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.