If you want to get a sense of how Ukip’s rise is debasing political debate, you need look no further than the absurd martyrdom of “White Van Man”.
I have little time for Emily Thornberry, who has always struck me as a photo-fit New Labour type. But the frenzy with which she was sacked as shadow attorney-general and publicly and systematically rubbished by Ed Miliband and his team is astonishing.
Of course, this is partly about Miliband’s desperation as he sees 10 Downing Street recede into the distance.
But it also says a lot about how class is understood today. Miliband and his nasty new strategy chief Lucy Powell say Thornberry was sacked because her infamous tweet “Image from Rochester” was “disrespectful” to people who decorate their homes with English flags and drive white vans.
Now, I live next door to a guy who reconditions vans. He is a very nice man. He flew a rather forlorn Cross of St George over his yard during the World Cup, but he also watches Al Jazeera—which shows how misleading stereotypes are.
But the debate is being conducted both by Miliband and by the tabloids as if one’s attitude to “White Man Van” is a litmus test of one’s relationship to the British working class.
This is utter nonsense.
A worker is someone who lacks the productive resources to be economically independent and therefore is compelled to sell his or her labour power to a capitalist.
And the thing about “White Van Men” is that a lot of them aren’t workers in this sense.
Whether or not a van driver is a worker depends on whether or not they own it. According to the Daily Mail, Dan Ware, the owner of the flag-covered house in Rochester, is a car dealer. So, like my neighbour, he’s self-employed, running his own business.
The self-employed are an ambiguous grouping that shades off, on the one hand, into the working class proper, and on the other hand, into petty capitalists.
The insecurity of their situation means that they tend to mix socially with genuine workers and may switch between self-employment and wage-work.
All the same, it’s a weird position when “White Van Man” comes to symbolise the British working class. In the past it would probably have been the miners. What have we lost in the switch? Any reference to the labour movement, to workers acting collectively.
Of course, there are still plenty of collectively organised workers, but they don’t fit into the dominant narrative about British society, accepted as much by the Labour leadership as by the other parties and the media.
The other day I heard a fascinating speech by an RMT cleaners’ union rep at Waterloo station. Predominantly migrants, they are in dispute with a bullying management.
What does Miliband have to offer these workers? I was going to say zip, but it’s even worse since Labour is committed to reducing the rights of migrants.
This brings us to a key element of the affair of “White Van Man”. Thornberry is being attacked not just for snobbery, but for implying that all people who fly the St George’s flag are bigoted.
Whether or not she intended to make it, this implication is of course wrong. But both Labour and the Tories actually make it.
They assume that Ukip’s rise has confirmed that ordinary white working class people are racist Little Englanders. And so they seek to pander to them with tougher immigration policies and the like.
What they are trying to signal to “working people” is: “we know you’re bigots and that’s OK.” Hence Miliband’s fury at Thornberry for exposing what he secretly believes.
But this belief is false. Real working class people share a mixture of attitudes, some pulling them in a reactionary direction, some expressing solidarity with their brothers and sisters from other countries.
Which element in this mixture depends partly on how strong and confident workers are feeling, and partly on the politics prevailing among them.
This is why the mainstream parties’ reaction to Ukip is so disastrous. Pandering to racism just makes it stronger.