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.