01/09/2011 16:19 BST | Updated 01/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Polly Toynbee is Wrong About Tories and the Poor, but it is Equally Wrong to Call her a Hypocrite

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has made a career out of loathing the Conservative party, so it should come as little surprise when she claims that Tories simply can't understand the poor. This is the woman who described the coalition government's housing benefit reforms as a "final solution" for the poor.

Ms Toynbee is, by her own definition, "highly privileged". She owns three properties at a time when just owning one property is becoming more difficult than ever. The Guardian allegedly pays her a salary of £130,000 a year, when pay for many people is being frozen or cut and millions are unemployed. She sends her children to private school, when the gap between the maintained and independent sectors is significantly greater now than it was before what she calls the "good old days of Blair and Brown".

Ms Toynbee said recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival that Labour wasn't very good at blowing its own trumpet in power. On this evidence, we shouldn't be playing many violins when she talks about understanding the poor. Should we?

Naturally, Conservatives are using these details about Ms Toynbee to label her a hypocrite. Now Ms Toynbee is most certainly wrong about Tories not being able to understand the poor (try telling that to the likes of David Davis, who grew up on a council estate). And she has in the past been hypocritical to criticise people for sending their children to private schools when she is amongst the 7 per cent of parents who do too.

But calling Ms Toynbee a hypocrite is as wrong as her saying that Tories cannot understand the poor. Why? It feeds the invidious narrative that the wealthy, by default, cannot understand the plight of the poor, which is precisely the ignorant point that Ms Toynbee was making in the first place.

Some of the most compassionate campaigners on behalf of the poor have come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. Polly Toynbee's own great-great-uncle, Arnold Toynbee, founded Toynbee Hall, a centre for social reform, and helped to establish public libraries for the working class populations of the East End, amongst many other achievements. Arnold Toynbee was the public school educated son of a pioneering physician.

Another great champion of social reform was chocolate maker Joseph Rowntree, privately educated at Bootham School. Octavia Hill came from a wealthy merchant banking family. William Beveridge was a lawyer and Old Carthusian.

British history is full of well-meaning middle and upper-class social reformers with honest and paternalistic instincts. Did Arnold Toynbee not understand the poor because he was comfortably well-off?

Of course not. Ms Toynbee is really saying that there is something in the political DNA of people who vote Conservative that precludes them from any understanding of the poor. Which is quite obviously daft.

The Liberal-Labour MP Alexander MacDonald said of Benjamin Disraeli's great reforming second ministry, that the Conservative party had done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals had in fifty.

So Ms Toynbee is wrong to say that Tories cannot, as a rule, understand the poor. But it is equally unhelpful to use Ms Toynbee's privileged condition in life as a stick with which to beat her.

After all, it ought to be easy enough picking holes in Ms Toynbee's journalism without bringing her holiday homes into it.