White Van Man and working class representation.

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. 

Trenton Oldfield and the guidelines of protest.

Aside

No, this is not a slightly dodgy fan fiction of harry potter. Instead, the harsh sentencing today of Trenton Oldfield for six months represents a significant milestone of the loss of freedom in the United Kingdom, coming as it does at the end of a long line of recent blows to free speech. We seem to have forgotten as a society that a vibrant democracy must include the right to dissent, especially when those dissenters say or do things that seem strange or downright offensive to mainstream society.

I find it particularly odd that the Judge’s sentencing remarks not only seem to recognise this trend, but state the new paradigm of acceptability so blatantly. According to the BBC:

Oldfield had acted dangerously, disproportionately, had not shown what he was actually protesting against, and displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist.

She said: “You did nothing to address inequality by giving yourself the right to spoil the enjoyment of others.

 

Thereby delineating what is acceptable when it comes to personal political decisions and avoiding jail time. For a demonstration to be acceptable, it must be kept out of quietly out of sight and out of the public eye. Nevermind the frankly odd assertion that it’s prejudicial to demonstrate against elitism, the strangest comment in the justice’s remarks is that Trenton ‘had not shown what he was actually protesting against’. Perhaps the large public discussion about elitism following his arrest does not count. Perhaps the judge was being wilfully obscure. Or perhaps the judge was asserting that one is only allowed to protest against mainstream causes and issues that are already in the public domain.

This statement seems even stranger when we consider that part of the reasons she gave for sentencing him so harshly was that ‘you did nothing to address inequality’ and ‘displayed prejudice in sabotaging the event which he regarded as elitist’. You can’t have this both ways, you can either complain that the stunt was not a true demonstration because it had no clear aim or you can claim that his stated reasons behind the stunt were not valid. You cannot have both.

What the presiding judge does seem to think by her remarks and the sentence handed down is that unless one’s stated cause is acceptable to the political mainstream and is carried out in places where it can be ignored then the person who holds those views should be prepared for harsher punishments than usual. This is the only explanation for custodial time in a situation which would probably usually have warranted a fine.

It goes without saying that this is a worrying development in the history of debate and demonstrations. Because Trenton Oldfield dared to disagree with a rather popular boat race and hold views contrary to those of the political establishment, it somehow follows that he should expect to be judged more harshly than someone who’s protesting for something fashionable. Consequentially, free speech is being modulated along terms of what is acceptable to the hegemony and is clearly free no longer. This is a sad day for democracy and a sadder day for our country.