Analysis: Could this bury Brown?

Gordon Brown’s bigot gaffe might seem flippant, but it could destroy Labour’s chances at the election.

By Matthew West

With just over a week to go until polling day the election campaign has come alive as never before with the prime minister caught making an unguarded comment about a voter.

How big a story is this? Well, there is very little chance it won’t make the headlines of the papers tomorrow and there is a pretty good chance, instant apology or not, that the story will make it into the evening news bulletins, barring an earthquake. As I write this the incident is being replayed over and over again on the 24 hour news channels with instant analysis being supplied by all and sundry.

Immediately following Gordon Brown’s unguarded comments about Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, while getting into his prime ministerial limo, everyone was already starting to assess the damage done.

For the Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts, present at the encounter, Mrs Duffy was a typical forthright Lancastrian grandmother who was simply expressing her views to the prime minister. But in no way could she be described as a “bigot”, he said. In terms of assessing the damage he wasn’t prepared to say yet but as the story has unfolded the damage is clear.

“That was a disaster,” Brown can be heard saying. “You should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous.” And when asked about what she was saying to him: “Oh just everything. She was such a bigoted woman.” These remarks cannot do anything but damage Gordon Brown. Be in no mistake about that.

Within half an hour Brown was seen speaking on BBC Radio 2. He was visibly drained, no doubt distraught that his remarks were picked up by Sky News. Was he tired? He has looked increasingly so in recent days. Will these remarks bring about the end of his career and destroy the Labour party’s chances in the general election? Very possibly, and many are saying that the prime minister’s body language during that Radio 2 interview suggest he clearly felt so. I won’t go as far as that. I think he was putting his head in hand because he was listening back to his comments. I’ve done similar myself when I am trying to listen to something and I’ve watched his body language enough to suggest to me that’s all it was.
But it won’t matter.

The enduring image will be that of a broken man listening to his own remarks about a voter that have all but guaranteed electoral defeat for his political party.

We feel shame about anything about ourselves that we would prefer others not to see. The body language of shame is about being invisible or not acknowledging being seen by others. We become small in posture by slouching or turning away. We avert our gaze from that of others, which is reminiscent of a baby covering its own eyes and imagining that it has become invisible to others

The image of Brown shading his eyes from the television camera that was focused on him while he was being interviewed (and which he must have known was focused on him) screams shame. What Brown felt shame for will be irrelevant.

Many will condemn the prime minister for his comments, and those who already believe it will say they illustrate the disconnect between the government and the governed.

For those that believe that Labour doesn’t listen to them anymore, the prime minister’s remarks will reinforce that belief. How the opposition parties have so far responded to this incident has also been telling.

The Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne has already been quoted as saying the prime minister’s remarks “speak for themselves”. But he avoided the trap of calling for the prime minister to publicly apologise which turned out to be wise, given the prime minister’s almost immediate response.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats pointedly refused to comment on the incident.

Both parties have probably decided the comments will do enough damage on their own and that they can only damage themselves by condemning the prime minister. They have had they’re own gaffes in the past after all and there is still a week to go until polling day so any one of them could find themselves in a similar position.

This particular gaffe is similar in scale to John Major’s comments following an interview with ITN in which he referred to several of his Cabinet colleagues as “bastards”. But the context is very different, particularly because the comments have been made about a voter – and a lifelong Labour voter at that. Brown is just lucky, if he can be considered lucky at all, not to have turned the air blue in the back of his limo.

Unfortunately for the prime minister this incident is unlike that involving Jacqui Janes, in which he was criticised for making numerous spelling mistakes in a letter of condolence to her over the loss of her son. A number of newspapers, including the Sun, which had led the attack on the Brown, misjudged the mood of the nation and misjudged the effect the attack would have on the prime minister’s popularity.

There is no escaping the effect of this, whether you agree with the prime minister that Gillian Duffy is a bigot (and what she said about eastern Europeans flocking to this country could certainly be suggestive of her views) or not: the fact that he can be that dismissive about a voter will resonate with the electorate with a week to go before polling day.

This has been the underlying issue of the election campaign: That there is a very real very deep anger that politicians do not represent the wishes of the people that have elected them. And that trust in politicians and the political process is at an all time low. That level of anger in some quarters will now be reinforced by the prime minister’s remarks about Gillian Duffy and there may now be no way back for Labour.