Brendan O’Neill

Emily Thornberry’s political wardrobe malfunction

Emily Thornberry’s political wardrobe malfunction
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These days everyone in politics is obsessed with ‘optics’, with making sure they never do or say anything that might look bad to the public. Which makes Emily Thornberry’s European Union outfit all the more extraordinary. Thornberry paraded around Brighton in a blue-and-gold EU dress like some wide-eyed devotee of the cult of Brussels. What the hell was she thinking?

It was at the ‘People’s Vote’ march in Brighton to coincide with the Labour conference. (Those quote marks around ‘People’s Vote’ are necessary because of course we already had a people’s vote, in 2016. What these people really want is a second referendum to try to erase the people’s vote in the first referendum. They say ‘People’s Vote’ because they know that calling it ‘Forcing The Stupid Public To Vote Again In The Hope That They Will Get it Right This Time’ would be off-putting to some. Optics, you see.)

At the march, Thornberry was essentially wrapped in the EU flag. She was wearing an EU blue dress and was adorned in a gold necklace with EU-style stars on it. Where were her advisers? Or at least a friend. Someone who might have said to her: ‘Em, half the country, and millions of Labour’s own voters, view the EU as a wicked, illiberal and undemocratic empire that is screwing Britain over. Probably best not to drape yourself in its colours, eh?’

And yet she did. Tony Benn once said of a visit to the EU Commission that he felt like a 'slave' going to Rome. How Labour has changed. Now its shadow foreign secretary is like a dancing slave for Rome, dutifully donning its paraphernalia and making clear to everyone where her loyalties lie: more with Brussels than Britain; more with Remain than with the masses of people, including Labour people, who voted for leave.

Consider the message sent by Thornberry’s Brussels-loving get-up. It was a bizarre celebration of a foreign oligarchy that so many Brits have made it clear they oppose. It was a spectacularly imperious expression of disdain for the estimated five million Labour voters who chose Leave in 2016. It was a fashion statement, for sure — the statement being: ‘I love Brussels more than I love those working-class Labour people who voted to leave.’ Imagine how many Labour voters will have seen that image and thought, ‘This really isn’t the party for me’.

Thornberry has form on flags, of course. She might be happy to doll herself up in the EU flag but she is repulsed by the St George’s flag. Who can forget when she had to resign from the shadow cabinet in 2014 after sneering on Twitter at a house in Rochester that had a white van parked outside and two St George’s flags hanging from the windows.

EU flag good, English flag bad: you couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the new elite’s contempt for ordinary people’s longing for a sense of national belonging and national pride, and their own preference for the distant, anti-democratic machinations of Eurocrats and other clever globalists like themselves.

Thornberry’s dress, her political wardrobe malfunction, tells us about more than just the shadow foreign secretary and the Remainers who cheered her at the ‘People’s Vote’ gathering. It tells a story about Labour too. A depressing story.

It confirms what so many leading Labourites have been insisting for the past few months: that Labour is now a Remain party, a solidly pro-EU party. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, might be trying his damndest at the party conference to keep Labour neutral in the event of a second referendum. (Though many of us believe that his very backing of a second referendum has made it clear he doesn’t like the Leave vote of 2016 and would like to see it stitched up.) But from the Labour shadow cabinet to its army of painfully middle-class new members, the momentum (if you’ll excuse the pun) is entirely towards Remain.

What a sad end to a party that was once at the forefront of Euroscepticism. Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Peter Shore, Michael Foot and so many other Labour legends argued passionately against the EEC and the EU. If, as Thornberry and others now insist, Labour is a Remain party, then that represents a complete abandonment of what the party once stood for and a trampling all over the democratic wishes of millions of its own voters.

This is one of the great ironies of the Corbyn era. Corbynistas really dislike Blairites, and yet the Blairites have won. Their pro-EU, technocratic, liberal-elite outlook remains the dominant force in Labour. In embracing Remain, Corbynistas have effectively sworn allegiance to the Tony Blair worldview. 

That outfit, Ms Thornberry, was more than a mistake — it was also quite grotesque. It will have looked to many people like the new London-based elite flipping a middle finger at the history of the Labour party itself, at the principles of some of its most important leaders, and at Labour’s traditional working-class voters who oppose the EU.