Emily Thornberry's resignation shows a rattled Labour leadership. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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It's ironic that Thornberry's now the symbol of out-of-touch Labour – and it's Labour's fault

Emily Thornberry's resignation cements divisions in the Labour party already highlighted by this by-election battle.

The shadow attorney general, who resigned tonight having tweeted a picture of a house in Strood adorned with three St George’s flags, has become over the course of an evening a symbol of out-of-touch Labour.

Emily Thornberry is a London MP, and not just any old London – Islington. An area of north London often lampooned by journalists and politicians, including Labour MPs, for being home to an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite. All it took was this fact, and that she tweeted a picture of a white van parked outside a house bearing some England flags, for Labour to become the centre of a by-election story in which the Tories should be the real losers.

However, although pictures of her smart house in the constituency are now flying around the internet, she is not a symbol of out-of-touch Labour. She was raised by her mother on a council estate outside Guildford beyond the outskirts of London. She became a human rights lawyer, and since entering parliament in 2005 has mainly worked – conscientiously by many accounts – on justice matters, being made shadow attorney general in 2011.

It is an irony that this MP is being lambasted as a classic out-of-touch Labourite, for an act she could no way have known would be blown up like this. It is a symptom of problems at the heart of her party.

There are a number of factors working against Thornberry. First, her tweet was inadvisable, though as many have pointed out, it could have been interpreted in any number of ways. Second was her confused defence, which swerved from saying people were being “prejudiced” towards Islington, to claiming she thought it was the number of flags that was remarkable, not what the flags represented. She eventually apologised on Twitter for any offence she’d caused.

But third, and the worst, was the reaction of the Labour leadership, which blew up this minor Twitter scuffle being boisterously explored by journalists awaiting the by-election result into a resignation.

Briefings were hastily poured out that Ed Miliband was furious and had told her so, and then the resignation came – another sign of how rattled the leadership is about the heart of its party. As I wrote earlier, there are widening gulfs between the national party and its activists, and those with “Blue Labour” versus post-New Labour credentials. These divisions have been highlighted by this by-election battle, and Thornberry’s resignation sets them in cement.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.