Bigotgate was the name given to the political scandal that briefly held the attention of the British public on the 28th April 2010, and might or might not have been the defining moment of the 2010 General Election campaign.
With a General Election scheduled to be held in the United Kingdom on the 6th May 2010, the election campaign was in full swing and all was not going well for the incumbent Labour Party. Indeed, according to a number of polls, Labour had been relegated to third place, and appeared to be on course for an historic defeat. Thus on the 24th April it became known that Labour were going to change their election strategy, as they feared that it was about to become a two-horse race between their Conservative and Liberal Democrat rivals. As part of this new strategy, Brown would be making an effort to "meet more ordinary voters", and on Wednesday 28th April 2010 dramatic evidence emerged of what happened when Gordon Brown did indeed make contact with "ordinary voters".
Gordon Brown was campaigning in Rochdale, and being interviewed by James Cook of the BBC, when a "voice in the background" began questioning "where the money was going to come from". The voice belonged to a sixty-six year-old former council worker named Gillian Duffy who had only popped out to buy a loaf of bread, and stumbled across the Prime Ministerial media circus. This attracted the attention of the local Labour candidate Simon Danczuk who went to speak to her. Having established that she was a 'lifelong Labour supporter', Danczuk naturally concluded that she was exactly the kind of 'ordinary voter' that Brown should be making contact with, and a conversation ensued, during which she duly challenged Brown on a "number of issues including immigration and crime". At the conclusion of their conversation, Mrs Duffy told reporters that she had been happy with Brown's responses, said that he "seems a nice man", and that despite the fact that she didn't think he had answered all her questions, she would indeed be voting for him, although without any great enthusiasm it must be said, as she apparently viewed Brown as "the best of a bad bunch".
Mission accomplished one might have imagined, particularly since Mrs Duffy had began by saying that she was "absolutely ashamed of saying I'm Labour". One more Labour supporter reassured, and one more vote in the bag one might have thought, except that after shaking Duffy's hand, and waving at the crowd, Brown then climbed into his car and quite forgot that he still had his Sky News microphone attached and that it was still live. His subsequent remarks as he sat in the car were therefore not quite as confidential as he imagined and turned out to be quite at variance with his previous closing pleasantries. Brown pronounced that his meeting with Mrs Duffy "was a disaster", and that they "should never have put me with that woman". When his aide Justin Forsyth asked what had gone wrong, Brown replied "Oh everything. She was just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour. Ridiculous." The issue here being that Mrs Duffy had at one point asked Brown the question, "all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?", and it seemed that Brown had therefore concluded that the questioner was some kind of racist for daring to raise the issue of immigration.
As it was, Brown was enroute to an interview with Jeremy Vine to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2, by which time Sky News had already broadcast Brown's candid conversation to a startled nation. By 12.30 pm a rather puzzled Mrs Duffy had herself been played a recording of Brown's candid remarks and described herself as being "very disappointed" and "very upset". She went on to say, "He's an educated person, why has he come out with words like that? He's going to lead this country and he's calling an ordinary woman who's just come up and asked him questions that most people would ask him - they're not doing anything about the national debt and it's going to be tax, tax, tax for another twenty years to get out of this national debt - and he's calling me a bigot. When he was chancellor he did very good things for this country, but now it's all gone to pot, everything. I don't want to speak to him again really. Just give an apology. What was bigoted in that what I said? I just asked about national debt? I am quite shocked. Very shocked." (As could be seen by Mrs Duffy's reactions; it was the issue of the national debt that was at the forefront of her mind, and the fact that she had made a passing reference to the "Eastern Europeans" who were allegedly "flocking" to Rochdale was neither here nor there as far as she was concerned.)
