She is a social democrat and was a candidate for the Social Democratic Party in the 1983 general election. She now broadly supports the Labour Party.
Polly Toynbee was born at Yafford on the Isle of Wight, the second daughter of the literary critic Philip Toynbee (by his first wife Anne), granddaughter of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and great-great niece of philanthropist and economic historian Arnold Toynbee, after whom Toynbee Hall in the East End of London is named. Her parents divorced when Toynbee was aged four and she moved to London with her mother.
After attending Badminton School, a girls' independent school in Bristol, followed by the Holland Park School, a state comprehensive school in London (she had failed the 11-plus examination) she passed one A-level. She won a scholarship to read history at St Anne's College, Oxford, but dropped out of university after eighteen months. During her gap year, in 1966, she worked for Amnesty International in Rhodesia (which had just unilaterally declared independence) until she was expelled by the government. She published her first novel, Leftovers, in 1966. Following her expulsion from Rhodesia, Toynbee revealed the existence of the "Harry" letters, which detailed the alleged funding of Amnesty International by the British government.
After 18 months at Oxford, she dropped out, finding work in a factory and a burger bar and hoping to write in her spare time. She later said "I had a loopy idea that I could work with my hands during the day and in the evening come home and write novels and poetry, and be Tolstoy... But I very quickly discovered why people who work in factories don't usually have the energy to write when they get home." She went into journalism, working on the diary at The Observer, and turned her eight months of experience in manual work (along with "undercover" stints as a nurse and an Army recruit) into the book A Working Life (1970).
The Toynbees have been prominent in British intellectual society for several generations (note that this diagram is not a comprehensive Toynbee family tree):
Toynbee worked for many years at The Guardian before joining the BBC where she was social affairs editor (1988–1995). At The Independent, which she joined after leaving the BBC, she was a columnist and associate editor, working with then editor Andrew Marr. She later rejoined The Guardian. She has also written for The Observer and the Radio Times; at one time she edited the Washington Monthly USA.
Following in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (2001), she published in 2003 Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain about an experimental period voluntarily living on the minimum wage, which was £4.10 per hour at the time. She worked as a hospital porter in a National Health Service hospital, a dinnerlady in a primary school, a nursery assistant, a call-centre employee, a cake factory worker and a care home assistant, during which time she contracted salmonella. The book is critical of conditions in low pay jobs in Britain. She also contributed an introduction to the UK edition of Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Currently Toynbee serves as President of the Social Policy Association. She is chair of the Brighton Festival and deputy treasurer of the Fabian Society.
Toynbee and her first husband Peter Jenkins (from 1970) were supporters of the Social Democratic Party breakaway from Labour in 1981, both signing the Limehouse Declaration. Toynbee stood for the party at the 1983 General Election in Lewisham East, garnering 9351 votes (22%), and finishing third. She was one of the very few SDP members who believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament, founding an unsuccessful group "Unilateralists for Social Democracy". She later refused to support the subsequent merger of the SDP with the Liberals (to form the Liberal Democrats), reacting instead by rejoining Labour when the rump SDP collapsed.
In 1995, Toynbee criticised Paul Condon's comments that 80% of mugging cases were committed by black people, stating that it was "an over-simplification that is seriously misleading". She approvingly quoted Michael Keith, who said: "If you were to standardise for everything else - education, unemployment, housing estates, life chances - race on its own would have virtually no significance."
In a 2002 debate hosted by the Royal Society of Arts and Prospect, Toynbee argued that the West should pursue liberal internationalism by intervening through the United Nations to promote democracy around the world: "Spreading people's right to self-determination, and their right to think and vote for themselves, is a moral obligation...We should be intervening now in the Congo and Sudan".
Toynbee strongly supports state education, though she had two of her three children partly educated in the private sector, leading to accusations of hypocrisy. Although consistently critical of many of Tony Blair's New Labour reforms, she wrote in 2005 that his government "remains the best government of my political lifetime". During the 2005 General Election, with dissatisfaction high among traditional Labour voters, Toynbee wrote several times about the dangers of protest voting, "Giving Blair a bloody nose". She urged Guardian readers to vote with a clothes peg over their nose if they had to, to make sure Michael Howard would not win from a split vote. "Voters think they can take a free hit at Blair while assuming Labour will win anyway. But Labour won't win if people won't vote for it".
In December 2006, Greg Clark (a former SDP member, later to be a Conservative Minister) claimed Toynbee should be an influence on the modern Conservative Party, causing a press furore. Reacting to this, Conservative leader David Cameron said he was impressed by one metaphor in her writings – of society being a caravan crossing a desert, where the people at the back can fall so far behind they are no longer part of the tribe. He added, "I will not be introducing Polly Toynbee's policies". Toynbee expressed some discomfort with this embrace, adding, "I don't suppose the icebergs had much choice about being hugged by Cameron either." In response to the episode, Boris Johnson, at the time a Conservative MP and journalist who had been severely criticised by Toynbee, rejected any association with Toynbee's views, writing that she "incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and 'elf 'n' safety fascism".
Having advocated Brown to succeed Blair as Prime Minister, she continued to endorse him in the early part of his premiership. By spring 2009 she had become sharply critical of Brown, arguing that he had failed to introduce the social-democratic policies he promised, and was very poor at presentation too. She subsequently called for his departure, voluntary or otherwise. In the European Elections of June 2009 she advocated a vote for the Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 general election she advocated a tactical vote for whichever candidate was best able to keep the Conservatives out of power.
