25/11/2014 05:31 GMT | Updated 24/01/2015 05:59 GMT

The Worst Thing About Emily Thornberry's Tweet Is That Any Of Us Care


You can judge just how committed a politician is to selling off hospitals, outsourcing manufacturing to China, eliminating workers rights and pricing the next generation out of an education by how loudly they sneer at everyone else for being "a snob". It's an old song but it's hit the top of the charts once again thanks to Emily Thornberry.

Thornberry's tweet was dumb and shortsighted but the furor it generated is much more disturbing because it covers a deeply undemocratic strain in our polity. The more we obsess over how politicians "appear" the less we hold them to account for what they actually do.

One doesn't have to defend Thornberry's tweet to say that provoked a gross overreaction. David Cameron and Nigel Farage's parties both gleefully jeered, accusing Thorberry of showing "contempt" for exactly the sort of white, working class men who Labour must woo if it hopes to win the next election.

But UKIP have promised to repeal the majority of EU workplace legislation which currently ensures that ensures working people are protected by proper health and safety provisions in the workplace. The Conservatives have demanded that the working class work in Poundland for free if they can't get a job while, at the same time, awarding vast government contracts to corporations who make their employees sleep under bridges so as not to be late for work. Who exactly is it holding the working class in contempt?

Blaming immigrants and the EU for all the world's ills doesn't change the fact that Cameron's policies have made the working class poorer and less secure and Farage doesn't think he's gone far enough.

At the same time UKIP candidates (and Farage himself) have publicly stated views including that the owners of hotels should be able to turn away Muslims and homosexuals, and women are "worth less to employers" when they become pregnant. Meanwhile Conservative councilors have hung topless calendars in their offices, posting a picture of a gorilla next to an Asian person on a blog (for which he apologised but has not resigned) and saying gypsies would "stick a knife in you as soon as look at you".

The lesson of the Thornberry saga seems to be that it's more politically damaging to be "appear to be part of the elite" than it is to actually be incompetent, venal misogynist, homophobic, or racist.

We, as a nation, seem more concerned about what politicians seem than what they are.

There's a danger that this sort of argument of sounds like "everyone is stupid but me". But my problem is with the media and a craven political class, not voters. How can anyone be expected to make rational decisions when we're never given rationally presented information?

The media have long ago mistaken politics for entertainment. Newspapers comment on the clothing choices of female cabinet ministers. Any serious political panel debate has to include a comedian or reality TV star to "offset" the serious stuff: As if no one watching Question Time can be expected to concentrate on a discussion about economics unless Joey Essex is there to provide light relief. More time is spent discussing whether people "like" Ed Miliband than is spent discussing the energy price freeze, public sector tendering and the mansion tax combined (except, of course, when a D list celebrity pipes up about her multi million pound garage on ITV.)

Even when policies do get mentioned they're presented as an attempt to improve Miliband's image rather than ideas that might actually improve the state of the nation. Personally I don't care whether a leader is "likeable" so long as they can run the country competently. Churchill may have been a cantankerous drunk, Attlee socially inept, Roosevelt cold and ambitious and De Gaulle mad as a box of snakes: None of this makes the slightest difference to their legacy as great leaders.

Labour are as much at fault as anyone else. Sadiq Khan complains that no one takes any notice of Labour's policies, but the party only has itself to blame because they buy into this same discourse. In a desperate attempt to avoid being tarred with the same "elite" brush the party abandoned Thornberry on mass. Thus legitimising a toxic mass freak out.

While we're all watching the circus we're not watching the things that matter. Noam Chomsky has said that the best way to control a population is to allow a fierce public debate but within very narrow confines. A more accurate analysis of our polity is hard to find. We debate fiercely about who is best "connecting with the voters" while anyone floating a public policy idea with a hint of originality is swiftly silenced by a vicious media protected from scrutiny by a craven political class.

My father once told me that the key to working out a magic trick is to watch the magician's other hand. Those of us with any interest in democracy would do well to spend a little less time worrying about whether Emily Thornberry buys white bread or whole meal, and a little more scrutinising the policies our political class hide behind their pint glasses.