After all the verbiage expended and hot air vented ahead of the Nov. 20 by-election in a constituency in southeast England called Rochester and Strood, a picture turned out to be worth a thousand words — and then some. On the day of the special election, prompted by the defection of a sitting Member of Parliament from the ruling Conservatives to the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a prominent member of the opposition left-of-center Labour Party tweeted a series of photographs as she toured the area canvassing support for her party’s candidate. One apparently innocuous post encapsulated so many uncomfortable truths — about Britain, its old wounds and new fractures, and the global crisis of trust in the political mainstream — that within hours the tweeter, MP Emily Thornberry, had resigned as a member of Labour’s front bench team. The controversy eclipsed a result that in its own way told the same story of fragmentation and tumult: victory for the anti-immigration, anti-European Union UKIP.
Here is Thornberry’s tweet. Look closely. If you even begin to understand why this picture caused offense, you are either from the U.K. or have spent more than the occasional vacation in its temperate, if increasingly distempered, climes.
So why did this tweet do so much damage?
One answer lies in the medium not the message. The digital revolution is transforming not only methods of communication but the world itself. Politicians have barely started to comprehend what this means for the business of politics, much less for wider society.
Such profound changes have left the slow-moving political mainstream floundering. The Labour Party has its roots in the labor movement and purports to be the party of working people. In finding the sight of a modest terraced house festooned with England flags and with a white van parked on the forecourt noteworthy enough to tweet, Thornberry highlighted the gap between the Westminster elite and ordinary voters. As Britain’s largest red-top tabloid, the Sun, put it, she was “seeming to sneer at a White Van Man’s England flags.”
White Van Man is the Joe Six-Pack or Walmart Mom of U.K. politics, representative of a segment of the electorate mainstream parties are eager to court but find increasingly hard to reach. The White Van Man in this case turned out to be a car dealer named Dan Ware who revealed in a brief interview with the Daily Telegraph that he didn’t even know a by-election was taking place. He said: “I will continue to fly the flags — I don’t care who it pisses off. I know there is a lot of ethnic minorities that don’t like it. They [the flags] have been up since the [soccer] World Cup.”
After more than four years of austerity policies imposed by Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition, Labour should be in pole position to win the votes of White Van owners across the nation when Britons elect a new government in May 2015. Instead it is struggling under the hapless leadership of Ed Miliband and a band of metropolitan parliamentarians as apt to flinch from the classes who once were their mainstay as to engage with them.
But this isn’t just a problem of the left. Margaret Thatcher made an easy connection with so-called Middle Britain. Britain’s current Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, posh and urban, has tried unsuccessfully to outsource that job to spin doctors, tabloids and the few members of his team not to come from privileged backgrounds. The Liberal Democrats, who used to attract protest votes that might otherwise have gone to Labour or the Conservatives, sacrificed those potential votes as well as the support of their own well-meaning grassroots by deciding in 2010 to enter coalition with the Conservatives. The outcome of the Rochester and Strood by-election illustrated the scale of their plight: their candidate Geoff Juby got only 349 votes and lost his deposit.
Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system favors big parties and majority governments. When the current coalition took office in 2010 it was the first such arrangement in 70 years. But the weakness of those big parties is making space for others to flourish, such as the Scottish National Party, which came close in September to breaking up the United Kingdom and may yet succeed in that aim; and, in England, UKIP, which is pushing for a break with the European Union. UKIP’s rhetoric on restricting immigration chimes with voters who have seen competition for jobs and housing intensify and the strain on public services increase as the U.K. has battled to reduce its debt and ride out a prolonged period of economic instability.
England’s Cross of St George, the flags that caught Thornberry’s attention with such dramatic consequences, have become symbolic not only of England but England’s struggles — with identity and between increasingly diverse populations. Far-right groups such as Britain First have sought to co-opt the flag, and that may be why Thornberry took the snap. It is often hard to distinguish England flags hung in support of the soccer team from England flags hoisted in anger.
Britain First’s candidate Jayda Franzen took a laughable 56 votes at the Rochester and Strood by-election. By contrast UKIP, which always insisted it is anti-Europe not xenophobic, has shed some of its harder-right elements and has professionalized and broadened its appeal. Mark Reckless, the MP whose recent defection to UKIP from the Conservative Party sparked the by-election, won the ballot comfortably with 16,867 votes (42.1%), compared to the Conservatives’ 13,947 votes (34.81%) and Labour’s 6,713 (16.76%).
Like Thornberry’s tweet, the meaning of the results is open to several interpretations but all of them point in the same direction: to the possibility that the U.K.’s May 2015 elections won’t grant an overall majority to a mainstream party and could leave smaller parties such as UKIP holding the balance of power. The Conservatives have promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe if they win and to try to renegotiate that relationship. UKIP simply wants out, and across Europe parties with similar messages are growing in strength. It may prove, and in more than one sense, that the center cannot hold.