Calling an elderly woman a bigot is a hopeless gaffe for any politician, but for one whose party’s strategy has rested on energising a core vote which will have sympathies with her is more so. Gillian Duffy asked the Prime Minister, amidst a heated conversation which was also about reducing the defecit, about “Eastern Europeans” – about where they come from and why no one was allowed to talk about immigration. In communities like Rochdale, this is a widely held befuddlement, and Duffy has expressed it far more mildly than many might. Brown’s peevish labelling will not play well amongst just the people Labour desperately needed to turn out on May 6th.
The other parties won’t need to bang on about this – Nick Clegg, for instance, has already said simply that, “”He has been recorded saying what he has said and will have to answer for that.” George Osborne has suggested that general elections reveal the truth about people, which seems a less careful answer but nevertheless leaves the judgement for the voters. The media will do more than enough of the bashing, and the parties must be careful not to appear to agree with Duffy – as Sunny Hundal says, her words weren’t bigoted as spoken, but they are clearly a sort of gateway into those types of thought. Brown has apologised publically and personally, but he has set Labour back not just in places like Barking and Dagenham, but across a country in which enthusiasm for voting for his party was already depressed.
The issue for now is not whether Duffy (as opposed to her Twitter parody) is or is not a bigot. The issue, as she says, is that “most people would ask him” these questions in the sort of constituency in which she lives. Next Left is right that politicians need to be able to disagree with voters. Labour, scared of doing so, have dismissed the immigration concerns of their core voters – rather than engaged with them and proven them misplaced – for 13 years. This will not smack to them of renewal, at the very moment the party needs most to enthuse them.