Tag Archives: Polly Toynbee

The Politics of Fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

The politics of fantasy? Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 July 2016

A common refrain among the elite and mainstream media commentators is that “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are fantasy”, as the headline to an Observer op-ed by Tony Blair put it August 2015. Similarly, just after Corbyn began his campaign to be Labour leader in June 2015 the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee argued the Islington North MP was “a 1983 man” and “a relic”. A vote for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate”, Toynbee argued. Before she stepped aside in the current leadership contest, Angela Eagle went one further, arguing Corbyn “doesn’t connect with Labour voters”.

The latter criticism is easily dismissed – Corbyn was elected with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader in history, and a new YouGov poll finds Corbyn gets the support of 54 percent of the party’s members, with Eagle coming second on 21 percent and Owen Smith trailing on 15 percent.

But what about his politics and policy suggestions? How do they sit with British public opinion?

Like Corbyn, a 2014 YouGov poll for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) found “a majority of the UK public believes the gap between the rich and the poor is bad for society and the economy”, according to Steve Hart, the Chair of CLASS.

To tackle income inequality, in January 2016 the Labour leader suggested maximum pay ratios – a policy backed by 65 percent of people quizzed by YouGov/CLASS. He also pushed for all companies to pay a living wage – supported by 60 percent of people according to a 2013 Survation survey – and stripping private schools of the charitable status, a move the YouGov/CLASS poll found was backed by 55 percent of respondents.

Turning to health, in contrast to Owen Smith’s 2006 Wales Online interview supporting private sector involvement in the NHS, Corbyn believes in a publicly run NHS – a position supported by 84 per cent of the public, according to a 2013 YouGov poll.

In May 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour’s plan was to build 100,000 new council houses a year. ‘More social housing’ was the top answer – given by 58 percent of respondents – when an April 2016 Guardian Cities poll asked people about solutions to the housing crisis. McDonnell also said a Labour government would give councils the power to impose rent controls – a policy supported by 60 percent of British people, including 42 percent of Tory voters, according to a 2015 YouGov poll.

Corbyn supports the nationalisation of the railways, a position backed by 66 percent of the public, including a majority of Conservative voters, according 2013 YouGov poll. He also believes the Royal Mail should be publicly owned, a position supported by 67 percent of the public, including 48 percent of Tory voters, according to the same poll.

On foreign policy, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement that opposed the deeply unpopular Iraq War, speaking to the biggest protest in British history on 15 February 2003. On Afghanistan, Corbyn opposed the war and supported the withdrawal of British troops. Polls from 2008 onwards consistently found the British public supported the withdrawal of British troops. On Trident, Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to scrapping the UK’s nuclear weapons is shared by a significant minority of the population – an impressive level of opposition when you consider the British establishment and three main parties have historically supported the retention of Trident.

On the issues Corbyn’s politics don’t reflect public opinion, arguably these are often surrounded by significant levels of media-generated misinformation. For example, polls note the majority of the public support a benefit cap of £20,000 nationwide – a cut Corbyn and many charities working on poverty strongly opposed. At the same time a 2012 TUC/YouGov poll found widespread ignorance about spending on welfare. Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was spent on unemployment benefits, the average answer given was 41 percent (the correct figure is 3 percent). Asked what percentage of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently, people estimated 27 percent (the government estimate is 0.7 percent). The survey found that public support for the then Coalition government’s plans to cut benefits was highest amongst the most ignorant.

In conclusion, what all this polling evidence clearly shows is that many of Corbyn’s political positions command the support of large sections of the British public, often a majority. And importantly, the polls highlight that many of his positions receive significant levels of support from Tory voters.

However, a new London School of Economics study highlights the problems Corbyn’s Labour Government faces in reaching the general public. Analysing press coverage of Corbyn in September and October 2015, the survey found “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Noting other left-wing leaders also received negative press attention, the authors of the study note “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.”

Whether Corbyn will be able to successfully articulate his popular politics and policies in the face of continuous attacks from the overwhelming hostile media, many Labour MPs, the Tory Government and wider British elite, and whether he and his own team is up to the job in getting the message across – these are different and difficult questions which we will find out the answers to soon enough.

