The Toynbee tendency is Labour’s greatest weakness

by David Talbot

Thank goodness for the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. From her dalliance with the SDP in the 1980s to her less than ambiguous flirtation with the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament, Toynbee, clearly, has an astute eye for the British political scene. Many approach the Guardian’s flagship commentator in an almost ritual sense, as if her musings are inscribed in tablet, and come away with faith renewed in the teachings of Toynbee. In general, I do something quite close to the opposite – no more so than her remarks to the Fabians conference at the weekend.

Labour, Toynbee told the assembled throng, would have “to try quite hard to lose the next election.” Alarmingly, this is a widely held belief in the Labour party. The argument, closely echoing Toynbee’s, goes that if Cameron couldn’t win a general election against a disintegrating Labour party and a visibly exhausted, not to mention reviled, Labour prime minister – then how can he possibly win come 2015? Just about every Labour strategist warns of complacency when complacent is exactly what they have become.

It is tempting to assume that impassioned and increasingly aggressive attacks on the Conservatives are all that are needed to secure victory at the next election. After all, moral indignation is what the Labour party does. But outrage is not an electoral strategy. Emotionally and politically it may make sense to oppose each and every cut the Conservatives propose but, to repeat ad nauseam, the public are simply ahead of the Labour party when it comes to the cuts and their provenance.

To win in 2015 we need to persuade the millions of people who did not, who could not, vote for us that we are a credible party of government. The party simply cannot assume the electorate will vote Labour simply because we are not the government. Nor should the scale of the task before Labour be in any way diluted; the 2010 election was an annihilation. Labour suffered its second heaviest defeat since 1918 and was wiped out in the south, south east and east of England. But, predominantly due to the eccentricities of a defunct first past the post system, Labour retained a credible number of seats, enough almost to put us within distant of the Conservatives. Dodging a bullet is not the same as a good result, and it’s about time many within Labour woke up to that fact.

The process of reconciliation means recognising why millions turned away from us, including concerns about the nation’s deficit, and on immigration, welfare, Europe and housing too the party retains too little support from a sceptical electorate.

This is precisely the election campaign the Conservatives will fight, centred on the deficit, immigration, Europe, welfare and Miliband’s readiness for power. At the heart of it will be David Cameron, who still retains a clear lead over Miliband in terms of the preferred prime minister.

To counter this the Labour party have released their 106 battleground seats for the next general election. The ambition is laudable, though mildly absurd. A rudimentary glance down the target list will, to many a Labour activist, highlight seats that barely qualify as marginals.

Much like the Conservative strategy in 2005 of targeting some 164 Labour or Lib Dem-held seats, from the outset, Labour’s list of 106 looks woefully long and threatens to limit rather than maximise the number of Labour gains at the election. This is symptomatic of the Toynbee train of thought that the party simply cannot fail to win the next election – and win handsomely at that.

This immodesty and lack of self-reflection, this Toynbee tendency, could yet be Labour’s greatest weakness. No party has come close to winning a general election from Labour’s poll position since 1951, and there is not much to suggest thus far that this is an epoch-defining parliament. Talk of a sixty seat Labour majority is, at this stage in the cycle, simply wild. Just as many Conservatives unwisely made the assumption that Ed Miliband’s weaknesses would return them to government, so to Labour is beginning to believe that the next election is already won.

It’s still not clear that many within Labour understand the scale of the change required in the party and its policies. Assuming that the electorate simply has to come over to our way of thought is dangerously naive and electorally ruinous. Only with the emergence of a serious and credible offer will Labour win the next general election, and we’ll have to work quite hard for that.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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40 Responses to “The Toynbee tendency is Labour’s greatest weakness”

  1. Felix says:

    Just as I do the complete opposite of all those who come to worship reverently at the faux-hallowed altar of Labour Uncut

  2. Nick says:

    Don’t mention the debt.

    1.1 trilllion borrowing
    5.25 trillion pensions debts
    0.4 trillion PFI

    Don’t what ever you do mention the debt, other wise people will realise they are being defrauded.

  3. swatantra says:

    Polly is wrong.
    Voters take is always : ‘Better the Devil you know than …’.
    Thats why they voted Tory, and John Major, for an unprecedented 4th Term in 1992.
    Labour has an uphill task to convince the electorate that it has changed, and really understands ordinary peoples concerns over very simple issues like tax housing and immigration. And Cameron’s cry will be ‘Give me a 2nd Term and I’ll finish the job’.
    And the British are fair, if nothing else.

