Emily Thornberry, former Shadow Attorney General, has resigned from the Shadow Cabinet after tweeting a photograph of a house festooned in St George’s flags with a white van parked outside. It was a stupid, insensitive thing to do; it’s easy to see why people could take offence at what looked like ridicule of a Rochester voter. A resigning matter? I’d have said not, and that an apology would suffice – but that’s the decision.
But the episode illustrates the febrile mood within Labour – how to deal with the UKIP threat, and to frame the debate on issues like immigration on which UKIP is perceived as strong? The official response to UKIP seems to me to be far more damaging than one ill-advised tweet.
In the days before the by-election, it became clear that Labour’s leadership has not yet learned to put down the dog-whistle. For the most part Labour is clearly saying the right thing – its emphasis on dealing with economic exploitation and enforcement of the minimum wage are the right, and progressive approach. But sometimes it still can’t help itself. Yvette Cooper, earlier this week, talked about a policy of mass fingerprinting of illegal immigrants; without ever saying how it would work, or what it would achieve, or even what problem it would address – in what sense, in other words, it’s remotely relevant. The dog whistle is never very far away, and its notes sound at frequencies that apparently obliterate common sense.
Deep down, among many in the Labour Party, there is an easy assumption that the hostility to immigration that UKIP exploits is somehow an authentic working-class reaction, to be accommodated rather than challenged. It’s a deeply patronising view – and to that extent it’s off the same page as Emily Thornberry’s tweet. And it lets UKIP, and the Tories, off the hook.
What Labour has to do is to put the dog-whistle away. It needs to talk about economic insecurity, not as the result of immigration – it just isn’t, as the evidence overwhelmingly shows – but as a result of political and economic policy choices about the state and welfare. It needs to talk about providing decent social housing and a universal welfare state (because it is the disappearance of both of these – especially for older people who grew up expecting the cradle-to-grave support that Labour created – that causes the anxiety that UKIP exploits). It needs to stop victim-blaming and understand that the people it wants to fingerprint are the victims of exploitation, and renew its determination to go after the exploitative employers and people-traffickers.
Above all, it needs to stop UKIP from framing the debate. As Tawney wrote, to kick over an idol you have to get up off your knees; time that Labour people stopped running scared and started to fight back. And, crucially, that it stopped assuming that people suffering at the sharp end of Coalition economic policy can’t be trusted to understand where the roots of insecurity actually lie.