What is striking about the Emily Thornberry affair is not that a Labour minister has “shown contempt for the working class”, as has been suggested, but that this should be a surprise.This contempt wasn’t a clause in the party’s constitution, but increasingly it came close to being a policy within the past fifty years - finally becoming official in the 1990s when the Labour government embraced an open-door approach to immigration, fully aware that it would be opposed by the masses. And so - it didn’t tell them. It kept the news within its ranks in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and at north London dinner parties far from the postcodes where white vans are parked and the flag of St George flies. Well, it certainly smelt like contempt.
Part of the Labour party story - beyond the fleeting triumphs and the false dawns - has been that of championing an image of the working class, while showing contempt for the working class that fails to fit this image. Way back, this was anyone who wanted to own their own home, run their own business, watch ITV, send their kids to grammar school, or live next door to people they felt they had something in common with. This changed over time, thankfully. The party realised that the multitude didn’t exist in some folksy, prelapsarian, mythical north somewhere in the 1930s.
The perennials of unemployment, housing lists and the north-south divide persisted, but essentially the outlook and the aspirations of the working class changed. What didn’t was the party’s failure to address concerns among the multitude - immigration, multiculturalism, Europe - that didn’t fit with the image in which it had cast the average bloke, whoever he was. (As a cub reporter the late Gilbert Harding charged into a pub and bellowed: “Where will I find the average man?” Only to discover that every example was the exception to the rule).
From the off, those early supporters of the Labour party, the Fabians Beatrice and Sidney Webb, showed contempt for the leisure of the working class. Those steeped in the internationalism of the hard left, and the self-loathing of the soft-centre, never understood the patriotism of the British working class - something that was an extension of the neighbourhood, as surely as this was an extension of the street, and the street an extension of the home, for those that had little else to align themselves with. Along withthis came an insularity, localism, collectivism (that was celebrated), but equally, a negative reaction to outsiders arriving en masse and changing the cultural landscape (which was condemned).
Seeing the image tweeted by Labour’s now former shadow attorney general, it’s as though this concept of the working class is being held up to ridicule. The absence of an accompanying comment appears to underline this. Thornberry’s fatal faux pas has been compared with that of Gordon Brown’s almightyslip-up, when he was heard to refer to Labour voter Gillian Duffy as a bigot for daring to raise the taboo of immigration. Chances are this might have a similar impact.
Emily Thornberry claims there was no malice aforethought in her eagerness to keep her Twitter followers updated on her day out. It was simply that she never comes across such sights on the Islington street in which she lives. But we all live in a culture where such cries of innocuousness and innocence are redundant. It’s a culture that the Labour party itself has created - a false triumph you could argue - and now it has come along and bitten one of its own on the rear. Before, and certainly beyond the era of the Macpherson Report and its thought crime of “unwitting prejudice”, we had to be seen to be offended, and often on the behalf of others; of being guilty until proven innocent; of giving interpretation precedence over intention. How ironic, that it should now be a character so much part of that culture who has been condemned and forced to apologise and resign - the very stereotype and caricature, no less: a multi-millionaire, Islington-living, Labour minister who married well, and created her riches in the nebulous but lucrative field of human rights law.The stereotypical white van man with his St George flag, must be absolutely relishing this as he prepares to give his vote to another party. Just like so many of his number in Rochester, Clacton, and Heywood and Middleton.