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Polly Toynbee (left) is invariably referred to as one of the most influential commentators of the New Labour era, reviled and revered in equal measure. This doyenne of the Left was formerly BBC social affairs editor and an associate editor of the Independent before rejoining the Guardian in 1998, where she had spent many years earlier in her career and where she still resides.
In the first part of his in depth interview with Polly, Chuka Umunna, editor of TMP (right), talks to her about her career, her political activism in the 1980s, her views on her profession, her take on the Paxman/Humphrys approach to politicians and her opinions on the Great British press in general. Enjoy.
PT: Well, I was briefly a politician. I was in the Labour Party but left in the early 1980s when the choice between Michael foot and Margaret Thatcher didn’t seem a very sensible one, and the Labour Party looked as if it was bent on self-destruction (there was no way that Michael Foot’s Labour Party was electable!).So I joined the SDP, the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the then Liberal Party in 1981, with a load of other Labour Party people I knew. I was an admirer of Roy Jenkins – one of the “gang of four” who helped found the party – though I allied myself with David Owen (partly because Owen pushed forward lots of women) when the SDP split in 1988 between those voting to merge with the Liberal Party (to become the Liberal Democrats) and those, like Owen, who were against.
I was on the national executive committee of the party, stood as its candidate in Lewisham East in the 1983 election and was one of the main organisers of its 1987 general election campaign. After it all ended in [a proverbial] car crash, I joined the BBC in 1988 as social affairs editor, which gave me an elegant reason for leaving the party.
CU: So why, after 1987, didn’t you just stick it out and hop on board the New Labour bandwagon as a politician, when it came? Why did you return to journalism?
Well I’d always been a journalist and had carried on as a journalist [working at the Guardian] right the way through my involvement with the SDP – I had done politics in my spare time. And at that point in the late ‘80s I wasn’t going to rejoin Labour – I didn’t see any particular point. Labour was on its way after 1984 and I’d never had a burning desire to be a politician.
In any case, being at the BBC ruled out being involved in politics and I was there for 7 years, before leaving to join the Independent in 1995 for a while. Andrew Marr’s removal as editor of the Independent in 1998 prompted my return to the Guardian that year.
CU: Do you feel any guilt in perhaps prolonging Thatcher’s reign during the 1980s, by further splitting the progressive vote with your SDP colleagues?
PT: No, not at all, as we always knew we would either help bring the Labour Party to its senses or we would win. At the time a lot of people joined the SDP saying “either we win or Labour comes to its senses”. It took a lot longer than we thought. We got within two points of Labour in 1983. Even if we hadn’t got many seats, if we had overtaken Labour in the popular vote, I think we would have got to a sort of “New Labour” position a bit sooner than we did – I think we would have got Labour to a position where it would have won the 1992 election…but who knows.
CU: You get so very passionate and angry about things. Don’t you feel restrained by just putting your thoughts on to paper?
PT: Well in some ways it’s a hell of a lot less restrained than some poor old minister [she refers to one new, young, minister] who absolutely can’t say anything. The sad thing about Labour is that almost everyone one knows and meets feels passionately about things too, but the moment they get a post and become insiders, they have to zip their lip and not say anything.
CU: You’re supposedly influential and pop up in published lists of the influential. Do you feel influential?
PT: No not nearly enough [she says laughing loudly]. I wish they’d all do what I say!
CU: Do you ever see the results of your reported influence?
PT: I would like to think that the most constructive thing I ever did was to bang on about child care – the need for Children’s Centres and a Sure Start type programme, which I got on to very early and went on about in print and to Labour politicians every time I saw them. One of Gordon Brown’s inner circle was kind enough to say to me that he thought I had had an influence in that respect. I hope that by saying – “if you really want to invest in poverty, start at the very beginning, invest in kids before the age of 5 and you have some hope” – I had some effect, but I have no idea. I’m just one of many voices.
CU: Of all the different voices, who do you rate? Which of your peers’ columns do you instantly turn to?
PT: Johann Harri is very good in the Independent. Steve Richards in the Independent on Sunday. Will Hutton in the Observer – almost everything he writes I agree with! Mary Riddell and Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer too.
CU: What makes for a good commentator in your view?
PT: Well it depends. Someone who speaks with sincerity, a certain amount of knowledge and with sympathy for politicians. One thing I very much dislike are commentators who don’t like politicians or think politics and politicians are all rubbish. I don’t think you can go anywhere with that kind of attitude. You’ve got to reckon that most of them are not in it for themselves, as there is an awful lot they could do if they were, which they don’t….
