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 with this 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 almighty slip-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.
In pictures: Rochester by-election
In pictures: Rochester by-election
1/15 Rochester by-election
Counting gets under way for the Rochester and Strood constituency by-election held at Medway Park, Gillingham, Kent
2/15 Rochester by-election
Nigel Farage and members of the UKIP team celebrate after Mark Reckless won the Rochester and Strood by-election at Medway Park, Gillingham near Rochester, Kent
3/15 Rochester by-election
Howling Laud Hope, leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (R) awaits for the by election results in Medway, Gillingham Rochester, Kent
4/15 Rochester by-election
Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative Party's candidate in the Rochester's by-election, walks down the town's high street on polling day, in southern England
5/15 Rochester by-election
Gulpreet Baines (18) sets fire to a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) rosette, on polling day in Rochester's by-election
6/15 Rochester by-election
Naushabah Khan, Labour Candidate for the Rochester and Strood by-election is joined by shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher in Rochester on the final day of campaigning ahead of by-election
7/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP supporter Graham Harper and his dog Roquie carry a electoral poster supporting UK Independence Party (UKIP) parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless in Rochester, Kent ahead of the by-election poll
8/15 Rochester by-election
A customer poll of sweets purchased in favour of the party's contesting the Rochester and Strood by-elecction on display in the Sweet Expectations Sweet Shop in Rochester, Kent, on the final day of campaigning before the by-election later this week
9/15 Rochester by-election
David Cameron and Conservative Party candidate for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, talk to Mick Parks, Workshop Foreman at MCL Mechanical near Rochester, Kent, southern England, during a visit ahead of the by-election
10/15 Rochester by-election
People stand holding placards against the Britain First party who held a march in Rochester, southeastern England
11/15 Rochester by-election
Britain First march through Rochester
12/15 Rochester by-election
UKIP parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless campaigns in Rochester on November 4, 2014
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
13/15 Rochester by-election
Ed Miliband campaigns with Yvette Cooper (left) and Naushabah Khan before the Rochester and Strood by-election
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
14/15 Rochester by-election
The Britain First march was met by vociferous counter protest
15/15 Rochester by-election
A UKIP office in Rochester. Rochester and Strood will hold a by-election on November 20th following the defection of Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless to UKIP
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
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.
Michael Collins is the author of ‘The Likes of Us: A Biography of the Working Class’, published by GrantaReuse content