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn

Guardian on the wrong side of history over Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 October 2015

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide election to the Labour Party leadership was that he thrashed the other three candidates despite being opposed by almost the entire national press.

There were two honourable exceptions: the Morning Star and the Daily Record both backed the MP for Islington North.

“Corbyn: Abolish The Army” was one particularly memorable Sun front page, while the Sunday Mirror argued Corbyn was “a throwback to the party’s darkest days when it was as likely to form the government as Elvis was of being found on Pluto.”

In September the Express revealed “the evil monster haunting Jeremy Corbyn’s past.” Apparently Corbyn’s great great grandfather ran a workhouse. The shame! Over at The Times the level-headed Rachel Sylvester compared Corbyn’s imminent victory to when “the Vikings and the Mayans brought about their own extinction.”

At the other end of the British media spectrum, the Guardian ran what former British Ambassador Craig Murray accurately described as a “panic-driven hysterical hate-fest campaign against Corbyn.”

The Guardian backed Yvette Cooper, a candidate who voted for the illegal, aggressive war in Iraq in 2003 and the disastrous Libyan intervention in 2011, and supported Trident, austerity, benefit cuts and a stricter asylum system.

Throughout the leadership campaign it continuously ran front pages highlighting the increasingly hysterical concerns of former Labour “heavyweights,” including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain and David Miliband.

Writing about the contest a few days after Corbyn made it onto the ballot, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee dismissed Corbyn as “a 1983 man” and “a relic.” Voting for Corbyn “is ignoring the electorate,” Toynbee argued.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s opinion editor, was deeply sceptical about the rising support for Jez: “The unkind reading of this is to suggest that support for Corbynism, especially among the young, is a form of narcissism.” Not to be outdone, the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle dismissed Corbyn’s “programme of prelapsarian socialist purity,” while Michael White, the Guardian’s assistant editor, sneered: “Did Jeremy Corbyn used to wear open-toed sandals around Westminster in hot weather? Does he still?”

Slowly losing her grip on reality, G2 columnist Suzanne Moore told readers she didn’t support Corbyn because she has an “innate political distrust of asceticism.” After linking approvingly to an article setting out Alistair Campbell’s problems with Corbyn, Moore expanded her thesis: “Where is the vision of socialism that involves the sharing of life’s joys as well as life’s hardships? Where is the left that argued that nothing is too good for ordinary people — be it clothes, buildings, music.”

After Corbyn was elected by a landslide, Moore was back with more wisdom: “Who is advising him? Ex-devotees of Russell Brand?” she opined. “Corbyn and his acolytes may worship Chomsky and bang on about the evil mainstream media, they may actually believe that everything bad emanates from the US, they may go to Cuba and not notice that it’s a police state full of sex workers, but they are going to have to get with the programme.”

To quote the comedian Mark Thomas: “Trees died for this shit!”

There were, I should point out, honourable exceptions to this “Get Corbyn” campaign at the Guardian. Owen Jones, Seumas Milne and George Monbiot all wrote supportive articles, though they were swamped by the nonsensical anti-Corbyn screeds. Amazingly, in a response to readers’ complaints that the paper was biased against Corbyn, the Guardian’s readers’ editor had the brass neck to write: “Tallies of positive and negative pieces are a dangerous measure, as the Guardian should not be a fanzine for any side.”

So why was nearly the entire British press and commentariat opposed to the candidate whose positions on military interventions and public ownership, to name just two issues, were supported by a majority of the public?

Very obviously the ownership structure of the British press has a significant influence on a paper’s politics. “Essentially I think that what happens is that newspaper proprietors/owners … will appoint an editor and that will be informed possibly by their world view or what they want,” Dominic Lawson, the former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, explained in 2007.

Of course, that editor will then hire senior journalists and managers, who, in turn, hire junior members of staff. And these newbies will rise through the ranks by getting the approval of the senior journalists and managers, who were hired by the editor, who… you get the picture.

