Friday, 21 November 2014

What's in a picture?

Further to my recent post on the perils of Twitter, another British politician has come a cropper because of a tweet. This time the victim (or villain, depending on your take) is Emily Thornberry, who tweeted a photo of a house displaying large St George’s flags (i.e. the English flag) and with a white van parked outside. The context of this is a little complicated to understand outside of England so I will try to summarise it.
The house that was pictured is in the constituency of Rochester and Strood, where there was a by-election yesterday which was won by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who are opposed to British membership of the EU and to what they believe are too high levels of immigration. If you want some background, I have written about UKIP elsewhere, and also about British debates about immigration. UKIP have recently attracted high levels of electoral support, first in European elections and now in two by-elections where they have won seats in the British parliament.
Whilst being a party of the Thatcherite Right, they have a populist appeal that is increasingly attracting traditional working-class Labour voters in a way not dissimilar to the way that Thatcher herself was able to do in fact. This is where the tweeted image becomes important. The English flags can be taken to reference a particular strand of working-class English nationalism. ‘White van man’ is an expression connoting a stereotypical working class tradesman – not, actually, the traditional industrial working class, then, but perhaps a skilled, self-employed worker. Again, very much the segment of the working class that Thatcherism appealed to, and now UKIP. Thus Thornberry’s tweet was widely interpreted as derogatory towards working class voters, and she resigned her position as a member of Labour’s front bench.
This interpretation has great purchase because it plays into a narrative whereby Labour politicians (and politicians in general) are depicted as an out of touch ‘metropolitan elite’ who are alien to working class sentiment and interests. That Thornberry is an MP for Islington, stereotypically a part of London associated with multi-culturalism and 'trendy lefties', compounded this. It is an aspect of the cosmopolitans and locals split I discussed in another post, and has it counterpart in many countries apart from Britain
This situation is fraught with strange ironies – the UKIP leader and its two MPs are all men educated at elite, fee-paying public schools who used to work in the City of London, and so hardly horny handed sons of the toil, and UKIP are notably cool on trade union and employment rights whilst being four-square behind global free markets and deregulation. Elitist Emily Thornberry, by contrast, grew up on a council estate and went to a State school.  As for the Labour Party, its leader is simultaneously denounced as a left wing firebrand and as having abandoned its left wing roots. That is all part of the long-term consequences of the Blairite New Labour project, and is another topic.
What I want to focus on here is something different. It is that the tweeted picture was instantly read in a particular way. It had no accompanying text other than to say that it was taken in Rochester, so it was almost entirely a matter of the picture being interpreted in the way that it was. Other interpretations were surely possible. It could have been taken to mean that this was a working-class seat that Labour should be aiming to win (they have held it in the past), for example. Or it could just be seen as the habitual Twitter post saying ‘this is where I am today’. But John Mann, a Labour MP, criticised Thornberry’s tweet because he said that the symbols of the English flag and the white van were emblematic of traditional Labour values, so she had insulted traditional Labour voters. This seems truly peculiar: if it is the case (which I doubt) that these were symbols of Labour values then how could it be ‘insulting’ for a Labour politician to depict them?
That it was read the way that it was I think points to another irony of the present political situation. It is a pervasive trope of UKIP supporters that they are hamstrung by ‘political correctness’ and are not ‘allowed to say what they really think’ as a result; in particular that they are ‘not allowed to talk about immigration’ (bizarre, since it is constantly talked about). Yet what this episode shows is something quite different. Let’s assume that the picture did indeed mean something like: ‘look, this is the kind of people who vote UKIP: English nationalists from the self-employed skilled working class’. Would this really be so awful? Isn’t it the case that, as UKIP themselves say, they attract such support? Is it so terribly derogatory and sneering to say this, and yet fine to ‘sneer’ at the ‘middle-class metropolitan elite’? Isn’t the real ‘political correctness’ in play that any implicit criticism of UKIP support is immediately positioned as unacceptable?
We seem to be a long way from organization theory, I know, but that is not really so. What lies beneath all of this is the nature and consequences of global capitalism and in particular the international mobility of what management textbooks would call the human resource. Politics in Britain, as in many other countries, is struggling to come to terms with what this means – in terms of employment, wages, employment protection, welfare, healthcare and communities. These are serious issues for all of us and yet no politician seems able to discuss them seriously. Into that gap has stepped, in Britain, the beery, blokeish populism of UKIP but that offers no realistic answers. That would not matter, except that by positioning elitism in terms of things like the supposedly sneering nature of a tweeted photo this populism makes it all but impossible to discuss the actions of the real elite, who do not tweet but buy and sell our companies, jobs, lives and livelihoods and for whom welfare, healthcare and community are entirely irrelevant. UKIP have nothing to say about this, of course, but nor do any of the main political parties in Britain.