The offending image. Photo: @EmilyThornberry The offending 'Image from #Rochester' Photo: @EmilyThornberry

Lindsey German: sacking Emily Thornberry over a tweet is another own goal – and after Scotland and the vote on air strikes in Iraq, Labour really can’t afford to score many more

The most depressing aspect of the last 24 hours for me has not been the election of a second Ukip MP, miserable though that is. It has been the whole episode over Emily Thornberry. And what has been so depressing over that has been the way in which Labour has danced to the tune of the right wing media and Ukip in denouncing her.

Let’s just unpack the whole argument. Thornberry tweeted from the Rochester and Strood by election a picture of a house festooned in flags of St George with a white van parked outside. She didn’t actually comment on the van or the flags in the tweet. To me the tweet was about the flags, as she made clear in a subsequent statement.

Maybe it was not a very sensible thing to tweet on an election day where Ukip was obviously going to win. But the reaction to it has been hideous, not least from fellow Labour MPs. Thornberry has been forced to resign from her post as shadow attorney general by Ed Miliband, a leader who mildly takes a Tory rant from a third rate celebrity over the mansion tax, who is capitulating over immigration to right wing pressures, and who seems to have little to say about the privatisation of the NHS.

She is accused of snobbery, of being an Islington liberal and out of touch with Labour voters. This whole agenda, boosted by right wing Labour MPs like John Mann, suggests that working class people are nationalist, patriotic and love nothing better than waving England flags while tearing round the country in their white vans. Anyone who challenges this view has to be designated as aloof and metropolitan, a liberal living in a splendid house in north London.

Just on Islington, for those who might not know it, it has two Labour MPs for a reason: it is a poor inner London borough, with the third highest level of child poverty. It has pockets of extremely wealthy houses (one inhabited by that well known socialist Boris Johnson) but also very large and deprived council estates, a very expensive private rented sector and ordinary owner occupiers who have seen house prices rise to a level which is driving their children out of London to find somewhere to live.

In fact the people pushing the right wing Labour agenda are themselves out of touch, ignoring the large numbers of Labour supporters and voters who do not sign up to the Ukip message. There are many signs that where Ukip is gaining votes in Labour areas, it is from mainly that section of the working class, and of the lower middle classes, who have tended to vote Tory in previous elections.

To ignore this is to abandon those in Labour and on the left who have always opposed racism and attacks on immigrants, to capitulate to arguments which are lies: that the problems of this country are the fault of people who have come here to work, not the fault of the bankers and politicians who have presided over a worsening NHS, the greatest housing crisis in living memory, falls in real wages and attacks on public services. It is also to abandon the immigrants, and descendants of immigrants, who are now being made to feel second-class citizens.

Support for Ukip is a reflection of hurt and anger over these and many other issues, and a bitter distrust of establishment politicians, which is being channelled into a growth of racism and Islamophobia.

It is also often strongest in those places which feel most ‘left behind’ in British society: the old industrial areas of the north, including the mining areas, the depressed seaside towns, the commuter towns around the big cities where people have had to move further and further out from their place of work to afford anywhere to live, adding hours to their working day.

Labour has to take a great deal of responsibility for this state of affairs. Elected on a tide of enthusiasm in 1997, it squandered all of that: by sticking to Tory spending plans, by engaging in an illegal war in Iraq (at an electoral cost of 1 million votes in 2005), by deregulating an economy which has among other things driven greater inequality and created a sense of precarity and insecurity among many workers.

It is these questions we need to tackle, and if we do so, we will undercut support for Ukip and lay the basis for left electoral challenges. If Labour did any of this, it would be further forward in the polls. Instead, it follows the lead of the right wing, and manages to get really worked up about….a tweet.

After Scotland, the vote on air strikes in Iraq, this is another own goal…and Labour really can’t afford to score many more.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.