The people who end up working in the media today are overwhelmingly from very privileged backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research finding over half of the top journalists were privately educated. Incredibly the study found 37 percent of the top journalists who went to university graduated from just one institution — Oxford.

This similarity in background likely produces deeply held, unconscious shared assumptions about the world — how it works, what is possible, who is a credible source, who should be in charge and who should necessarily be excluded from decision-making.

“If you want a career in corporate journalism you have to accept certain things,” the former Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard explained at an event to launch his new book The Racket earlier this year. “The default position in our media — which is what they call ‘unbiased’ — is to support corporate power and US militarism.” Having spent his political life opposing these destructive entities, Corbyn was never going to be a favourite of the mainstream media.

Guardian journalists would be horrified by the idea but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Guardian’s role has been a deeply undemocratic, conservative one, desperately attempting to maintain “politics as usual” in the face of Corbyn’s challenge to our unfair and unequal political status quo.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on the journalists I’ve mentioned above. It is clear there has been a generational shift over the last few months, with many journalists fading into irrelevance, unable to make sense of or understand the Corbyn surge and the new political reality. Luckily other, smarter thinkers have taken their place — people like Novara Media’s Aaron Bastini, the staff at Open Democracy, Maya Goodfellow from Labour List and, at the Guardian, Zoe Williams and Owen Jones.

With the Guardian and the rest of the media unable or unwilling to adequately reflect progressive left-wing opinion in Britain, it is essential the left focuses on building up a vibrant and popular alternative media. This means supporting and working with existing non-corporate publications such as the Morning Star and also helping to build new, often online, attempts to crack the mainstream, such as Media Lens and Novara Media, which is currently holding a funding drive.

Just as Corbyn’s leadership team will have to think outside the box of Westminster politics if they are to succeed, so too must the left when it comes to the media. Discussions about the media need to be central to Momentum, the new social movement set up to support the policies Corbyn campaigned on. And the left needs to think and dream long-term — beyond 2020 and, yes, beyond Corbyn.

Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics

Polly Toynbee, Jeremy Corbyn and the limits of acceptable politics
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
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.

The Labour Party’s Call for Tactical Voting Ignores Its Own History

The Labour Party’s Call for Tactical Voting Ignores Its Own History
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
27 April 2015

The argument will be familiar to anyone who has ever dared to suggest they will vote for a party to the left of Labour. ‘Like it or not, under the first-past-the-post system, every vote for the Green Party only makes it one vote easier for the Conservatives to win the election’, argued Sadiq Khan MP, who is leading the Labour Party’s anti-Green unit, last year. ‘It splits the progressive vote in many constituencies, and means that Tory candidates can win, despite a clear progressive majority opposed to them’. The Guardian columnists Owen Jones and Polly Toynbee have repeatedly made the same argument.

Many will be persuaded by these increasingly desperate calls for tactical voting. But what interests me is how Khan, Jones, Toynbee and other Labour supporters, by trying to scare people to vote for the Labour Party, ignore the proud history of the Labour Party.

Turn the clock back to the late nineteenth century and there were two main parties in Britain: the Tories, who, much like now, nakedly reflected the interests of the elite, and the Liberal Party, which attracted the majority of working-class (male) support following the expansion of the franchise in 1867 and 1884. The Liberals had a better record of supporting suffrage expansion and electoral reform, and were considered to have progressive stances on finance, free trade, religious tolerance and foreign policy.[1] ‘Activists were attracted into Liberalism… in order to promote, and hopefully achieve, specific objectives’, notes David Dutton, author of A History of the Liberal Party.[2] For example, trade unionists sought political representation through the Liberal Party, with a group of Lib-Lab working-class MPs in parliament from the 1870s onwards.

