Friday, November 21, 2014

What Was She Thinking?

When @emilythornberry MP saw a house draped with the flag of St George, white van parked outside, she couldn't resist tweeting a picture to her followers back in her constituency.

Picture of Emily Thornberry tweet

Emily Thornberry is the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, which, as the Guardian constituency profile acidly remarks, "is routinely maligned as the natural habitat of the hypocritical, well-off, ostensibly liberal chattering classes". Perhaps as a result of this unfortunate stereotype her innocent action was widely interpreted as a snobbish reference, from a member of the North London urban elite, to the working class voters of Rochester, and she was forced to resign her position in the Shadow Cabinet.

But her constituency isn't homogeneously affluent, and she tweeted a photo of herself earlier this week, happily delivering leaflets in a housing estate. So not snobbery exactly.

So what motivated her to post the Rochester tweet in the first place, and who was its intended audience? It is now common for people to post pictures from their travels onto Facebook and Twitter, as a modern equivalent of the postcard home. So Emily Thornberry's tweet from Rochester makes it seem as if she regarded her visit to Rochester as a kind of rustication (or missus ad rusticos).

As @freedland writes, "even Thornberry’s defenders do not pretend she was trying to recruit white van drivers who fly the English flag from their homes. At best, she appeared to express the fascination of a visiting anthropologist for the natives of Rochester and Strood with their curious cultural customs." Or perhaps as @sarahditum suggests, she is drawing attention to the supposed jingoism of the Rochester and Strood electorate. How on earth could that be interpreted as class warfare?

To the extent that her thoughts and tweets are directed at the people back home in North London, she is keeping the Kentish voters at arm's length. As far as I can see, she doesn't appear in any of the photos she tweeted from Rochester and Strood, even as a tourist. Like many tourists, her tweets often lack explicit meaning, which then prompts people to project their own interpretation onto the real purpose of her communication. She casually labels everything #Rochester, although Strood has a significantly different demographic: most of the UKIP support was in Strood, while Rochester remained solidly Conservative.

Further insight into her London-centric vision can be inferred from her having retweeted a post from Buzzfeed called 27 Reasons To Fall In Love With A Londoner, which starts with the assertion that Londoners are the coolest people in the country. Yes indeed, Lady Thornberry, yes indeed.

Adam Donald, Emily Thornberry: How one tweet led to her resignation (BBC News 21 November 2014)

Jonathan Freedland, The Emily Thornberry affair proves it: US-style culture wars have come to Britain (Guardian 21 November 2014)

Sarah Ditum, Tweeting a picture of a house is not an act of class warfare, whatever the Sun says (New Statesman 21 November 2014)

Updated 26 Nov 2014

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