CU: … why do you “have” to reckon that? People might ask why should I believe they are all “good eggs”…
PT: …because why bother being a political commentator if that’s what your think? Its like choosing to be a football commentator when you hate football and footballers – there wouldn’t be much point really.
CU: Can’t one like politics but hate politicians?
PT: Well you can hate some politicians and you can certainly hate some of the things they stand for. But I think you must have an essential sense that they’re basically doing a good thing in going into politics and that it is a worthwhile activity.
We are in deep trouble if we spread a message that says all politics is rubbish, anybody who goes into it is rubbish, they are all in it for themselves, and they are all vain, selfish and stupid. In the end, most of them could be much more successful somewhere else.
If you’re a very successful politician you might get three or four years in the Cabinet after 40 years of pounding the pavements, being obedient and being out of office for a long period of time – what other career are you ever out of office!?
CU: So you don’t subscribe to the Jeremy Paxman/John Humphrys approach to politicians?
PT: I detest it – I really dislike it intensely. I think it is very good to put tough questions to people but very often their toughest questions (when those two are at their most brutal) come when they are actually under-briefed, because really good questioning comes from having done your home work and being able to pick the politicians up on very particular things. I really find the endless “come off it”, “we all know you’re lying” kind of approach, hard on the ear – its painful.
CU: Do you not think Paxman and Humphrys are terribly well briefed then?
PT: Sometimes they are but sometimes they are not. I think when they are at their most aggressive they are not and they resort to abuse and bullying. With regard to their whole attitude (“we stand on the side of the ordinary punter, punters all think politicians are rubbish”) if people think politicians are bad, its partly because they expect to be treated badly by them because of this type of approach. I think that’s a bad thing for democracy generally.
CU: The blogosphere seems to be a whole new body of comment that seems to be quite male dominated but, ironically, very bitchy. What do you make of it?
PT: It’s a nightmare. I only really see the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blogs which attract some of the most right wing people – my entries certainly do! On the other hand, if you look at the responses George Monbiot gets, perhaps because he’s a man, he doesn’t get the same vitriol. I get these people who are not in a million years Guardian readers! Jackie Ashley gets the same.
CU: I’ve had it with my own Guardian blog entries too.
PT: Hmm…you have – well there is this nasty group of men, who often seem to get up at 5am waiting for your column so they can have a pop at it. I find it very depressing and ‘orrible. It’s a shame because there are actually very good arguments to be had but I think its partly the anonymity of the web which makes people be so much more abusive – if you meet the person in real life they would be so much more reasonable. There is something about anonymity which has created this awful tone of voice on blogs.
CU: You’ve been quite critical of your own profession. Are you still as pessimistic as you were about it? Some of your colleagues might say you are just a “whinger”?
PT: I think the press in this country is very underestimated in terms of the historic influence it has had. If look at why Britain is different from the rest of Europe, why we are so anti European – I think it’s our press. For over a hundred years now we’ve had a peculiarly right wing, distorted press, owned by a small handful of very nasty people [she lists some powerful past and present newspaper proprietors] deliberately making us xenophobic, horrible, nationalistic and small minded ….. and that has been the dominant voice. 75-80% of the press has been like that.
The left wing press has been a very small, weak voice with not much money behind it. Apart from the heyday of the Mirror – the Mirror just about hangs in there – there has never been the sort of balance that you get in France, or Germany, or Italy between the Left and Right….
CU: ….but what on earth can be done about that when money (i.e. ownership) is at the root of so much of the problem?
PT: [she sighs heavily] …I don’t know. One thing you could do, which would give them a shock and it would create a terrible row, is to go back to the pre-Thatcher newspaper ownership rules. You could make Murdoch disband his empire. You’d say you can’t own over 40% of TV and/or newspapers – you’ve got to choose what you want. The trouble is that he’d have to sell it off and who would he sell it off to? It would be to more awful people – there are endless other right wing millionaires and billionaires with fantasises of being newspaper editors. There really haven’t been people on the Left to run newspapers but I think we should have done that to Murdoch – American ownership rules operate like that – but I don’t think it would change the right wing nature of them.
Tomorrow, in the second part of their conversation, Chuka puts to Polly the accusation that she contradicts herself, asks her to justify her claim that the Brown government has left social democracy for dead, discusses with her the effects of poverty on ethnic minorities, finds out what Polly thinks about all black shortlists and invites her to speculate on which “young turk” will succeed the Prime Minister.
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