  4. Gareth says:

    Sorry… You seem far too astute on this to be a Labour fellow… Leaves me wondering why you are? No, I’m not a blue or a yellow, I just detest the reds a lot more for their utter contempt for individual freedom and economic insanity

  5. Alexsandr says:

    Too many people who were part of the blair brown era still there. People will remember Ed Milliband was part of the treasury team which got us into trouble in the first place.
    Purge the old guard ruthlesslessly and labour may have a chance. But too many are tainted.

    And watch UKIP. They may take Labour core votes as easily as they take Tory ones.

  6. MellorSJ says:

    You’re right, of course.

    But shut up, for god’s sake. Last thing we need is Labour to wake up …

  7. Ringstone says:

    No one takes Toynbee seriously, she’s Labour’s mad auntie.

  8. e says:

    It’s depressing that you miss jobs, low wages, and the environment off your list; and that you talk of a sceptical electorate, why not a growing number of votes situated the length and breadth of the land among an army that insists it makes no difference who you vote for.

    A “credible offer” would that be for all of us?

  9. sackcloth and ashes says:

    The safest course of action for the Labour Party is to ignore any utterance that emerges from Toynbee’s mouth.

    And, for that matter, it’s to ignore the ‘Guardian’ full-stop. The paper’s endorsement is the kiss of death.

  10. Jamie says:

    I agree with the thrust of the article; Labour cannot simply sit back and hope the coalition carries on screwing everything up, and keep our fingers crossed that’s enough to win an election. It isn’t. I’d challenge the assertion that the so-called Toynbee tendency is a ‘widely-held belief’ in the party – I think most Labour members realise there’s still a lot to be done. There were many audible groans at the conference on Saturday when Polly made her claim, most people seemed to think it was pretty unhelpful. So actually, I think maybe there are many more sensible and realistic people in the Labour party than this article gives them credit for.

  11. john problem says:

    Ed should go for the jugular and ram home the fact that the deficit has increased by 50% since this lot took over. He needs to attack on all fronts – immigration, gang crime, banks, potholes even! And put the blame well and truly on the government. He needs to be Ed the impaler and not Ed the Reasoner!
    For all our sakes

  12. Jules says:

    The Guardian told us all to vote Lib-Dem last time. How’s that working out for you, Polly?

  13. botzarelli says:

    “This is precisely the election campaign the Conservatives will fight, centred on the deficit, immigration, Europe, welfare and Miliband’s readiness for power”

    The problem is that it is far from clear that Miliband has much to say that is more realistic and palatable than what the Conservatives have to say on any of these issues, apart from a little work on making Miliband himself look more substantial.

    I don’t think complacency is the real problem but rather a rational conclusion that the best and only conceivable strategy is to let the Tories do the work in losing the election. That’ll provide a clean slate for government or for opposition.

    People don’t care about the deficit beyond understanding that cutting it at some rate and at some point is necessary. Even if Balls was right about “too far and too fast” by 2015 it will definitely not be time to increase the deficit. The catastrophic miscalculation of 2004 and generally pro-immigrant empathy of Labour makes it hard for Labour to be plausibly tougher on this issue even in rhetorical terms than the Tories and neither can go near the line that would be most popular with the public while remaining pro-EU. The line that would win Labour a landslide on Europe is one that it doesn’t seem to want to touch (exit makes more sense for a party of active domestic intervention and redistribution but I suppose it is a long time Labour came near to that). And as for welfare, it is hard to say anything new when fundamentally they agree with IDS.

  14. paul barker says:

    You are right that complacency is Labours biggest problem but there are 2 more not far behind, the control of the major Unions by a loose alliance of communist sects & your dodgy finances.

  15. Elliot Kane says:

    Good article, David.

    The problem right now is that Labour (Like the Tories) are blatantly and obviously unfit to run a whelk stall, never mind a country. By opposing all cuts without offering any alternatives of their own, Labour look like they have learned nothing from the sheer financial incompetence of their last government. By talking about ‘too far, too fast’ when the cuts are LESS than would have been the case under Darling’s plan, they look foolish.

    Balls helped create the whole financial mess in the first place, and has to go. Darling, who was looking quite sensible, should probably replace him as Shadow Chancellor.

    Balls is a formidable politician, but no more suited to be Chancellor than the useless Osborne.

