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Stereotypes – perception and reality

Much in the news this week has been the story of the resignation of Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry, following her perhaps ill-judged tweet of a photograph of the Rochester house of a certain Dan Ware.  Mr Ware had a white van parked outside his property, and the upstairs windows were draped with a number of flags of St George.

Emily Thornberry was roundly condemned for her ‘snobbery’, and for not treating the voters with respect.  Ed Miliband was said to be ‘furious’ and the whole issue has dominated the headlines for some days.

Interestingly, many of those headlines have chosen to reinforce the stereotype that was implicit in the photograph:

“White van man comes looking for Emily Thornberry” (Daily Telegraph)

“What does white van man think of Thornberry’s tweet?” (Channel 4)

“White van man Dan Ware wants apology … “ (Daily Mail)

And so on …

It’s easy to take a pop at politicians like Thornberry, and perhaps the entire current crop of ‘career politicians’, many of whom have never had a real job outside of politics, and large numbers of whom live in expensive North London properties.  Thornberry herself, along with both Miliband brothers, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, Alistair Campbell, Lord Falconer and a good few others all live in or around the Islington area, in properties valued at about £1.5 million upwards.

It’s easy to see them as out of touch with the concerns of the average person, or those members of society that struggle from day to day to pay their rent, or feed their children (and that’s just the Labour Party, remember, but are they really distinguishable from the Conservatives any more?)

UKIP’s Nigel Farage presents himself as the cheery man of the people, propping up the bar in your local pub and exuding common-sense rhetoric about how the system and the establishment have let us all down, and how these politicians in their ivory towers have no idea.  That’s why he’s so popular – but perception and reality are not the same thing.  Or perhaps they can be when we persuade ourselves that we want them to be!

A YouGov survey back in April 2014 asked respondents about the education of our political masters, and also asked how in touch with normal people the main parties were.

Interestingly, only 81% of people were aware that David Cameron was privately educated, (which does give a degree of concern about the remaining 19%) but only 37% saw the Conservatives as being in touch, which was the lowest score in the survey. No surprises there, you may say.

Ed Miliband was considered to be privately educated by 52% of people, and Labour scored 65% for being in touch with normal people.  Miliband was state-educated.

A massive 77% of people felt that UKIP were in touch with normal people, and Nigel Farage was considered to be privately educated by only 36% of people.  In fact he went to Dulwich College, and has made no secret of that.  He’s also a former City trader.

So we have a number of perceptions here fed by our preoccupation with ‘class’ in Britain – David Cameron and the Conservatives are painted as toffs who have never had any experience of what life is like on the breadline, based on the fact that a lot of them were at Eton, or other well-known private schools.  Farage and UKIP on the other hand, despite sharing a similar background, are seen as the people’s party raging against the iniquities of the establishment and largely in touch with the pain and suffering of the working family.

UKIP are even able to attack some journalists who are critical of the party, stating on their website that “most have family or personal connections to the Conservative Party and … the majority are from immensely privileged backgrounds”.

So what about our white van man – does perception match reality in that regard?  It seems that he has been taken for a ride by The Sun, who have persuaded him to put his name to a ‘Danifesto’ (get it?) outlining his position on some key policy areas, such as Immigration (“Copy the Aussies. If people show up uninvited, send them back”) and Education (“Better discipline. Kids are too mouthy now, not like when we had the cane”).

Commentators have pointed out that at the age of 37, Mr Ware is unlikely to have experienced the cane either, but we’re dealing with perception here, and not necessarily reality, remember.  However, the authors of the piece (I suspect that it wasn’t Dan!) did manage to include the keywords “send them back”, so full marks for that.

The Sun have also printed pictures of Mr Ware – shaven-headed, dressed in a tracksuit, with a large chain around his neck, as he presents his ‘no-nonsense plan for a better Britain’, inadvertently acknowledging to interviewers that he can’t recall the last time he actually voted.

So we come full circle.  For a couple of days, the media is awash with outraged stories of the snobbery of Emily Thornberry, and the next thing you know the stories are all about how the stereotype that she promoted has come to life in the living, breathing, cage-fighting skinhead that is Dan Ware.

Perhaps he’s a really nice guy who loves his mother – he may well be, but he has fallen victim to the same set of (often media-fuelled) prejudices that cost Emily Thornberry her job, and may well cost the country quite dearly in the years to come.

So the moral of the story is that nothing is as it seems – everything has been twisted by the media and manipulated by the spin doctors to fit a particular agenda, and we can be confident of only one thing: that most of what we read and see is lies.

Or is it?