ideas get shared, people start to think differently. This event felt like a small part of that; a reason to be cheerful at last.