A quarter of an hour later Brown was sitting in the studio being interviewed for the Jeremy Vine Show and was forced to listen to the same recording. The BBC had a camera in the studio and therefore caught his reaction as he realised that his "bigoted woman" remark had been captured for posterity, and his head slumped into his hands as the full enormity of his faux pas sunk in. Initially Brown did his best to squirm his way out of the hole he had dug for himself. "They have chosen to play my private conversation with the person who was in the car with me" he complained, although he did say that he was sorry "if I've said anything like that". (What do you mean 'if' Mr Brown. We've got it on tape.). Once he was out of the studio, Brown then decided to telephone Mrs Duffy to offer his apologies. The BBC contacted her to ask her if she was satisfied with this apology. Her response was; "No, absolutely not. It makes no amends. It makes no difference to me".
Brown therefore felt obliged to rearrange his schedule, and at 3.00 pm turned up at the Duffy household to speak to her in person in a desperate bid to mitigate the damage. After a meeting lasting thirty-nine minutes Brown emerged bearing his trademark forced grin to inform the assembled throng of waiting journalists that she had accepted his apology, as he announced that he was "mortified by what has happened", had offered Mrs Duffy his "sincere apologies", and that he had simply "misunderstood what she said". He was, he said "a penitent sinner" as he explained that, "Sometimes you say things that you don't mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you want to correct it very quickly." It was however notable that Mrs Duffy did not appear before the cameras and remained safely indoors. In fact, according to her nephew, Peter Duffy speaking later on BBC Radio 5 Live, she was indeed asked to step outside with Brown but politely refused.
Nevertheless, the 'bigot row' was now the story of the day and dominated the media, with the clip of Brown referring to Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman" being endlessly replayed on every television and radio bulletin during the day. It was the same the following Thursday as the story dominated the front pages of the newspapers, as thousands upon thousands of words were devoted to the task of analysing precisely what this meant for the election.
Some people tried spin the story and claim that Brown was simply being honest and the woman was indeed a bigot. However since they were talking about the very same Gordon Brown who had once promised 'British Jobs for British Workers' that seemed a bit rich. Others argued that Brown had misheard her, and that he thought she had said 'fucking' rather than 'flocking', which was a trifle farfetched, although perhaps the prize for creating thinking under pressure should have gone to John Prescott who complained on his blog (in a piece reproduced in The Guardian) that the whole affair was "nothing but a Murdoch plot", and that the Murdoch media empire had "reached a new low in their desperate attempt to turn the election for the Tories", having "broadcast a private conversation between Gordon and his staff". Brown himself later offered his own explanation when he was interviewed by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman on the Friday, which was; "I thought she was talking about expelling all university students from here who were foreigners". An excuse which was, if anything, even more bizarre, since it bore no relation whatsoever to any words that had ever come out of Mrs Duffy's mouth.
Back in the real world The Independent tried to put the best spin on it by describing it as "more a lapse than a catastrophe", and the best that the Daily Mirror could do was not to really mention it and rather focus on the fact that Brown had said sorry. Which he did. At least six times, according to some accounts. Or even seven, if one counted the rather the admission that "I don't get all of it right" during the course of the third televised leaders' debate on the Thursday evening. Elsewhere, however it was a "car crash for Gordon Brown" that had the "potential to inflict immense damage", as the Labour campaign had been plunged "into crisis", "thrown in turmoil" left "in disarray" etc etc. Or as one "cabinet source" succinctly put it, it was "a total, unmitigated disaster" that featured "absolutely no redeeming features". Even Brown himself appreciated that he had been "personally damaged" by the incident for which he was paying a "very high price".
Curiously enough those interested parties who read through the entire transcript of the conversation between Duffy and Brown would have been struck by the fact that the whole thing appeared fairly innocuous. Granted she asked some fairly blunt questions, such as "how are you going to get us out of all this debt Gordon?", not to mention her query regarding "all these eastern Europeans", but it all boiled down to a perfectly ordinary conversation with a perfectly ordinary voter of a kind that politicians should expect to have during the course of an election campaign. Quite why Brown thought it was a "disaster" wasn't clear, although perhaps it meant nothing more than Brown was so thin-skinned and paranoid that even the slightest hint of criticism was enough to disturb his calm.
