Imagine an American passing through London for the first time on Thursday night. He watches the news in his hotel suite and concludes what? Probably that Britain is riven by the culture wars of his own country, minus the bit about God.
Rochester and Strood, a parliamentary seat that could have been named by P.G. Wodehouse, was soundly Conservative until last night. This chunk of southern England fell to the populist UK Independence party in a by-election. Wounding enough on its own terms for the Tory prime minister, David Cameron, the defeat could also be the cue for a few more of his backbenchers to defect to Ukip. Six months before a general election, the Tories are doing their immemorial work of mutilating themselves over Europe – and the linked question of immigration.
Mr Cameron tends to be lucky at critical moments, however, and something popped up. On the day of the by-election, Labour’s shadow attorney-general – sent to do some perfunctory campaigning in a seat the party was never going to win – tweeted a photo of a local house draped in English flags, with a blokey white van parked outside.
Any derision of the white working class as a bovine lot was implied, not stated. But people took offence. Twitter convulsed. It did not help that the MP in question, Emily Thornberry, represents Islington, a London district that rivals Hampstead as the nation’s byword for upscale liberalism. She resigned, ensuring that Mr Cameron’s humiliation in Rochester will only account for half of today’s headlines. Labour scored a derisory vote share in a seat that – under slightly different boundaries – it held not long ago.
Both main parties have themselves to blame for their agonies last night. The Tories’ folly is not losing MPs such as Mark Reckless, the defector who now represents Rochester for Ukip, but admitting them in the first place. Their benches are peppered with cranks, zealots and the flamboyantly disloyal. A serious party must have a selection process that screens out candidates who are plausible defectors, as Mr Reckless always was. Mr Cameron began his tenure as leader by trying to recruit moderates – it helped if they were women or ethnic minorities – as parliamentary candidates. Traditionalists fought back and, as ever, he relented for the sake of quiet life.
He has erred more recently by emulating Ukip. He hardens his line on Europe and immigration almost by the month. The effect is to dignify them and grant them a spurious credibility. The Tory message has been summarised by one commentator as “Ukip are right – don’t vote for them”. The best that can be said in mitigation is that there is no control experiment here: nobody can know how Ukip would be doing had Mr Cameron not moved to the right in recent years. Their poll rating might be even higher than its present 15-20 per cent.
As for Labour, the cultural gap between its working class voters and its London-based doyens is not new. But it has become unbridgeable under Ed Miliband’s leadership. He and his supporters tend to be greenish and soft-left. Their idiom is that of the NGO summit and the student political committee. For all their piety about Mr Cameron’s pampered youth, imagining them trying to survive a day in a normal industrial job is a good way of keeping oneself amused during a quiet afternoon in Westminster. They do not despise the white working class, as some hysterics argue, but neither do they comprehend them. We were reminded last night that Ms Thornberry was one of Mr Miliband’s early allies in his quest to become Labour leader. But of course she was.
So this is the Britain glimpsed by our American friend in his hotel room. A country where an MP can lose her job if she emits the faintest aroma of de haut en bas. A country where even a privately schooled barrister, such as Mark Reckless, plays the game of whack-a-toff, and the worst crime in public life is not incompetence but being a bit fancy. A country where the capital city is a dirty word. So much like home, the visitor must think.
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