Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics
by Ian Sinclair
29 June 2015
“I don’t bother writing about Fox News. It is too easy”, American dissident Noam Chomsky explained in 2010. “What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. They say, ‘Look how courageous I am.’ But do not go one millimeter beyond that.”
The recent column about the Labour leadership contest from the Guardian’s highly influential Labour-supporting commentator Polly Toynbee provides a perfect example of Chomsky’s truism.
According to Toynbee, of the four hopefuls the Labour left candidate Jeremy Corbyn “is the free spirit, the outsider not playing by the usual political rules.” And that, apparently, is precisely the problem with the Member of Parliament for Islington North: “Unfettered by what a majority of voters beyond Islington might support in a real election, he’s a romantic, saying what no doubt many Labour members believe”. Smearing by association, Toynbee dismisses Corbyn as “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. Voting for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, according to Toynbee.
Having finished her demolition, Toynbee then literally erases Corbyn from the race, arrogantly debating the prospects of “the three main contenders” before settling on the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper as the most promising candidate.
Toynbee’s argument echoes the feelings of a large section of the so-called progressive, liberal intelligentsia. “I could probably live with any of the other candidates”, noted Labour MP and BBC commentator Alan Johnson about Corbyn, likening his politics to electoral “suicide”. Ditto the Guardian’s Martin Kettle (“Corbyn offers a programme of prelapsarian socialist purity”), the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, (Corbyn is proof “crazy Labour is alive and well”) and Blairite foot soldier David Aaronovitch.
As Chomsky said: do not go “one millimetre beyond” the limits of acceptable debate.
But how valid is Toynbee’s central criticism – that Corbyn is out of touch with public opinion? Let’s look at the polling data on some of Corbyn’s key political stances:
- He supports a publicly run NHS, a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a November 2013 YouGov poll.
- He supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according to the same poll.
- He supports the nationalisation of the energy companies, a position supported by 68 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according to the same poll.
- He believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, according to the same poll.
- He supports rent controls, a position supported by 60% of the public, including 42% of Conservatives, according to an April 2015 YouGov poll.
- He opposes the retention of Trident nuclear weapons, a position John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, notes is supported by a “smallist plurality” in “the majority of polls”.
- He strongly opposed the 2003 Iraq War, which was also opposed by the more than one million people who marched through London on 15 February 2003.
- He has long pushed for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, a position favoured by 82 per cent of the public, according to a May 2014 YouGov poll.
So, contrary to Toynbee’s assertions, Corbyn’s key political positions are in actual fact supported by a majority of the British public. (And arguably the issues that Corbyn is out of step with public opinion on, such as immigration and welfare, are those that have been engulfed in huge amounts of media-driven ignorance).
In short, if anyone is out of touch with public opinion, it is not Corbyn but Toynbee, most of the liberal intelligentsia and the three other Labour leadership contenders.