Indeed when it came to analysing exactly where Brown had gone wrong, it was difficult to know where to begin. 'Everything' might have been the best place to start. He had certainly created the impression that there was a marked difference between his public persona and his private reality. Or as Mrs Duffy's niece was quoted as saying, "He has shown his true colours. He's always trying to pretend to be so nice and in touch with the people, but he's obviously not." But perhaps the real damage lay in the fact that Brown had described Mrs Duffy as "just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour". So he wasn't simply expressing his contempt for Mrs Duffy herself, but rather for a whole group of voters to which he believed Mrs Duffy belonged; i.e. the white working-class with concerns about immigration. As one "cabinet source" put it, "These are the voters we needed to reach. These are the voters we need to turn out and support us and the Prime Minister insulted them." Or indeed to paraphrase the point that was made by a number of people; if that's what Brown thinks about lifelong Labour voters, you can just imagine the contempt that he holds the rest of us.
Of course, what difference what effect this would have on the actual election was uncertain, although many may well have agreed with The Sun
's judgement that "Gordon Brown's election hopes seemed to be toast". The one thing that was reasonably certain was that it meant that any Labour defeat in the coming General Election would be laid at Brown's door. His enemies within the Party now had the perfect weapon to deploy against him, and any ideas he might have had about remaining as Labour Party leader were probably best put to one side.
There were rumours that The Sun was offering Mrs Duffy £50,000 for her story, but in end it was the Mail on Sunday that secured that "exclusive interview" which it ran under the headline 'Gordon won't be getting my vote' on the 2nd May 2010. It turned out that what upset Mrs Duffy most was the way that Brown had dismissed her as "that woman" and that she wasn't impressed by Brown's attempt at a personal apology which she saw as nothing more than a bout of "prolonged self-justification". At one stage, Brown even issued an invitation for her to "come to No10 and meet me and Sarah", at which point the only thought that crossed her mind was "I don't think you'll be there". She also informed the Mail, that having watched the leaders' debate held on the 29th April, she had concluded that she didn't think that "Gordon came across at all well" and was of the opinion that "David Cameron knows he's three-quarters of the way there". But perhaps the most notable moment came when Mrs Duffy delivered what might be construed as Gordon Brown's political epitaph; "The thing is, I'm the sort of person he was meant to look after, not shoot down."
- James Cook, Eyewitness: Brown's 'disastrous day' after bigot slur, BBC News, 28 April 2010
- Murray Wardrop and Richard Edwards, Gordon Brown versus Gillian Duffy: transcript in full, Daily Telegraph, 28 Apr 2010
- Nicholas Watt, Gordon Brown's election car crash provides Labour with its most dangerous moment of the campaign, The Guardian, 28 April 2010
- Lance Price, Gordon Brown's gaffe is nothing short of a disaster, The Guardian, 28 April 2010
- Sam Coates, A highly damaging moment for Gordon Brown, The Times, April 28, 2010
- John Prescott, Bigot 'gaffe' is nothing but a Murdoch plot, The Guardian, 28 April 2010
- Nicola Boden, Gordon goes back to grovel in person, Daily Mail, 28th April 2010
- Bob Roberts and Patrick Mulchrone, Gordon Brown in agony over ‘bigot’ election gaff, says wife Sarah, Daily Mirror, 29/04/2010
- Roland Watson, Brown’s ‘bigot’ blunder plunges Labour campaign into crisis, The Times April 29, 2010
- Graeme Wilson, Richard Moriarty And Alex West, She’s not bigot... he’s not clever, The Sun, Published: 29 Apr 2010
- Niall Firth, Revealed: 'Bigot' row pensioner REFUSED spin doctors' pleas, Daily Mail, 29th April 2010
- Laura Collins and Simon Walters, Gordon won't be getting my vote, Mail on Sunday, 2nd May 2010