    For Labour not to fall foul of ‘they are as useless as each other, so why bother changing’ they are going to have to do what Tony Blair did in his first victory – convince the British people that Labour have learned, and can be trusted with the economy.

    Blair always set out his goals and looked like he was far more ready to lead than whoever happened to be Tory leader at the time. He always seemed to know what he wanted to accomplish.

    The main problems now facing Britain are how to eliminate debt and deficit both. Labour needs to come up with a real and credible method of doing that, including a full program of cuts to government spending, reduction in red tape and unnecessary regulation and, preferably tax cuts to help get Britain moving again.

    If Labour produce that – look like they are actually living in the real world – I think they could gain a landslide victory. Without it, they are at least as useless as the Tories, and a fight between two completely hopeless, inept parties is a dice roll that could land us anywhere.

  16. Ex-Labour says:

    ” The process of reconciliation means recognising why millions turned away from us, including concerns about the nation’s deficit, and on immigration, welfare, Europe and housing too the party retains too little support from a sceptical electorate ”

    I am one of those voters. Labour have done nothing to reassure me that they recognise the issues and have repented on their tax and spend philosophy. I’ve said this before on here, when the election draws closer and Labour have to put forward policies and how they are going to fund them the WORKING population will realise they are the cash cow from which Labour will plunder their riches. As for Toynbee, Owen Jones etc, they are vote winners for the Conservatives.

  17. john reid says:

    Swatantra and Gareth some it up as usual,

  18. Amber Star says:

    Cautious optimism is not the same as complacency. Labour List show less than 50% of Labour’s own members are confident that Labour will win in 2015. We know there’s a hard fight ahead of us!

    And we know that it will be a local, good candidate + boots on the ground, fight. Political strategists are so not keen on those. They prefer reading broadsheet articles & hanging around Westminster playing with their IPads & making PowerPoint slides about marginal advertising budgets.

  19. Terry Casey says:

    The Conservative and Lib Dem MPs on every interview continue to force the message that Labour is to blame for leaving the country in a mess, usually accompanied by the Labour representative sitting squirming in their seats which gives the impression they agree.
    I feel Labour should start talking up the good points of the last Government and repudiating the attacks on their fiscal competence, The more attacks by the coalition on this point without reply only cements the idea that it is true.
    The next election more than ever will be about who can be trusted with the economy, the Labour Party is allowing the initiative to be taken away by default, people believe any point that is continually aired especially if it is not challenged, please sort it out now before it is too late.

  20. MellorSJ says:

    “and repudiating the attacks on their fiscal competence”

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

  21. Raymond Dance says:

    Why would Labour want to win the next election? It’s a poisoned chalice if ever there was one, likely to be followed in short order by a run on sterling and a general strike. ‘Give this one a miss’ would be my advice.

  22. Simon says:

    What fiscal competence ? The last Labour Government left the worse mess in the public finances ever seen. It will take a generation at the very least to sort the mess out, if it can be sorted out, which is doubtful. If this present Government are guilty of anything it is not cutting more and a lot earlier. You cannot spend, spend, spend when you just don’t have the income to pay for it. Any moron knows that, save of course Ed Balls and the massed ranks of the Labour Party.

  23. John P Reid says:

    raymond the idea of a general strike would be the majoirty of the workers oppose the gov’t but by your assumpiton if the tories get re-elected, then the public will have supported their cuts

  24. Paul J says:

    A decent enough article. The last thing labour needs to do is allow complacency and lack of focus to derail their campaigning. And Polly isn’t a person who we should pay too much attention to.

    On another note, why on earth do you encourage f*ckwit tory trolls here?
    Grow some balls and get rid, it’ll improve the site no end.

  25. john donkin says:

    Toynbee represents everything that is wrong with Labour. A rich, entitled, patronising toff with zero understanding of the lives of ordinary people.

    The Labour party used to be the voice of ordinary working people – tragically it’s become a platform for affluent, North London-dwelling, professional politicians. All of the clueless.

    And Toynbee is one of them.

