Alex Massie

Oh Dear: Calling Voters “Bigots” Doesn’t Often End Well

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Well the only good thing, from Labour's perspective, is that this has happened the day before the final debate and not several days before it. So there's just a chance it will be a 36 hour story, not a 72 hours one. Clearly it's not a great idea for the Prime Minister to be heard calling a middle-aged widow he's just encountered on the mean streets of Rochdale a terrible "bigoted woman".

The video is excruciating and demonstrates why Labour have generally been wise to keep Gordon away from the general public during this campaign:

The comments once Brown has escaped to the supposed-safety of his car are pretty awful, but it's the small talk with Gillian Duffy that is truly painful. Here's a man who, whatever his other qualities, is not cut out for modern retail politics. Anyway, the tape isn't 100% clear but here's the juicy bit:

Immediately following her discussion with Mr Brown, Mrs Duffy said she would vote Labour and thought the PM was "nice".

However, in his car, a clearly angry PM was telling his aide: "That was a disaster - they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It's just ridiculous..." Asked what Mrs Duffy had said, he replied: "Everything, she was just a bigoted woman."

Alex Smith

For activists who are fighting hard in this campaign, we cannot allow this to demotivate us: in a Channel 4 poll just taken, 70% of respondents said such a comment will not make them less likely to vote Labour.

And where I'm fighting, in Islington, and all around the country, there are bigger things at stake than worrying too much about one personality or a comment Brown should never have made. Those are the issues - housing, the economy, jobs - that this election was always going to be about.

A good effort! But no, I think, dice. In any case, if, inside half an hour or so, 30% of punters say this will make them less likely to vote Labour just wait and see what they think after 24 hours of saturation coverage of what, inevitably, is being called Bigotgate.

Two other things: Brown comes out of this looking petty, spiteful and small, blaming his advisors for not "vetting" an ordinary voter and, worse coming across as a candidate too weak or too afraid to engage voters on the issues that most concern them.

In this instance this seems to have been immigration and, specifically, immigration from within the EU. Apparently Mrs Duffy doesn't like all those eastern europeans coming over here to work. Doubtless many voters - hell, many blog commenters - share her views. (Never mind that many of these workers have since gone home.) But rather than debate her or defend the government's policy Brown offers platitudes in public before castigating Duffy in private. This is not the way Big Men behave. Nor do they presume, on little evidence, that those who disagree with them are "bigots".

From what we know of her opinions - and the tabloids will ensure we hear what Mrs Duffy thinks about everything - I'd say that "bigot" is much too strong a term. Nevertheless, Brown ducked the argument and this in turn reinforces his image as a "bottler".

This despite the fact that, as readers know, I think opening the British labour market to the new EU-member countries was one of the best, even noble, things this government has done. If you believe that Britons should be able to work across the EU it's logical to believe that Poles and Lats should be able to as well. And if you believe in the free movement of goods and capital then there's a certain logic to believing in the free movement of labour too. And you can also believe that the accession of the eastern european states has been one of the greatest advances in liberty (at least in some sense of the term) since 1989.

You don't have to agree with this argument and it's not disreputable not to but Gordon could still have made this argument, he could have made a case for himself and his party's record. But he chose not to. This too is feeble. And, alas, all too typical.

So, really, whatever way you look at it this is a terrible moment for Gordon, made worse by his determination to prolong the agony by returning to Rochdale to apologise to Mrs Duffy in person. As though this will make any difference or persuade anyone of anything.

What a mess. As someone just said, the difference between The Thick of It and this is that The Thick of It is funny and this is just tragic. One line from TTOI comes to mind, however: Gordon's just taken a dump with his trousers on.

Fraser's right, however, in that this demonstrates the general contempt with which Gordon views anyone who disagrees with him on anything. And, as the old-fashioned phrase has it, he's also LMF - Lacking Moral Fibre.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsimmigrationlabour party