Even within the dizzying race to the bottom that British politics has become, last week’s ‘white van tweet’ marked a new low point in political dishonesty, stupidity and crass opportunism. The central role in this farce was played by Ed Miliband, whose decision to sack MP Emily Thornberry constituted a political own goal that was similtaneously spectacular and extraordinarily inept, which had all the morbid fascination of watching a striker perform an acrobatic aerial bicycle kick in his own penalty area in order to put the ball firmly in his own net.
It’s difficult to know which was worse, the incredible cowardice which led Miliband to sack an MP because she took a photograph of a white van parked outside a house draped with England flags, or his blatantly fake attempt to demonstrate his connection to ‘ordinary people’ by declaring his love for white vans and those who drive them.
Asked a shockingly moronic question (‘ What goes through your mind when you see a white van outside a house?’) Miliband responded with an even dumber answer, whose epic silliness will echo from John O’Groats to Lands End, whenever ordinary folk gather to discuss politicians who are so desperate for votes that they are prepared to say things like ‘ What goes through my mind is respect – Respect is a basic rule in politics. And her tweet conveyed a sense of disrespect.’
Oh please shoot me now. Does Miliband really expect anyone to believe that he feels ‘respect’ at the sight of a parked white van? Does he believe that ‘ordinary voters’ will respect him because he has said it? Apparently so, because one of his colleagues was allowed to leak it to the press that Ed was ‘as angry as I’ve ever seen him’ when he heard about the offending tweet.
If that is true then it says a great deal about the priorities of Miliband and his party. Just take a random look back at some of the things that have taken place in this country over the last four years – food banks, people dying after work eligibility tests, the bedroom tax, bankers rewarded with bailouts, rising inequality, the growth of zero hours contracts and poverty wages, a by-election in which a Tory defector raised the prospect of repatriating immigrants in a Ukip-governed Britain.
Only last week the brutish thug Ian Duncan Smith actually laughed out loud when Miliband raised a case in parliament regarding a woman who had installed a ‘panic room’ in her house after being raped by her ex-partner and was contesting the bedroom tax as a consequence.
Even the fact that the Minister for Work and Pensions laughed at a rape victim doesn’t seem to have bothered the brave Labour crusader nearly as much as a photograph of a white van parked outside a house, or so he and his advisors wish the public to believe, because the photograph showed ‘disrespect’ to someone who may or may not have been a Ukip voter. If respect is a ‘basic rule in politics’ then it has been conspicuously absent amongst the British political class in their treatment of the men and women who have come to this country in search of work or political asylum.
Labour is no exception. Had Miliband and his cohorts shown one iota of the anger that they have expressed towards Thornberry towards the bigotry and xenophobic anti-immigrant scaremongering that Ukip had engaged in remorselessly and cynically for the last four years, then maybe, just maybe, we might be having a very different debate about immigration than they one we are having.
Instead, for the last week leading Labourites have been making keynote speeches about immigration which essentially agree with the Ukip/tabloid representations of immigrants as parasites and benefit-scroungers, and prefer to attack ‘liberal commentators who don’t want to talk about immigration’ in a blatant and crass attempt to pander to the Ukip vote and recycle tabloid/rightwing narratives of a ‘chattering class’ that supposedly doesn’t listen to public ‘concerns’ about immigration.
This is why they reacted in such an unhinged manner to the Thornberry tweet. And they weren’t the only ones. Lord Snooty declared himself not just appalled but ‘completely appalled’ at Thornberry, for ‘sneering at people who work hard, are patriotic and love their country.’
Ukip also took umbrage at the fact that Thornberry ‘sneered, and looked down her nose at a white van in Strood with the cross of St George on it.’
It’s worth reminding ourselves that at this point neither Thornberry or any of her attackers had any idea who lived in the flag-covered house, and her intentions in posting the picture were entirely a matter of subjective semiotic interpretation, in the sense of meaning being created and added to its object, rather than meaning being an inherent quality, if you catch my drift.
It was subsequently revealed that the householder wasn’t a Ukip voter, but a 37-year-old car dealer and cage fighter named Dan Ware, who doesn’t vote, but has said ‘I will continue to fly the flags – I don’t care who it pisses off. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don’t like it. They have been up since the World Cup.’
Since then Ware has allowed himself to be used as a pawn by the Sun – that well-known defender of the working man – which is determined to squeeze every last drop of nonsense from the ‘Islington snobbery’ sponge with the shameless amorality that has always characterized Murdoch’s finest. Not only has Ware been shunted off by the Sun to fly a flag outside Thornberry’s house, but he has now published a reactionary manifesto which among other things calls for the cane to be brought back, the restoration of the death penalty, jail sentences for anyone who burns the poppy, and repatriation of immigrants who ‘weren’t invited.’
So now a reactionary cage fighter who flies the England flag to annoy ‘ethnic minorities’ has become a universal icon of the working class, at least in the eyes of the Telegraph, the Mail et al, all of whom are desperate to show how much Labour has distanced itself from the ‘concerns.’ of good British yeomen like him.
And the wretched Mark Reckless, formerly of Marlborough College and Oxford, and one-time financial services strategy consultant at Booz, Allen & Hamilton says that Ukip has inherited the ‘radical tradition’ from Labour and has now become the party of the working class!
All of this would be good knockabout farce, were it not for the utter lack of anything resembling honesty, principle or intelligence from any of its players. Because as nonsensical as it appears to be on the surface, ‘whitevanmangate’ is another depressing indication that even the Labour Party is now so mesmerised and terrified by Ukip, that it would rather sack its own MP for not showing the necessary ‘respect’ to potential Ukip voters, than confront or challenge the xenophobic assumptions and vacuous populism behind the Farage ‘insurrection’.
The result is that Miliband has been humiliated, out-manouevred and looks and sounds more like a hollow man than ever.
And that is entirely the fault of Miliband and his advisors. Because sometimes political cowardice and opportunism can work in your favour, and sometimes they end up biting you in the face.