As a former member of the Liberal Democrats, I should be used to disappointment. But the grim inevitability of the sequence of events following Emily Thornberry’s tweet rumbled on with such predictability that it was hard not to despair. From the reaction to the initial tweet it was obvious that Thornberry was going to be forced to resign. It was suspected that she had mocked the simple patriotism of our noble working classes, and so off with her head. Miliband’s outrage duly followed, and before you can say ‘sliding poll ratings’, Thornberry had gone and White Van Dan had published his “Danifesto”, all thanks to that shining beacon of working class debate, The Sun. It probably won’t be long before we see White Van Dan following the lead of that similar pillar of working class intellectualism, Joe The Plumber, and standing for public office on a conservative ticket.
The central problem here is not just that White Van Dan’s views are repellent, but that the people who should be his most vocal detractors are silent. After all, he wants to bring back corporal punishment, to close the borders, and holds other such beliefs that, were they to be held by an upper or middle class person, would rightly be examined, debated, and attacked. Instead, because he conforms to a rather crude stereotype of the working class, people feel a need to protect him, by letting him speak unopposed and even by attacking the snobbishness of people who dare oppose him. But this is not a man speaking for himself with the full attention of peers ready to engage in political debate. That would require an equal exchange of views. He is not being listened to by Labour, only nervously humoured, as if he’s wandered in off the streets and joined a middle class dinner table.
This is astonishingly patronising, not just to White Van Dan himself, but also to working class people as a whole. The only reason Dan has been allowed to speak, let alone speak unchallenged, to a national audience is that there was the fear on Labour’s part that Thornberry had somehow maligned the entirety of the working classes. Indeed, he’s not even been allowed to speak unaided. He’s been paraded by the tabloids, had his cause discussed by the conservative right, and even been driven to harass Emily Thornberry at her house. It not only gives the impression that the wider press are using a working class person for their own political ends, but also that the majority of political types don’t have enough experience with working class people to feel confident enough to challenge his views. There is, in other words, the sneaking fear that we’d better not challenge him because the working classes might actually agree with him.
It was this fear that lead to what, even by Ed Miliband’s standards, was the frankly ludicrous position of Miliband being asked as the leader of the opposition what emotion he felt when he saw a white van, and his even more ridiculous answer.
If the political classes fear this is what the working classes are like, then they’re even less likely to challenge these voices in future. In fact, they’re likely to chase their votes with policies designed around this conception of what the working class wants. It’ll be the same populist and xenophobic stuff we’ve seen above and, when we criticise it, we’ll be depicted as out of touch, because this – don’t you know? – is what the working classes want. The current attitude to White Van Dan then is not only patronising in its collectivisation of the working classes, but intrinsically erasing of other voices. While white, brash, males are still the deferred-to voice of the working class, everything non-white and non-male in the working class experience will continue to be triply erased; by class, by gender, by race.
This will not do, but it is all but inevitable when the only working class people politicians meet are those who shout the loudest. But the solution is simple enough; we need more working class voices, we need them to be as ubiquitous as middle and upper class voices in the political sphere. Most importantly, we need as wide an array of experiences within those voices as possible.
Only when working class people are common in national matters will we find that they have a plurality of views and come from a variety of backgrounds. It is only then that we will always feel confident enough to speak up, without being afraid that we’re damning an entire class by dismissing the view of one man.
nb: this was originally due to be published elsewhere, but a mix up meant that this did not occur, hence the delay in appearing here.