Sunday, 23 November 2014

Emily Thornberry and respect for voters: something they have to earn

The news in Britain is dominated by the offence that Labour MP Emily Thornberry did or didn’t cause by tweeting a picture of a house in Rochester with two flags of St George down the front and a white van parked outside.
The Tweet that caused all the stir
Most people would probably have trouble understanding how this could be offensive at all. You have to take into account that “white van man” is a bit of an emblematic figure in British – perhaps just English – society. He tends to be white and working class – vans are after all useful for carrying tools for manual labour. 

It probably won’t come as a surprise that “white van man” is not an expression generally used to endear, or to express admiration. It can be a way of displaying disdain of the working class, and the white working class in particular.

Flags of St George are not unrelated. That red cross on a white background is the flag of England, separate from the United Kingdom. You tend to see it most during those brief periods between the England football team inspiring shortlived hope in some international competition, and its crashing out of that competition.

It’s true that in between competitions, the flag has some unfortunate connotations. Firstly, it too is more heavily used in the working class than in other sectors of society. And “English” is something one can only be by birth: anyone naturalised is British, but not necessarily English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Today there are increasing numbers of black or other ethnic-minority Englishmen. But for the moment, Englishness is still predominantly white.

The photo was taken in Rochester, where Thornberry had gone to campaign for Labour in last week’s by-election. The election was triggered by the sitting Tory MP resigning to fight the seat again for UKIP, the seriously harder right wing party that believes Britain’s problems are chiefly caused by immigrants and the EU – which is in any case responsible for much of our immigration.

Thornberry’s photo might imply that she believes the occupants of the house to be from a poor background and perhaps a little attracted to racist views. UKIP denies it, but its xenophobia is hard to distinguish from racism, and a great many spokespeople from the party have voiced racist ideas (alongside homophobic, Islamophobic, or anti-feminist ones).

So was Thornerry being dismissive towards that particular family? Was she writing them off as UKIP supporters unworthy of her attention as a Labour MP?

Certainly, her party leader (and mine), Ed Miliband decided that she had been unduly dismissive and – dismissed her. She had to resign the shadow Attorney General’s post she held in his Opposition team.

Some find that unfair. Thornberry was the first MP to back Miliband’s leadership bid. Her loyalty to the leader is unquestioned.

My feeling is that Miliband’s reaction was way over the top. Thornberry shouldn’t have put that Tweet out there. But Miliband should have said just that and let the matter drop. Instead, by declaring himself furious at her behaviour, he’s made all the talk of the last few days about Labour, instead of being about the Tories’ failure to hold the seat (yes, UKIP won) and the growing threat that UKIP represents.

Time for the Labour leadership to raise its aim
Curiously, Thornberry was brought up on a Council Estate, in modest circumstances, so she actually knows the world she’s said to have disdained rather better than most Labour MPs. It’s true that now she’s a barrister and an MP, living in – indeed representing – a part of London (Islington) which Tony and Cherie Blair once graced with their presence, until they made so much money that they could move to an even more exclusive neighbourhood. She’s not much exposed to “white van man” these days. Even so, she does know him and I’m sure understands him.

More to the point, I find it objectionable that she was accused of not having behaved with sufficient respect towards a voter. Now that’s code. Labour at the moment is trying to stem the loss of working class support to UKIP by, firstly, aping some of UKIP’s policies, such as getting tough on immigration, not realising that anyone who wants that kind of behaviour will vote for the real thing, not the imitation; and secondly, by putting up a false front of respect towards UKIP voters, as though an appearance of deference might draw them back.

Thornberry is being criticised for not having shown enough respect.

But respect isn’t an automatic entitlement. It’s something you have to earn.

Now, Owen Jones recently pointed out in the Guardian that “according to research by the academic Matthew Goodwin, 81% of UKIP supporters believe ‘big business takes advantage of ordinary people’; a slim majority want the government to redistribute income; and they overwhelmingly agree ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor’.”

And they believe that a party entirely bankrolled by big business, run by a man who used to be stockbroker and is on record calling for the NHS to be privatised, will do something to address those concerns?

I can’t help feeling that these views either mask something more fundamental, a xenophobia bordering on racism that UKIP expresses for them. Otherwise, I can only assume such voters have simply made no effort to understand the internal contradictions of their beliefs.

In a free society, their point of view deserves to be tolerated, and argued against in a civilised and peaceful way. But respected? What on earth’s to respect there?


Anonymous said...

I believe the picture taken in Strood and not Rochester so her geography is questionable. Furthermore she has proved to be the worst sort of socialist, and just the sort that drives people to UKIP. She and her husband "flipped" a council house for profit and she sent her children to a selective school whilst campaigning for them to be abolished.
The question isn't really why Ed sacked her but why did had he not done it before?

David Beeson said...

Perhaps the question is why sack her just at that time – when it could only benefit UKIP and the Tories?