Polly Toynbee: you can stick your clothespeg

Think this election is different? Think the polls are showing this election has become a three way race and that the Lib Dems are insurgent? Allow Polly Toynbee to disabuse you.

For Polly, we are in a political Groundhog Day. 2010 is the new 2005. You remember 2005, don’t you? While Labour’s illegal Iraq invasion was at its height and its love affair with big business was at its most passionate, Polly Toynbee was telling everyone who would listen to stick clothespegs on their noses and vote Labour regardless. It would appear that Toynbee’s brief dalliance with David Owen in the Eighties has had the effect that, as a true prodigal daughter, she will always find a reason to back the Labour Party even though she can find precious little to agree with them on. Her argument is not so much “my party right or wrong” as “my party, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The 2010 version of the clothespeg campaign appears to have taken this a step further. No longer interested in even attempting to defend Labour, the crux of her argument is rooted purely on the basis that 1) they aren’t the Tories and 2) voting Lib Dem is a wasted vote, all the time, always, regardless of what the polls say.

Here are four reasons why she is hopelessly, utterly wrong:

Firstly, there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that Lib Dem support still has not peaked in this election and might still get us into the 38-40% level of support needed to not only be the largest party but to form a majority. The Sun commissioned a poll by YouGov which showed that 49% of the public say they would vote Lib Dem if they thought we had a chance of winning outright, a finding which clearly terrified them and they promptly attempted to bury. Will that happen? I have to admit it is unlikely, but it does suggest there is all to play for. Toynbee quote Ben Page who promises to “run naked through the streets” if Nick Clegg were to win. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that Page said this on 16 April when pollsters were just waking up to the Lib Dem surge in the polls. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Page had held his tongue for just 24 hours, he wouldn’t have made anything like such a confident prediction.

The polls over the last couple of days have the Conservatives creeping ahead and the Lib Dems being stuck at around the 29-30% mark. Could this mean the Lib Dems have peaked? Possibly (which would still make them the second party in terms of vote share; Labour are resolutely in third place now), possibly not. What we do know is that the BBC’s leaders’ debate this coming Thursday will be watched by a lot more people than the Sky News one and will thus be harder to spin by the rightwing press. We are also now much more alert to “happy accidents” such as pollsters starting their survey before Clegg has finished his closing speech. And we know that there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to accrue more heavyweight support and momentum. I’m not predicting anything, merely pointing out the futility of writing the party off at this stage.

Secondly, Polly is simply wrong to assert that if the Tories win the plurality in terms of both seats and votes, they will have “won” the election. They would certainly have won the right to try and form a government, as Nick Clegg has said, but that is where our obligation to them ends. If the Lib Dems come second, then the party the Tories will have to persuade to help them out will be the third party, Labour. Don’t see it happening? Well, I wouldn’t run down the streets naked if it did, after all Blue-Red alliances are not exactly unheard of, but I would certainly consider it unlikely. And even a Tory minority government is not exactly a stunning victory, hamstrung as it would be by a combined Lib Dem-Labour majority.

Thirdly, as I argued on Comment is Free last weekend, a strong Lib Dem vote in this election is the best possible result if you want meaningful political reform. At this stage one has to question Polly’s motivations. Is she really the stalwart electoral reformer she claims to be? She brands Labour’s commitment for a referendum on AV as “pathetic” yet for the past five years been a part of that happy band of Labourites who have been working behind and in front of the scenes to make the mood music for AV as a stepping stone towards full STV compelling. So why complain now? And if it isn’t good enough, why support them now?

Back to my substantive point though, the best two arguments for PR are that a) FPTP produces undemocratic outcomes and b) FPTP doesn’t even produce the “strong” government (which is another way of saying weak parliament) its supporters insist is the only sensible way of carrying on. I can cite you examples worldwide why both are the case (FPTP using Canada has been stuck with a balanced parliament for six years and three consecutive elections now) but what will really motivate the British public is seeing how broken the system really is upfront. If Toynbee is interested in taking the case reform beyond the dinner table, then she should be urging people to vote Lib Dem in their droves right now.

All this will be undermined if people fall meekly in line by voting tactically. Not only does that exhaust the movement for reform of its momentum by boring people to death with psephological arguments about making the most of their vote in their constituency, it means that the Lib Dem vote share will inevitably go down and thus rob us of our strongest symbolic argument for reform. It isn’t just Toynbee making this mistake; Vote for a Change is ignoring the way the polls have shifted and adopting the tactic of trying to bore for electoral reform as well; these people badly need to get with the programme.

