IF THERE is any politician who ought to have sympathised with Emily Thornberry’s plight last week it is Ed Miliband. I mean, here is a man whose transformation from back-stabbing brother to national laughing stock has been co-ordinated by a hostile media which has gone out of its way to portray him as unelectable.
Admittedly, he has made it easy for them, what with forgetting to mention the economy in his conference speech and appearing to give 2p to a beggar. But much of the mockery has been beyond his control; the fuss over the bacon sandwich, the references to Wallace and Gromit, the photos of him looking sad have all been used to perpetuate the view of him as socially inadequate. You only had to watch the showdown with Myleene Klass over the mansion tax – she was widely declared the victor though she scarcely landed a blow – to understand he is trapped in a cycle of bad PR in which awkwardness fuels negative publicity fuels awkwardness.
You would think anyone who had seen themselves reflected in the distorting mirror the press holds up to public figures would have been eager to offer support when an ally looked set to suffer the same fate. Instead, when Emily Thornberry suffered a momentary lapse of judgment, he offered her up to the party’s detractors presumably in the hope of getting them off his own back. And that act of treachery revealed more about his political unworthiness than all the humiliating photo ops and cringeworthy utterances put together.
What was Thornberry’s crime, anyway? As voters went to the polls in the Rochester and Strood by-election, the shadow attorney general tweeted a picture of a house draped in three England flags, with the caption: Image from #Rochester. That’s it.
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She didn’t call anyone a bigot. There wasn’t even a sly “innocent face”-style aside. Any snideness was inferred. And the reason it was inferred was not so much because Thornberry is an Islington snob but because, for many the association between an excessive display of the St George’s Cross and aggressive English nationalism is already entrenched. As for White Van Man, he has become synonymous, not with the working classes per se, but with a type of right-leaning belligerence, a stereotype Dan Ware did little to dispel by proclaiming his ignorance of the by-election and giving his story to the Sun.
Maybe Thornberry was trading on these prejudices. Whatever, her tweet was seized upon by the Sun and Daily Mail as evidence of the Labour Party’s contempt for the ordinary people who were once at it heart. This seems a bit odd given that days earlier, the Mail was holding up the Klass/Miliband contretemps as evidence of the party’s contempt for the wealthy and its “politics of envy”. But not as odd as the idea that a newspaper so recently railing against the “politics of envy” should criticise Thornberry for owning three properties.
What her critics weren’t so keen to talk about was her campaign against child poverty and her attempts to highlight the dearth of prosecutions for corporate manslaughter.
Even if you allow for the worst interpretation of Thornberry’s tweet, she should not have been forced to resign. But we live in a world where hard work and talent count for little and politicians are at the mercy of the latest manufactured outrage. No-one, it seems, has the courage to say “enough is enough. No more lynchings”. So Miliband wasn’t merely peeved about Thornberry’s misjudgment, he was – according to a spokesman – “angrier than he had ever been”. How appalling. Thornberry’s tweet made him angrier than welfare reforms, inequalities in education or food banks. That’s the real betrayal of traditional Labour values right there.
If Thornberry wanted to put some distance between Labour and the disengaged cage fighter who told the Telegraph: “I will continue to fly my flags. I don’t care who it pisses off. I know some ethnic minorities don’t like it,” I wouldn’t blame her, although I suppose she couldn’t have known he would make comments with provocative overtones from his choice of exterior decoration. But Miliband couldn’t just apologise for the offence caused, he had to welcome Ware into the fold. Asked what he felt when he saw a white van, he said “respect” in tones more suited to an expression of grief over the death of a world leader than the endorsement of a vehicle. He couldn’t have made himself look more ridiculous if he had offered to demonstrate his solidarity by getting matching tattoos.
The whole depressing debacle is an indictment of Westminster politics; the superficiality of the discourse, the lack of discernible convictions on the part of MPs are what created the climate for a Ukip victory not her tweet. To those screaming for a scalp, she and Ware are just characters in a virtual psycho-drama. She may have lost her place in the shadow cabinet, but soon everyone will have forgotten why as another plot-line takes shape.
The irony is that by colluding in this circus Miliband has merely created more opportunities for people to laugh at him. Far from reinforcing his working-class credentials, his overtures to white van man have made him seem lonelier and more desperate than ever. That’s the way it works. If political commentators have decided you’re a loser, then sucking up only proves their point. And if you are so lacking in moral fibre you are prepared to throw one of your closest allies to the dogs, then you deserve everything you get.
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