However, with working-class identity solidifying and working-class political activism increasing, this uneasy alliance was becoming increasingly strained. Many argued that the Liberals were unable to adequately reflect working-class interests, with local parties often refusing to adopt working-class candidates. According to Dutton, ‘Liberals recognised limits beyond which they would not go on issues of fundamental concern to the working-class, such as the right to work, strike action and a national minimum wage’.[3] Indeed, after the Liberals rejected a Stoke mining union leader as a potential candidate in 1875, the pro-trade union Bee-Hive newspaper warned, ‘If these blind and brutal prejudices against working men and trade unions cannot be overcome in the Liberal Party, it will be the duty of the working men of the country to separate from that party’.[4]

Tensions came to a head, according to Dutton, at the 1899 Trade Union Congress, which was ‘dominated by complaints about the failure of the working class to secure their objectives through the vehicle of the Liberal party’.[5]The Liberals’ lukewarm support for labour in its struggles with employers was a key concern, as was the ongoing threat from the political establishment to the very existence of independent trade unions.[6]

In response, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC)—an alliance of the trade union movement with the Independent Labour Party, Fabians and the Social Democratic Federation—was formed in 1900. ‘It [the LRC] originated in the desire of the workers for a party that really understands and is prepared to deal with their grievances… Upon this conflict between Capital and Labour neither a Liberal nor a Conservative Ministry can be trusted to stand by the workers’, the LRC explained in a leaflet titled ‘Why We Are Independent’.[7]

Barely born, the LRC won just two MPs in the 1900 election. Six years later the national ballot returned 29 LRC MPs to parliament and the party immediately changed its name to the Labour Party.

This extraordinary growth was far from a straightforward or inevitable process. Future Labour giants such as Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and Ramsey McDonald had all unsuccessfully tried to stand as Liberal candidates before they came to the conclusion that only a new political party would serve the interests of the working-class.[8] According to G.D.H. Cole, the Fabians has been ‘sceptical about the early attempts to form a Labour Party independent of Conservatives and Liberals alike’ with ‘some of their leaders… disposed to prefer a policy of permeating the existing parties with socialist ideas’.[9]

And of course, the decline Liberal Party, like Labour supporters today, criticised the new party and its supporters for splitting the anti-Tory vote. ‘An independent Labour organization will not catch a single Tory vote’, argued Lord Rosebury, then the Liberal Prime Minister, in 1894. ‘Such votes as it does carry away will be Liberal votes… it may hamstring and even cut the throat of the Liberal Party’.[10]

Rosebury was right to be fearful. Despite ‘the tremendous radical vigour’ of the reforming 1906-11 Liberal Government, Labour’s share of the vote continued to grow, with the party first entering Downing Street in 1924 as a minority government.[11] Two decades later a landslide Labour victory allowed the Attlee Government to introduce the welfare state that continues to bind the country together today—comprehensive education, the National Health Service, social security—as well as nationalising the railways, coal industry, the gas and electricity utility companies and setting up the national parks system.

‘At the end of the day’, notes Dutton, Labour overtook the Liberal Party ‘because individual Liberal voters decided to change their party allegiance or because the newly enfranchised among them failed to follow the voting patterns of their fathers and grandfathers’.[12]

Today, Labour continues to be one of the two main parties in British politics. But Labour was only in a position to introduce arguably the most important social reforms of the post-war period, and is only a serious contender for government today, because over 100 years ago people did not follow the conservative logic of Sadiq Khan and vote for the least worst viable option. Rather they turned against the established parties and voted for the party that best represented their interests, regardless of whether it had a chance of gaining power in the short-term.

In short, only once large numbers of people ditched tactical voting and started to vote on principle—as the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett is urging voters to do in the forthcoming election—did real change become possible.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He Tweets @IanJSinclair.

[1] Andrew August, The British Working Class 1832-1940 (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007), p. 153. David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 8.[2] Dutton, p. 6.
[3] Dutton, p. 50.
[4] August, p. 154.
[5] Dutton, p. 10.
[6] G. R. Searle, The Liberal Party. Triumph and Disintegration 1886 – 1929 (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1992), p. 71.
[7] Keith Laybourn, The Labour Party 1881 – 1951. A Reader in History (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988), p. 59.
[8] Dutton, p. 10.
[9] G.D.H. Cole, A Short History of the British Working-Class Movement 1789-1947 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1952), p. 288.
[10] Roy Douglas, The history of the Liberal Party, 1895-1970 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971), p. 66.
[11] Douglas, p. 90.
[12] Dutton, p. 3.