Thirdly, and most contentiously, I would argue that Clegg may yet emerge as the consensus choice for Prime Minister if the Lib Dems come first or second in terms of vote share, regardless of the number of MPs they get.

It isn’t that I think this is a shoo-in; it is just that I think that the three other options being talked about are highly problematic. A Cameron premiership would be dependent on Lib Dem or Labour support and an insurgent Clegg is unlikely to go along with that. If Labour come third in terms of vote share then it is surely game over for Brown; even he, surely, isn’t deluded enough to think he can hang on? But the “David Miliband” option isn’t exactly problem free either. There would still be the little matter of Labour losing the election, it would lead to the second consecutive Prime Minister with no personal mandate (after the first one had been rejected) and it would be problematic for Labour itself which is badly in need of a period of reflection and an open leadership election.

In comparison, Prime Minister Clegg doesn’t sound like too bad an option. It would be a vindication of the popular vote, it would allow Labour to go off and select a leader of their own and it has a certain constitutional neatness to it, with the Prime Minister of the day having to negotiate with parliament rather than take it for granted. It wouldn’t be an easy option by any stretch of the imagination – Clegg would be in for one hell of a rough ride. It might have to be part of a two- or three-way coalition and it would almost certainly not last longer than a couple of years, but two years of consensus politics guiding us out of the economic downturn and introducing a series of necessary political reforms (including a referendum on whether to replace the voting system with a proportional system) sounds quite enticing to me.

If there is a clearer and more productive way forward than that in the case of a hung parliament, I haven’t heard of it. So let’s stop all this talk about tactical voting and the risks of getting both Brown and Cameron if you vote Lib Dem. The only thing we know for sure in this election is that a vote for the Liberal Democrats will get you Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, more Lib Dem MPs and a stronger Lib Dem mandate for change. Everything else is just noise.

Finally, a short coda in response to David Miliband’s claim that the Lib Dems are anti-politics. If by “politics” he means establishment, then he is in fact correct. But the sort of system the Lib Dems are standing for in this election is a noisy, argumentative one in which ideas and policies are contested. Politics in other words. The one party rule that Miliband et al stand for is the very definition of anti-politics, where MPs are leant on to do what they’re told, where governments rely on huge majorities to force everything they want through, where oppositions can oppose without ever having to accept responsibility and where people like Messrs Miliband and Cameron merely have to wait in the wings until their inevitable rise as heirs apparent. If Miliband wants to defend the status quo, let him, but don’t let him get away with claiming it is “politics”.


  1. I think she’s sulking cos she lost the argument at the editorial conference over which party the Guardian will back. (I’m a glass half full man, me).

  2. I was so appalled I did some number crunching and posted my thoughts under her article.

    Doubtless it’ll be completely lost amongst the huge number of Labour pro-“tactical voting” types who are now commenting in their droves.

    I thought the results were rather thought provoking, so here it is again:

    “Lets have some predictions from recent polls, using the BBC 3-way swingometer thingy:

    (326 seats required for an overall majority)

    ICM 19 Apr – Con 33 Lib Dem 30 Lab 28
    Seats: Con 244, Lab 277, Lib Dem 100

    ComRes 21 Apr – Con 35 Lib Dem 27 Lab 25
    Seats: Con 299, Lab 236, Lib Dem 86

    Harris 21 Apr – Con 31 Lib Dem 30 Lab 26
    Seats: Con 238, Lab 270, Lib Dem 113

    Ipsos/MORI 21 Apr – Con 32 Lib Dem 32 Lab 28
    Seats: Con 234, Lab 271, Lib Dem 116

    Populus 21 Apr – Con 32 Lib Dem 31 Lab 28
    Seats: Con 236, Lab 276, Lib Dem 109

    YouGov 22 Apr – Con 33 Lib Dem 31 Lab 27
    Seats: Con 253, Lab 256, Lib Dem 112

    OnePoll 24 Apr – Con 32 Lib 32 Lab 23.
    Seats: Cons 262, Lab 213, LD 146

    Now then Polly, remind us which one of these massive Tory overall majorities it is that you’re so worried about?

    That’s right – there isn’t one.

    Having done all this number crunching, I am now in no doubt whatsoever that what Polly is really saying is: “Lib Dems! Give us your votes!”

    Of course, the polls may change over the next 10 days.

