The valorisation of a twisted kind of compulsory patriotism has driven out sense. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tweeting a picture of a house is not an act of class warfare, whatever the Sun says

The way that Emily Thornberry has been treated, both before and after her departure from the shadow cabinet, shows that our political class is beyond repair.

This is me giving notice: the UK is a fucked state. Our political class is beyond repair, and the lazy slide into populist right-wing bigotry signalled by Ukip’s victory in the the Rochester and Strood by-election is probably irreversible. Not because Ukip are in any sense great, because Ukip are just the evil ventriloquist’s dummy from Richard Attenborough film Magic with a posse, but because everyone else in politics is terrible. Labour are terrible. The Conservatives are terrible. The Lib Dems would be terrible, but they’ve shrivelled to a vestigial appendage of the Tories and will soon wither and drop off. And most terrible of all is our political media, which has spent most of the last 24 hours hounding a Labour MP for tweeting a picture of St-George’s-cross festooned house with a white van in the driveway in the constituency of Rochester & Strood.

That’s all Emily Thornberry did. Just shared a picture, with the fairly redundant comment “Image from #Rochester”, presumably to aid those who thought an actual miniature terraced house had appeared on their screens rather than an image of one. Now, who knows what Emily Thornberry was thinking as her thumb swiped the tweet button. Maybe, deep in her secret soul, every pixel really was imbued with the subtext “Oh my word how common” – although since Thornberry was raised on a council estate, she seems an unlikely vector for snobbery. Maybe it’s a coded missive of anti-patriotism, and if you say all the words in the tweet backwards, you’ll discover the subliminal message “I hate the Queen, shit on the flag”.

It’s unlikely, sure, but is it really as unlikely as the following scenario? Thornberry spotted a house decked out as jingoism mansion in a constituency on the verge of electing a nationalist candidate, and thought, “Hey that tells us something about the political atmosphere, I’ll show it to my followers.” Oh no, that’s actually quite plausible. Never mind, though, because the cavalcade of bellendery that is the UK political news cycle was already in progress. First: the outrage! Oh the outrage. The mortified lobby journalists, grieving this assault on our national dignity. “It’s hard to think of much more toxic [than] mocking patriotism,” said Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun, who apparently hasn’t heard anything about those Westminster child abuse allegations knocking around.

Then: the desperately scrambled response from Labour! Which, Miliband’s Labour being Miliband’s Labour, has managed to be abject, craven and totally unsuccessful. Thornberry had to apologise, and then she had to resign her shadow cabinet position, because democracy is simply incompatible with tweeting a picture of a house. And Ed Miliband had to renew his man-of-the-people credentials, which he did by saying Thornberry had made him “angrier than he had ever been”. Yes, banking crises he can tolerate. Massive desecration of the public sector merely irks him. But snap a Rochester residential property, and by God you’ll see his mean side.

Sky News asked Miliband “how he feels” when he sees a white van, because really, what is politics about if not our feely-feely-feelings? “What goes through my mind is respect,” said Miliband, probably closing his eyes and clenching his fist with emotion. (My dad drives a white van for work. Do you know what goes through my mind when I see it? “Bloody hell, I wonder how many Dairy Milk wrappers he’s got in the footwell this time.”) But still the maw of news would not be satisfied, and the Sun drove Dan Ware, the occupier of the house – now rechristened White Van Dan  and with Dan’s white van, newly decorated in Sun decals, to stand outside Thornberry’s house and demand even more of an apology for tweeting a picture of a house.

In the run-up to the Rochester by-election, Ian Dunt pointed out that the story here was one of a left that had lost its voice. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, we truly could have seen the “social democratic moment” that Miliband’s been so keen on invoking. People wanted redistribution – polling still shows that the public believes austerity has been unfairly implemented – and all that was needed a few years ago was for someone to show the electorate what fairness could look like in practice. But Labour failed, and in the breach of their incompetence, we got scapegoating and insularity. We got Ukip. Now look where we are: bigotry on the march and press-enforced compulsory patriotism. I don’t even want to think about where we’re going.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.