Comment: Emily Thornberry resignation is another lobotomy for our political debate

A tweet like this really shouldn't have to cost a Labour frontbencher her job
A tweet like this really shouldn't have to cost a Labour frontbencher her job

By James Hutchinson

I turned the corner. It was a quiet, unassuming neighbourhood in Stockport. And I stopped dead in my tracks: every single house in the street was draped with large England flags. I daresay there was a white van or two as well.

Just like Emily Thornberry - until yesterday Labour's shadow attorney-general - I reached for my smartphone and snapped a photo.

What was going through my mind? Was I - a sneering member of the metropolitan elite - looking down on this provincial display of national pride?


Or was I taken aback by a street united in a moment of collective symbolism? Was it just instinctive -  a surprising scene, the like of which I'd never seen before?

I remember contemplating how a Stockport suburb was somehow reclaiming the English flag: the scene wasn't remotely reminiscent of the far right or, indeed, the English football team. Progress!

My mind drifted too towards matters politic: what sort of candidate would the residents of this street vote for? Which party would they have to belong to? These were observations and questions - not judgements.

It seems highly likely that some of these thoughts also shot through Emily Thornberry's mind in the 15 seconds she will have devoted to taking her picture and posting it.

The Sun's front page – 'ONLY HERE FOR THE SNEERS' it screamed - was probably the final prompt for her to resign from the shadow Cabinet.

Should she have? Of course not - and a simple statement acknowledging her carelessness and how the picture could have been interpreted, along with an unreserved apology, would probably have saved her.

Feigned indignation that her critics were being judgemental about people from Islington, accompanied by the hollow observation that she was born on a council estate, was a naive move for a senior politician.

My problem with all of this is that it's yet another lobotomy for our political debate, fuelled by the increasingly common spasms of outrage in both traditional and social media.

Jumping on the most negative interpretation of every piece of politicians' communication will drive debate to the lowest common denominator, leaving us with a body politic made up of those too anodyne to ever say anything of merit, let alone explore something controversial.

If Emily Thornberry had captioned her photo 'look at this ghastly working class house in Rochester' then I would have opened the door and cheerfully shoved her out of it. But she didn't. And none of us - including the Sun - know what she really meant.

Maybe she was reflecting on a group of people increasingly disenfranchised from their natural political home - Labour - and much of the political system as we know it? Now that's an issue much more worthy of front page treatment.

'White van man' is a long-used symbol of the working class British man: the craftsmen, tradesman, plumbers, builders, electricians and countless other vital workers who keep our houses, offices and factories in good order.

Ukip's surge in the polls is in part due to attracting this very group, which in turn relates to an immigrant workforce prepared to do these trades for significantly less than their British counterparts are accustomed to.

What's the solution? The economic ramifications of any change to our current immigration policy are huge. But it's clear something has to change. So instead of obsessing about a single tweet, why isn't the Sun exploring this key issue on its front page?

By fixating on the hidden meanings in one picture (ironic for a newspaper that prints a deeply disturbing picture of a half-naked 20 year old every day) it is guilty of trivialising political debate and directly ensuring more politicians will be too terrified to engage with controversial issues.

If the Sun continues to seize every opportunity to cut a politician off at the knees it will reduce itself to nothing more than an organ of interference in the democratic process - something many readers may start to find increasingly tiresome.

James Hutchinson is a commentator and communications expert

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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