    One poll I spotted an hour or two ago gave me pause for thought:

    Mums Net voting intentions following 2nd debate – LD – 50.3% Lab 20% Con 18%

    Seats: Lib Dem 598, Lab 23, Con 3, others 26

    Funny how close the MumsNet 50.3% is to the 49% who would allegedly vote Lib Dem if they thought the Lib Dems had any chance of winning…

    Maybe that’s what both the Guardian and the Murdoch empires are so worried about that they want to frighten you into not voting Lib Dem.

    ??? ”

    To my mind it’s simple – either she’s innumerate & stupid or she’s trying to get the Lib Dem vote down just like Cameron & Murdoch are.

    I know what I think! :<

  3. Will one of you Lib Dem wankers ever explain what you mean by ‘an illegal war’? About as likely as one of the BBC / C4 wankers asking you to, I suspect.

  4. Polly Toynbee thinks it’s 2005? No, she’s still stuck in 1983 when she was SDP candidate for Lewisham East.

    I remember the SDP then. Lots of very naive people, who thought it would bring them instant power. Thought politics was all about a glossy national image, you put your election address out, you won on the national swing.

    They didn’t want to listen to us Liberals when we told them what it was really about. When we told them it was about campaigning all year round, about building a solid local organisation, about winning the trust of the local people and then the votes of the local people by being with them. They told us we were the “sleepy” party, we didn’t know how to win votes, they would show us.

    They still didn’t believe us when they lost the Peckham by-election on their campaign methods and we won the Bermondsey by-elecion on ours. They still didn’t believe it when they were left with 6 MPs in 1983. They still didn’t believe it when a few of them, Polly Toynbee included, went off in a huff to start their own more pure SDP free of all these sleepy Liberals. Which very soon was beaten by the Monster Raving Loony Party, and so those of us who knew what we were doing, including those decent SDP people who had learnt sense, could start doing what we knew worked best.

    Polly Toynbee in 1983 didn’t like to be told about the long game. Didn’t like to be told that winning Lewisham East wouldn’t be a matter of her swanning in and getting the swing on the basis of glossy SDP PR material. Didn’t like to be told that it would, instead, take years and years of hard work building up the organisation. Well, that’s what’s been happening in Lewisham East since, myself playing a small part in it, as a councillor and group leader for some of that time.

    So dear Polly would now advise us to vote Labour in Lewisham East to keep the Tories out. It’s all national swing to her, and the national swing, as she says in the Guardian, means we can’t win it. Polly has, perhaps not bothered to venture to unfashionable south-east London since those days to see what is happening. The majority of the councillors in Lewisham East are LibDem. You can’t move far in the constituency without seeing a LibDem stakeboard. I’ve been doing a regular Fosus round in the cosntituency, and I’ve yet to come across a Labour leaflet. The Tories are out of it, Labour are finished. Yet Polly Toynbee wants us to vote for them?

    I’d put it down to sour grapes if she really knew what was happening, but no, she’s just part of the bubble, she hasn’t a clue.

  5. I’m sorry the last piece about a vote for the Lib Dems is just part of the specious nonsense that has been spouted over the last three days.\n\nNick Clegg is as firmly a part of the poltical establishment as Cameron and Brown. He has been Leon Brittain’s lapdog, worked as a lobbyist, sat as an MEP and been a party leader in the most corrupt and despised parliament in living memory. \n\nHow does this make him anti-politics or anti-establishment?.\n\nPersonally he appears about as posh as Cameron – Westminster school, family chalet in Davos, chateau in the south of France – looks ver similar to me.\n\nClegg’s real achievement in this campaign has been to turn the Lib Dems from an amusing afterthought to serious contenders. This is no mean feat although does have something to do with the appalling nature of the Brown administration and the watery alternative offered by Call Me Dave.\n\nWith greater seriousness though comes greater scrutiny and while some of the articles this week appear to have the hand of CCHQ or Darth Mandelson behind them it is clear that Clegg has some difficult questions to answer over donations he has received.\n\nAnyone with a proper job knows that having company revenues paid into your personal bank account puts you on the fast track to dismissal and possible prosecution. What on earth possessed Nick Clegg then to have three businessmen pay contributions into his personal account. It looks naive at best and dishonest at worst. He has offered no credible explanation for this nor any evidence to support his claim the money was used to pay staff (for which he receives a parliamentary allowance).\n\nAs a good MEP of course his expenses remain opaque to those that fund them – the EU taxpayer (actually largely the German, British, French and Dutch taxpayer). Clegg has admitted this week to taking budget flights but receiving full business class expense remuneration (to which he was entitled under an EU expense system that makes the Westminster one look rigorous and transparent). In the current environment where politicians are regarded in the same way as something unpleasant on the bottom of your shoe, the immediate suspicion is that the difference was merely pocketed despite the unsubstantiated claim that the money was used to pay staff (for which again a parliamentary allowance was received).\n\nNick CLegg is in reality no different to any of the other greedy establishment MPs. The Lib Dems have their own funding and expense scandals ( Lord Rennard still appears to be active behind the scenes depsite protestations to the contrary and Michael Brown is still on the run as far as I am aware).\n\nThe Lib Dems have had a good campaign but to pretend they are much different to the other parties is disingenuous to say the least.\n\nAs for Polly Toynbee – she cast off all shreds of political credibility over the last couple of years. Her latest article (which is admirably filleted above) is just a tortuous way of saying “Vote Labour” without saying it explicitly. She’s reduced herself to the status of the mad old bat living at the end of the lane with 112 cats who spends her time shouting at the traffic.