In October 2010 Toynbee was criticised for an article in The Guardian in which she said the government's benefits changes would drive many poor people out of London and could be seen as a "final solution" for their situation. Some people interpreted this as a reference to the Nazis, which Toynbee said was not her intention. A Press Complaints Commission report in the matter ruled the comments were "insensitive", but did not breach any rules as the organisation's remit does not cover matters of taste and offence. She later apologised for using the term.
Toynbee has been described as "the queen of leftist journalists", and in 2008 topped a poll of 100 "opinion makers", carried out by Editorial Intelligence. She was also named the most influential columnist in the UK. With her current partner, former Social Affairs editor of The Guardian David Walker (Peter Jenkins died in 1992), Toynbee co-authored two books reviewing the successes and failures of New Labour in power. In Unjust Rewards (2008) they argued that "excess at the top hurts others".
Toynbee backed remaining in the European Union in the referendum on 23 June 2016, and having been on the losing side, has since backed a deal for the UK that would not be considered as a "hard Brexit".
Polly Toynbee hopes Theresa May will work to reduce Poverty in the UK, and that Working Tax Credit will be increased to reduce child poverty.
Toynbee does not believe the public sector needs steadily less money every year. Toynbee points out the government has plenty of money to finance tax cuts for better off people. Toynbee wrote in march 2017, "They plan to cut the size of the state permanently to 36% of GDP, from 45% in 2010. New faces in No 10 and 11 Downing Street are only casting changes for the same old script, ideologically identical." In late June 2017, after the 2017 general election Toynbee wrote, "There are a million fewer public servants than in 2010, a loss keenly felt in every field. (...) From depleted Whitehall’s frantic scramble to hire thousands more experts to cope with Brexit, to the critical shortage of nurses and carers, cuts in environmental health officers and 90% fewer health and safety at work inspections, voters now see a threadbare public sector.
A week after the 2017 General Election Toynbee responded to the Grenfell Tower fire, she wrote, "Political blame spreads right through the Conservative party, with no escape on offer. This goes far beyond the precise shockers – the Tory MPs who mockingly rejected housing regulation; the cuts to funding to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; the disregard of coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and even the plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council allegedly blocking its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxiety is just the immediate scandal. But this event reaches far deeper, to the very sinews of its party’s policy."
Toynbee believes the National Health Service is badly underfunded. In January 2017 she wrote, "When the Royal College of Surgeons protests at cancer operations cancelled, is that a tipping point? When nearly half of all hospitals declare major alerts for lack of beds, that’s an emergency. There’s no winter flu, no Arctic weather, just pressure from underfunding, like an aneurysm about to burst. But the prime minister is not for turning, not yet." Toynbee also wrote, "But May can’t defy the NHS laws of gravity that force every prime minister to U-turn on underfunding. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair all buckled. This crisis looks set to outdo all those, says Chris Ham, NHS historian and head of the King’s Fund. History shows – and this was proved in the Blair years – that when the NHS reaches roughly EU funding levels, its results soar. When funding falls too far, trolleys pile up in corridors."
An atheist, Toynbee is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a distinguished supporter of the Humanist Society Scotland, and was appointed President of the British Humanist Association in July 2007. Since 2012 she has been the BHA's Vice President. She claimed that she is simply a consistent atheist, and is just as critical of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. She wrote: "The pens sharpen – Islamophobia! No such thing. Primitive Middle Eastern religions (and most others) are much the same – Islam, Christianity and Judaism all define themselves through disgust for women's bodies." In 1997 she declared "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it". In 2005 she opposed the Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred: "Race is something people cannot choose and it defines nothing about them. But beliefs are what people choose to identify with...The two cannot be blurred into one – which is why the word Islamophobia is a nonsense".
In 2003 upon the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's papacy, she wrote that he "is a hate-figure and with good reason...No one can compute how many people have died of Aids as a result of Wojtyla's power, how many woman have died in childbirth needlessly, how many children starved in families too large and poor to feed them. But it is reasonable to suppose these silent, unseen, uncounted deaths at his hand would match that of any self-respecting tyrant or dictator".
Toynbee had agreed to debate with philosopher William Lane Craig during his UK October visit, but subsequently pulled out, saying "I hadn't realised the nature of Mr Lane Craig's debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum."
Toynbee has mixed feelings about the Church of England; she opposed both religious and secular dogmatic beliefs. In April 2014 she wrote:
Toynbee was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Essex in 1999 and by London South Bank University in 2002. In 2005, she was made an Honorary Doctor of The Open University for "her notable contribution to the educational and cultural well-being of society". The University of Kent awarded Toynbee the honorary title of Doctor of Civil Law in November 2007 in recognition of her concern with poverty and welfare. This was followed in 2008 when University of Leeds awarded her fourth Honorary Doctorate.
She won the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1998 (for journalism published by The Independent), and in 2007 was named 'Columnist of the Year' at the British Press Awards.
Toynbee married The Guardian's political columnist Peter Jenkins in 1970 having met him at trade union conference; they had three children. Jenkins died from a lung disease in 1992. She subsequently married David Walker, another Guardian columnist. She lives in Lewes, East Sussex. Toynbee is a member of the Arts Emergency Service.