Perhaps the most telling aspect of Emily Thornberry’s political demise is the defence she offered for her Twitter picture of Dan Ware’s flag-draped house and his white van. She had never seen such a sight before, and thought it “absolutely amazing”, she said. Such proclaimed ignorance is more culpable than the sneering contempt many have imputed to Emily Thornberry.
An MP says, with a straight face, that she finds the habits of the English working class alien to the point of fascination. The Thornberry saga is, initially, a problem for her party. Labour is struggling to hold on to voters who drive vans, like football, drink beer and display the cross of St George without embarrassment or irony. But it also says a lot about our politics as a whole, and the exclusion of the working class. In 1997, John Prescott suggested that “we are all middle class now”, but despite an economic shift from manual to intellectual labour, quite a lot of the population can still be described as working class: around 40 per cent.
About a third of those are what marketing men call C2s, skilled manual workers. They are plumbers, electricians, plasterers and roofers. They drive vans. C2s were a cornerstone of Margaret Thatcher’s victories in 1983 and 1987. She appealed to their senses of patriotism and aspiration. She wasn’t one of them, but she was on their side. She got them. Tony Blair won them over to Labour in 1997.
He understood another issue that concerned them: crime and anti-social behaviour. The Asbo is the product of the relationship between White Van Man and the last Labour leader to win a general election. He wasn’t one of them either, but he got them too. Some time during the past decade, Labour lost White Van Man. But the Conservatives didn’t win him back.
According to a recent Lord Ashcroft poll, only 10 per cent of C2s vote Tory, and 23 per cent Labour. Ipsos Mori puts the figures at 29 per cent Tory, 24 per cent Labour. At best, the big two parties command the confidence of barely half the working class. So what else does White Van Man do with his vote?
At least 20 per cent vote for the UK Independence Party - once caricatured as disaffected golf club Tories from the Home Counties but now gaining ground among the working class. Others simply won’t vote - about 10 per cent of C2 voters according to polls, twice the refusal rate of middle-class respondents. How did it come to this?
Opening Britain’s borders in 2004 to new European Union members meant change to the lives of British scaffolders, roofers and plumbers. It meant greater pressure on public services. It meant the arrival of large numbers of people who spoke little English. And most of all, it meant competition for work from equally-qualified but significantly cheaper eastern Europeans. As the economy grew, the effect of immigration was muted. But after the 2007 financial crisis, the C2s started to feel the pinch. Politicians did not, as some people sometimes suggest, ignore concerns about immigration. Michael Howard led the Conservatives into the 2005 general election telling voters: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Former prime minister Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers”. Then Prime Minister David Cameron picked up the theme, pledging in 2010 to cut net immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Yet immigration kept rising, not least because of the arrival of EU nationals whose home economies were struggling. Ukip’s analysis of Britain — a country exposed to uncontrolled immigration by an untrustworthy political elite that keeps us in the EU — started to resonate.
England (and Scotland)
It’s not all about immigration, however. The flags on Mr Ware’s house were of England, not the UK, and England feels it’s had a raw deal from politicians in recent years. Scotland and Wales both enjoy devolved power and higher public spending. In 2012-13, spending was £8,529 (Dh49,097) per head in England. In Scotland, it was £10,152, and in Wales, £9,709. Simmering resentment over the disparity threatened to boil over after Scotland’s independence referendum. To keep the UK together, the main parties promised Scotland more power and public money. Ukip seized on that “cosy deal” to pitch itself to C2 voters who consider themselves English first and British second. Such people, incidentally, are overwhelmingly white. A Policy Exchange report this year found that 64 per cent of white people described themselves as “English”. Only 12 per cent of Indian Britons and 26 per cent of black people of Caribbean descent say the same, generally preferring to call themselves “British”.
The economy may have pulled out of recession and be ticking over nicely, but White Van Man isn’t feeling very positive. His wages have fallen in real terms for at least five years and he sees little prospect of improvement. Ipsos Mori shows that although 31 per cent of middle-class voters expect their personal financial situation to improve over the next year, only 21 per cent of C2s are so optimistic. And 80 per cent of C2s said that growth has had little or no impact on their living standards. That’s something for Conservatives talking up Britain’s growth figures to ponder.
Above all, the Thornberry incident is a sign of how politicians and the working class are now two very different groups, divided by background and outlook. According to the House of Commons Library, 98 MPs elected in 1979, 16 per cent of the House, were former manual workers. By 2010, the number was 25, or 4 per cent. All three main parties are led by Oxbridge graduates whose working lives have been spent in and around politics. Meanwhile, 54 per cent of Conservative MPs and 40 per cent of Liberal Democrats attended fee-paying schools, compared with 7 per cent of the population. Bluntly, today’s politicians are not the sort of people who drive vans or fly the English flag. It’s no accident that Nigel Farage is so often photographed in a pub. How seriously is the political system taking working class voters and their worries? There can be few more eloquent illustrations than in Rochester. Emily Thornberry took a picture of a man’s house. Mark Reckless suggested that Europeans might be expelled from the UK. Thornberry lost her job. Reckless won re-election.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2014