  26. Terry Casey says:

    The Banking crisis in this country hit us in October 2008, up to that point we had a net borrowing of 38.1% against GDP the fact the Government saved our banks which means they saved your savings and pension needs to be congratulated. yes the government borrowed but not acting would have seen the collapse in the economy even worse than what actually happened. today the Tories shout about the Labour Government allowing banks to take advantage of deregulation but stay stum about the fact Osborne called for even more banking deregulation.
    Even after all the big talk about saving our economy which was a joke if ever there was one, a need for the Ha Ha Ha nonsense you have used would be more relevant to the imbecile Osborne who has increased borrowing to 68.5% to GDP even after his guarantee not to.
    As I said borrowing needs to be put into perspective and argue the necessity for it, until the crisis we had done well and built hospitals and schools that had been left to rot under twenty years of Tory rule

  27. John says:

    Everything looks good from Tuscany, or the bottom of a glass of Prosecco

  28. Steven says:

    What chance of Labour winning in 2015 when they have disposed of their membership across much of the country – just think of the selection of Sarah ’13 votes’ Parachute in Rotherham. Without an army of Labour supporters prepared to do battle on the doorstep in opposition to the influence of a Tory-heavy media there is little chance of getting the message across.

    Best thing for ambitious young chaps like yourself David, is to start courting Murdoch.

  29. MellorSJ says:

    “Tory-heavy media”??? Have you listened to the BBC lately?

  30. David Talbot says:


    I agree in regards to Labour’s decimated membership base, and indeed the particular case of Sarah Champion in Rotherham, but your increasingly snide remarks on my articles’ are becoming tiresome.

  31. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Paul J

    Is that opposed to the f*ckwit looney lefties on here ?

    I comment on here to say what I feel as a Labour voter of 30 years now totally f*cked off with the looney left who live in some virtual socialist uptopia and expect everyone else to pay for it. Those who opine in the media – cue Toynbee, Jones etc are a godsend to the Conservatives who can rightly say “look what a bunch of tw*ts Labour are”.

    Now how about you growing those balls you talk about ?

  32. Renie Anjeh says:

    I disagree with what you have said about the list. It won’t limit the amount of gains in fact there are seats we could take, which are not included on the list. The idea is that the party targets its resources, including using organising to those communities. The thing is that in 2005, Howard could not win anyway. In 2015, Miliband can win.
    As for Toynbee, she does make a fair point. No PM has ever increased his share of the vote since 1974 not even Blair or Thathcer. Cameron cannot win an overall majority, it is just impossible. But that is not to say that Labour will definately win a majority or get in government – we have work to do.

  33. Steven says:

    MellorSJ: ““Tory-heavy media”??? Have you listened to the BBC lately?”

    Yes – and it seems to have been transformed into an unending Nigel Farage show.

  34. john p Reid says:

    well said ex labour

  35. Steven says:

    David: “increasingly snide” & “tiresome”

    Sorry mate, no need to take it personally. Though I admit, the political often harbours a personal dimension – hence your own antagonism towards Ken Livingstone.

  36. David Talbot says:


    That was purely political though.

    And I did, just about, signal my intent to vote for Livingstone on that great bastion of support, Labour Uncut:

    I also reference Polly Toynbee in that article, funnily enough.

  37. Liberal Neil says:

    john problem “Ed should go for the jugular and ram home the fact that the deficit has increased by 50% since this lot took over.”

    That would be a great idea if it was true.

    In fact the deficit has already been reduced from £156bn in 2009/10 to £122bn in 2011/12, a 22% reduction.

  38. neil mcilveen says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the content of David’s article. The lacklustre approach to the fast appraching next General Election by all in the LP needs to change quickly. We seem to be content to defend what we have and not to go for realistically winnable seats. The lack of local funds available to fight the ‘should win’ Council seats doesn’t help!

  39. Paul Scott says:

    Just another political article all about TACTICS.
    What about principles, beliefs, and policies? They are what matter, yet are almost completely lacking from modern politics.

    The electorate don’t want another Labour Govt, because all Labour Govts have ever done, throughout British history, is tax, borrow & spend, irrsponsibly. They did it again (not in the first Blair term, but by 2001 they were in full throw money at everything mode, and look where it got us).

    I’ll vote for ANY party that comes up with some decent, principled, workable ideas & policies. I’m not seeing that from any of the 3 main parties, just a lot of rhetoric & obsession with tactics.

    As Alastair Campbell corrected stated on This Week, Cameron is obsessed with tactics, and doesn’t have a strategy at all. Same is very much true of New/Old/One Nation (!!!) Labour! No principles, no policies (other than more spending & borrowing), just a thirst to get back into “power”. We need to sling them all out, and start again in British politics.

  40. Steven says:

    David Talbot: “That was purely political though.” [re your opposition to Livingstone]

    Your tweet: “Proof the Honours system is broken; Ken Livingstone was offered a CBE” suggests something else.

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