Thursday, 29 April 2010

Bouncing back from 'Bigotgate'?

Several issues have arisen from yesterday's 'Bigotgate' episode. Is it so bad that Labour's chances in this election are wiped out? Should we sympathise with Brown because he had a point when he used the term 'bigoted'? Is it a Murdoch conspiracy to help the Tories?

I suspect this is very damaging for Brown. The impression created is twofold: he has contempt for ordinary voters, and he is two-faced. It doesn't matter so much whether the impression is justified - the point is that's how it appears to millions of people, including many potential Labour voters. There's some forgiveness for Brown - on a 'well, we all say things in private we wouldn't want someone to hear' basis - but the vivid contrast between public charm and private cynicism captured by Sky TV is poignant nonetheless.

It also chimes with a larger story, i.e. the widespread public view of politicans - following the expenses crisis - as having contemptuously treated us as fools. I suspect Brown knew that's how it would appear as soon as he learnt he had been rumbled, hence his instant reaction of complete mortification.

On the left there are those who think it's reasonable to label Gillian Duffy a bigot. That is rather missing the point. She expressed sentiments shared by millions of Labour voters, not just those on the Right; her hostility to Eastern European immigrants is, sadly, not unusual. She's utterly wrong, but we need a broader effort to turn the tide against anti-immigrant feeling - and Brown of all people has no role to play in that. To most people, Brown's labelling of her will appear either an overreaction or - considering his own awful politics on immigration - hypocritical.

Crucially, Brown failed to challenge Duffy when he had the chance. He could have treated her with respect by actually engaging with the arguments in a principled fashion. Of course he didn't do that because he's a cynical opportunist and populist who has already made huge concessions to anti-immigrant scaremongering. As Prime Minister he's done nothing to confront the absurd myths about immigration propagated by sections of the media.

A number of commentators have rightly criticised the Murdoch empire for its vilification of Brown over the episode. I'm not convinced, however, that if Cameron had done the same thing we would have simply not heard about it. This was a fantastic story from any journalist's point of view - it's gold dust whichever leader does it. What is undeniable, though, is that if Cameron had made such a faux pas the Murdoch papers would now be moving on and hoping everyone forgets.

So, how damaging is this? It's unarguably one of the two big stories of the campaign (in mainstream media terms) alongside the boost to the Lib Dems that followed the first Leaders' Debate. It has happened fairly close to polling day, which makes matters worse for Labour, but if something goes wrong for the Tories in the next week then everything might change. That's what Labour officials will be praying for.

I hope that voters reject the Tories next Thursday. Keeping the Tories out means, however reluctantly, adopting the view that you should vote Labour if it helps block a Tory breakthrough: this is summed up in the phrase "Vote left where you can, vote Labour where you must".

But Brown's cynical contempt does nothing to help all those seeking to halt the Tory threat by persuading people they should vote Labour as an anti-Tory bulwark. Just as importantly, Gordon "British jobs for British workers" Brown plays no constructive part in helping us challenge prejudices about migrants.

I've suggested Brown's "a bigoted woman" remark was 'the shortest suicide note in history'. It's uncertain whether this will turn out to be the case. I hope that it won't be - at least for Labour in this election. As for Brown personally? I can't see him surviving as party leader beyond next week.

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