  6. Mr The Cold Harsh Light of Day, I have read your article, but it does not really seem to take on board what I wrote. It is all about Mr Clegg, and my article did not even mention Mr Clegg.

    If you had bothered reading some of my comments elsewhere, you might find that I am no great fan of Mr Clegg. Yes, you are quite right, he is a very establishment figure, the establishment puffed him and promoted him and told us we must elect him as what a great and wonderful man he was and by far the best person to lead us. Plus he was somewhat on the right of the party. I was very much opposed to him as leader, I still don’t think he’s ideal.

    But, of course, the establishment did not treat us with the respect they said they would if we elected Clegg as leader. They went back to treating us as they always do – ignoring us in the hope we’d go away, just printing the odd bit of knocking copy if they felt they had to say something. Now, if Clegg were really such a comfy establishment figure, and such a good egg of the sort they said he was when they were trying to get us to elect him as leader, why the torrent of bile last week?

    That, however, was not my point. The Westminster bubble think the rise of LibDem support in the opinion polls was all down to Clegg in the first debate. They are wrong. Much more than they suppose, because they don’t know because they are stuck in their bubble, it was down to well organised local campaigns coming together. Coming together and finding an open door to push, because the other two parties have hugely damaged and demoralised their activist base, Labour in particular (with the Tories it was more natural wastage).

    This is what we found in Lewisham. Once we were pushing against a mighty Labour machine, which could always turn out and flatten us. Suddenly it disappeared. We found we were still doing our stuff, but looking around and saying “where are they?”. But here comes along dear old Polly, stuck in 1983, still thinking it’s all about national swing, and saying “Vote Labour to keep the Tories out”. Tories? In Lewisham? Extinct.

    But you wouldn’t know about things like that, because you sound like some saddo who believes the bubble. I predict that for your sort, the light of the day on May 7th will be very cold and very harsh.

  7. Ms Toynbee is in general mistaken, certainly so regarding Lewisham.  However, there are seats (ie Lab-Con marginals where the Lib Dems are nowhere and Labour start 10 points clear) where she is right.  In eg Tooting those voting Lib Dem will only be able to console themselves that they have ‘done the right thing’ while enduring 5 years of a Cameron/Osborne Commons majority.  Where Polly is doubly wrong is that if Labour hang on in Lab-Con micromarginals, eg Finchley, they will preserve their own majority.  Lib Dems should be voting Tory in these seats to stop this.

  8. No Hugh. Lib Dems should be voting Lib Dem in those areas to ensure the party gets as big a share of the national vote as possible. All the polls over the past week strongly indicate that a hung parliament will happen regardless of local circumstances in Finchley/wherever.

    What is going on is bigger than your philosophy can contemplate, I realise, but it is happening.

  9. Quite many years had past since 1983 and a number of months still to the next elections, Ms. Toynbee has made a mark. If she was mistaken with Lewisham, it was because they were thinking that voting for Lib Dems would bring power immediately.

  10. I wonder what Polly thinks now that the Libs have cozied up with the Conservative Party. It would be interesting to hear her thoughts on that.

    I think like many of us she will see it for the political suicide it truly is. The Lib leadership seem intent on destroying their party for the sake of a nice ministerial limo. I am afraid that in the next general election (as with the recnet local elections) there is the potential for the Liberal party to be wiped off the political map.

    Theo Grezny
    Webmaster @ Walkfit

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