Gillian Duffy - a missed opportunity for Gordon Brown

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as we all know and will soon be sick of hearing now that the pensioner in question has hired the services of a PR firm, got himself in a spot of bother yesterday for calling a member of the public "a bigoted woman."

He had spoken to Gillian Duffy whilst on a "meet and greet" in Rochdale - one of those events in which our esteemed leaders deem to come down from upon high and walk among the mortals, the sort of thing so beloved of David Cameron as they allow him opportunity to prefix everything he says with "I met a man/woman/dog the other day..." instead of his trademark Blairesque "Look..." and in doing so prove that he is a Man of the People and not, after all, an Old Etonian toff for whom contact with the Great Unwashed would usually be limited to shouting "You there! Get off my land!" a moment before letting rip with both barrels of the Holland & Holland.

Mr. Brown is a facepalmer of renown, as seen here, but the example he demonstrated when played the recording of his comments yesterday was of Olympic standard.

Mrs. Duffy, who had been out buying a loaf of bread, spent a few moments discussing a range of issues with Mr. Brown before moving onto immigration. The conversation went as follows.

Duffy: "You can't say anything about the immigrants because they'll say that you're...you're..."
Brown: "Er..."
Duffy: "...but all these East Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"

Nothing more would have been heard about this, but shortly afterwards, when Mr. Brown got back into his car, he neglected to remove the television microphone that had recorded the previous conversation. His comments on the meeting were thus heard and recorded by reporters.

Brown: "That was a disaster. They should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?"
Voice 2: "I don't know - I didn't see that."
Brown: "It was Sue's, I think. It's just ridiculous."
Voice 2: "What did she say?"
Brown: "Oh, everything - she's just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour."

Brown, who was later filmed while appearing on a radio programme, performed a classic facepalm when the recording was later played back to him, evidently realising that he had committed what the media and public are now viewing as an almighty gaffe and, in the words of The Guardian, the torpedoing of his own election campaign. The Prime Minister later returned and spent 45 minutes in Mrs. Duffy's home apologising as the press waited avidly on her driveway hoping for some further titbits of juicy news like dogs after kitchen scraps.

All the parties - with the exception of UKIP and the BNP, who speak of little else - have been pussy-footing around the question of immigration for fear of having to admit they've failed dismally to recognise and allay the fears of a large swathe of the British population who, when their genuine concerns are blown out of all proportion and transformed into unfounded paranoia by the right-wing media and that all-powerful shaper of public opinion the bloke down the pub, are worried that British values and life are under threat. With the laudable exception of Boris Johnson (and it's not often you'll read anything in support of him on this blog), they have not addressed these fears by providing evidence that immigration is a solution to economic crisis and that multiculturalism enriches society. As a result, millions of people who would never describe themselves as racist now hold views which, despite their attempts to claim otherwise, look unpleasantly like xenophobia.

This is a particularly taxing problem for Labour who, throughout their history as Britain's mainstream Socialist party, have wrestled with an unfortunate problem - a high percentage of the working-class membership and supporters, who are vital to the party's existence and credibility, have always held these sorts of views. To the party intellectuals, this has always been a matter of great embarrassment and they have, the majority of the time, simply chosen to ignore it as an inconvenient truth and hope that by setting a better example it will go away. It hasn't - and in recent years, with the failures outlined in the previous paragraph, it has become worse; so much so that people who have previously voted for both Labour and the other main parties are now willing to vote for fascists.

What was Mrs. Duffy going to say, before Gordon cut her off yesterday? It seems to us either of two things may have happened.

The first is that she is not a bigot and was going to raise a concern shared by many of the electorate, a concern that needs to be dealt with and which, while prejudiced, is not her fault. Mr. Brown misunderstood her (let's face it, she did sound as though she was going to say something bigoted - "You can't say anything about the immigrants because they'll say that you're a..." does sound rather similar to the "I'm not a racist but..." prefix so popular among certain 'comedians'), and later apologised. Conclusion: Gordon made a mistake, admitted his error and said sorry. He also proved something very important - he doesn't like bigots. Score one for Mr. Brown.

"I'm not a racist but..." What was Mrs. Duffy going to say about immigrants?

The second is that Mrs. Duffy is a bigot and, just as is the case with UKIP, she tried to use legitimate (if mistaken) concerns about immigration to hide what she was really saying: "I don't like foreigners and they should be sent back to wherever they came from." Gordon recognised bigotry when he heard it and, while not wishing to rebuke a potential Labour voter a week before an election which he looks dead set to lose, only made his true feelings clear later when he thought he would not be heard by the press. Conclusion: Gordon is a little bit of a coward, but since he's fighting for his political life and all politics is put on a back burner in favour of electioneering this close to the big day, we can overlook this. However, we now have proof that he doesn't like bigots. Score one for Mr. Brown.

We know which of these two versions we think is the closest to the truth and you, dear reader, will have your own preferred version, but that's irrelevant in this case and so we're not going to say which is ours. What matters is that while the brains behind Labour's election campaign will have spent a coffee-fueled and sleepless night engaged in damage limitation as a response to nationwide feeling that Mr. Brown has further scuppered his party's chances, what he has actually done is reveal an admirable quality in himself - he has, inadvertently, made it obvious beyond doubt that he is not a racist and that he is both opposed to and dislikes racist beliefs.

This might just be political gold rather than dynamite. Had we have been undecided, wavering voters, Gordon might even have won our vote yesterday and if there are more Britons who share his view than are bigots it's entirely possible that the loss of Mrs. Duffy's vote will be off-set quite usefully by the votes of those who understand the value of immigration and oppose racist politics.

Sue - who, it transpires, is Mr. Brown's aide of 13 years Sue Nye - may find her name enter the English language as a convenient scapegoat for all manner of things. She was blamed on Newsnight yesterday by one participant for something entirely unrelated to what happened in Rochdale and only this morning was alleged to be the reason Mrs. Rabbi's morning coffee didn't have enough milk in it; but Mr. Brown is wrong if he now tries to make her pay - bookies are taking bets on her being sacked, with online service paddypower.com offering 3 to 1 - because she may just have done him a very big favour.

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