Humbug Watch: Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on the UK’s “progressive majority”
Polly Toynbee pleases her readers with personal attacks on her opponents and a worrying approach to factual accuracy. It’s a shameful statement on the mindset she represents
Whenever someone starts talking about the “progressive majority”, you know you’re in for a veritable feast of politically correct pieties. “Progressive” of course means little more than “big state” but the term’s broader function is to personalise, and thus infantilise, political discussion by defining sympathisers as the smart and decent types who have ownership rights on the future and opponents as the dim-witted curmudgeons who probably want to go back to sending little boys up chimneys.
Few people in the British media are as wont to indulge in such shallow distractions from serious debate as Polly Toynbee, queen of columnists at the Guardian and spiritual guru to the BBC.
In her most recent piece, on the forthcoming referendum on changing the British voting system, she was in fine form. Describing the two opposing camps, there were, she said, the “nice people displayed together in a row, the likables: Ed, Vince, former home secretary Alan Johnson, progressive trade unionist Billy Hayes, good Green Darren Johnson”.
These, of course, were the people who support her view that we should change our voting system from first past the post to the so-called Alternative Vote (AV) system adopted by the sum total of three countries in the entire world: Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
And then there were the people whose views she opposes: “…the nasty faction. There was David Cameron fighting as dirty and mendacious a campaign as Baroness Warsi and George Osborne can devise, oddly joined by John Reid, the vanguard of Labour's less likable tribal tendency.”
I was going to wax forth about the sheer spitefulness of it all. But, actually, it’s just pathetic: a worldview so blinkered and immature that it can only deal with the pressures of political debate by designating one’s own side as “nice” and the other as “nasty”. The woman’s in her sixties, for goodness sake.
Still, she is possibly the most popular writer the Guardian has got so there’s little doubt she’s playing at a level that her audience appreciates.
Aside from the style, the other noteworthy points about her piece concern the premise on which it is constructed: we need to change the voting system for the benefit of the “progressive majority” because “[The Conservatives] dominated the last century on a minority of votes and expect to carry on for the next hundred years – on their own”.
If you’re trying to show off your democratic credentials it is a strange decision to stress that you want to change the voting system out of an active desire to improve the chances of the people you support. Best practice in this regard would surely be to stress that your favoured system is a good in itself, and once instituted the political cards can fall where they may.
But with someone who deals in “nice” people in politics and “nasty” people that particular objection may be lost on her. So let me try another: the premise is flawed.
For there is no evidence whatsoever that there even is a “progressive majority” in Britain. All of the available polling evidence suggests precisely what sober-minded observers would expect: opinions on most of the relevant issues – taxation rates, public spending, private sector versus public sector, state ownership versus private ownership – are divided. They are also fluid.
And let us not forget the blindingly obvious reality that the Liberal Democrats went into government with the Conservatives, not Labour. The party’s voters may be split down the middle on the coalition but, once again, that merely underlines that the question of whether the British people are “progressive” or not is impossible to answer.
The notion that Britain is largely populated by people who want to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, tax people through the roof and expand the nanny state is the trademark prejudice of a liberal-left pundit who only ever mixes with people who agree with her.
And the price of agreeing with Polly Toynbee is that facts and balance go straight out of the window. For instance, to say that the Conservatives “dominated the last century on a minority of votes” is shamefully disingenuous.
Since the Second World War no party has ever got a majority of the votes: all of the Labour governments got less than 50 percent, as did all of the Conservative governments. Indeed, the last Labour government got 55 percent of the seats in parliament on just 35.2 percent of the vote – the lowest percentage to yield a parliamentary majority since universal suffrage began.
With all of this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the polls now suggest that the Yes to AV camp is likely to lose on May 5. But that is not the point of this article, which is that the quality of Polly Toynbee’s arguments and the style she employs to present them are nothing short of abysmal. The queen of political correctness urgently needs to be dethroned.
Robin Shepherd is the owner-publisher of The Commentator
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