Manufactured outrage over Emily Thornberry – but it confirmed people’s suspicions about Labour snobbery

Emily Thornberry (Photo: PA)

Another week, another PR disaster for Labour, with shadow attorney-general Emily Thornberry forced to resign after tweeting a picture of a suburban house which had England flags and a white van outside; she simply wrote “Rochester” but the implication seemed to be “eek! The white working class”. Apparently Ed Miliband was angrier than he has ever been when he gave her a dressing down afterwards; I can’t quite imagine Mark Strong in Zero Dark Thirty, but there you go.

But it’s ironic that Thornberry, the MP for Islington South and Finsbury, one of the worst offenders for using manufactured outrage to score points, is now felled by manufactured outrage.

Here she is debating Peter Hitchens on the subject of benefits, her line being that his argument was offensive because ‘My mother was on benefits and we lived on a council estate’. That’s not a rational argument, and besides which it’s disingenuous. Her mother was a teacher and her father was assistant-secretary-general of the United Nations, and the children of highly-educated single parents have educational outcomes far closer to stable, middle-class families than to the children of uneducated single parents. Therefore, whatever the sadness of her parent’s divorce, her life outcome as a child was nothing like those of poor children with uneducated parents in broken homes.

The paradoxical thing is that the more that politics becomes a hereditary business, and the less mobile society becomes, the more that people in positions of power adopt this prolier-than-thou persona. (Says the third-generation journalist). But this current outrage is also partly manufactured because, I imagine, many Conservatives think having England flags outside your front door is pretty ghastly, too; it is, after all, an unmistakable class marker.

Nonetheless her clearly sneering tweet about someone a lot less well off than her confirmed everyone’s suspicion about New Labour’s attitude towards that 2000s neologism, the white working class; this is, after all, the reason for the purple revolution now sweeping England.

It brings to mind a very good book, The Likes of Us by Michael Collins. In it Collins wrote: “Historically, the Right harboured desires to keep the white working class below stairs… Now, middle-class progressives who had traditionally come out fighting these underdogs’ corner, or reporting their condition as missionaries or journalists, were keen to silence them, or bury them without an obituary.” And “to their pallbearers in the press they were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial. They survived on the distant memory of winning one world cup and two world wars, and were still tuning in to the ailing soap that is the House of Windsor. All they represent and hold dear was reportedly redundant in modern, multicultural Britain.”

Recalling a Guardian description of Eltham, south-east London Collins observed: “If you came to this passage cold, unaware of the climate and the newspaper in which it appeared, you could mistake it for the musings of a portly upper-class old-school Tory who had stumbled with a sense of foreboding on a phenomenon called ‘the teenager’.” That’s not the attitude of everyone or even most on the liberal-Left in London, but snobbery is certainly not confined to the Right.

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion