Last week Mark Reckless, who had stood down as a Tory MP in the Rochester and Strood constituency in Kent and re-stood for UKIP, won the by-election with 42.1% of the vote on a 50.6% turnout. Remarkable in this election was the poor showing for the Liberal Democrats, who scored only 349 votes (0.9%, down 15.5% from 2010) and lost their deposit. During the campaign, the Labour MP Emily Thornberry, who had been Shadow Attorney General, tweeted a picture of a house festooned with St George’s Cross flags with a white Ford Transit van parked outside, simply captioned “Image from #Rochester”, which allegedly made Labour leader Ed Miliband “incandescent” because it gave the impression that Labour were full of metropolitan snobs who looked down on “real” working-class people they expected to vote for them. The Sun and the Daily Mail both made front-page stories of the tweet, the former headlining “Only Here for the Sneer” and printing a picture of the owner of the van, now covered in Sun mastheads, along with his ‘manifesto’; the Daily Mail’s headline this morning said “Labour row deepens over snob MP”. The idea that this man’s views and behaviour actually represent working-class men (let alone women) are not being seriously questioned, at least in the mainstream media.
First, there are a couple of other blog entries which take apart the ‘working-class outrage’ this tweet supposedly generated: Claire Bolderson demonstrates that the ‘storm’ really was “a twitter storm in a tea-cup” whipped up by the media, while A Very Public Sociologist notes that ‘White Van Dan’ is in fact a car dealer, suggesting that his ‘manifesto’ reflects the insecurity of his occupation (rather than years of reading the Sun), but that most people in fact despise displays of patriotism. The Sun likes to position itself as the ‘true’ voice of the white working-class (although they don’t emphasise the white bit) while the Mail openly claims to speak for the middle-class and equates purchases with votes. The Sun equates criticism of Dan’s kind of vulgarity with snobbery, and as with right-wingers who fake a common touch in the USA, love to attack members of the “left-wing metropolitan elite” and claim that they really represent ordinary working people, despite it being known that they actually call them plebs among themselves.
Now, I actually know a woman who sometimes posts British or English flags in her window, and she’s a Muslim with mild learning difficulties and certainly not a UKIP supporter, so this picture may not actually prove that the inhabitant is a reactionary knuckle-dragger and I’m glad this by-election was not in my friend’s constituency. However, as someone who drives for a living (I passed my class 1 HGV test in September, but have been driving smaller goods vehicles since 2000), I am sick of the assumption that people in jobs that do not require a degree must be reactionary idiots who read a newspaper that feeds them a diet of gossip, soft porn and bigotry and believe everything that paper tells them. I am also sick of the assumption that we lack critical thinking and all subscribe to their politics, of blaming outsiders, Gypsies or Irish travellers, benefit claimants, single mothers or whoever their chosen hate figure may be this week, rather than people in power, the super-rich and the press that serves their interests. Let’s also not imagine that real hard-working people don’t have the time for fussy intellectual arguments or big ideas. Wrong. My job often means I don’t have the time or the energy to write much anymore, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have the time to think. I also despise the ‘snob’ jibe which is used whenever there is perceived criticism of low-brow culture or vulgarity, whether it relates to culture, politics or food. Usually it is the taunt of bullies who tell people not to get “above themselves”, but really they fear someone getting above them. However, in this case it is the tabloids protecting the debased culture they sell. Perish the thought that anyone might desire something better.
(A number of years ago, while working as a van driver for a tool hire company, I stopped at one of their outlets where I heard the desk staff, who had a tabloid on display, voice some bigoted attitudes that were straight out of that paper. I mentioned this in an email to Jon Gaunt, then the presenter of the BBC London morning show, who I think was talking about a student union which had voted to stop selling the Sun in their shop, and referred to the paper as the “Scum” and a “low-rent rag”. He read this out, then a later caller said I must be a snob who looks down on van drivers.)
A common complaint on social media of the left-wing media response is that there are too many middle-class white males commenting on the voting choices of working-class whites, and blaming them for voting UKIP. My response is that the type of white working-class people who choose to vote for a bigoted and reactionary party are not people with a cognitive deficiency, or uneducated illiterates, but adults who choose not to think critically and to vote for a party that uses them to serve the interests of the rich. A number of years ago Lynsey Hanley wrote in the Guardian that there was a tendency to celebrate the political activities of the white working class when it served left-wing goals by calling it “resistance”, but to blame everyone but them when they voted BNP, attributing it to “a cry of distress”, thus denying them agency. The rise of UKIP is nothing other than a repeat of the American trend in which working-class white voters outside major industrial areas vote for parties that go against their economic interests because they affirm their identity while claiming to be “people like them”, when they are anything but, and care nothing for their interests. UKIP plan to leave not only the EU but also the European Economic Area, which would leave Britain economically isolated, unable to sell goods competitively to our nearest neighbours, thus destroying jobs, and turn the areas around seaports (of which there are four in Kent) into giant car and truck parks. Farage is known to personally support moving to an American-style insurance-based healthcare ‘system’, despite that system leaving millions of Americans without access to care. UKIP plan to scrap the Human Rights Act, the nearest thing Britain has to the constitutional bills of rights other modern democracies have, something which would lose any aspiring politician an election in any other democratic country. (They do propose a “British bill of rights”, but say nothing about constitutional reform, so it would be statute like any other, and could be overridden by simple Parliamentary vote.)
So, it was wrong of Emily Thornberry to make assumptions about the man behind those flags (indeed, that it was a man at all), and mocking local people rather indicates that Labour did not hope to win the seat, but it’s also wrong for Labour to pander to right-wing bigotry and unthinking “common sense” politics that are dictated by the tabloids. They will never win votes from people like this without engaging with and challenging their beliefs, or ceasing to be a Labour party in any meaningful sense. Britain is part of Europe, and we cannot imagine that trade links with the USA or the Commonwealth, all of which are thousands of miles away, are any substitute for close links with our neighbours which start 26 miles from our shores. Human Rights protect everyone, not just troublemakers and foreign criminals. The welfare state is an investment in our own futures, so we do not end up in the gutter if our employer’s main customer or supplier goes bust, not merely money people who work pay to those who don’t. And so on. Labour should stop being cowardly, have faith in the people they want to vote for them, and challenge senseless tabloid politics. Not all people who drive for a living are tabloid-reading bigots, and working-class white people are capable of critical thinking.
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