"Bigotgate" and the British Election

Gordon Brown is undone by a moment of elitist disdain for the concerns of ordinary UK voters.

Elitism can be a dangerous thing in politics, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has imperiled both his reelection campaign and the fortunes of his Labor Party after a particularly unflattering demonstration of it.

The British media has dubbed it “Bigotgate.” In one of those unscripted moments that so often spells political suicide, Brown this week suffered a ruinous encounter with a Labor Party voter in the working-class mill town of Rochdale. In the course of meeting “ordinary voters” – part of an electoral strategy designed to make the famously brooding prime minister seem more people-friendly and accessible – Brown paused to talk with one Gillian Duffy. As a 65-year-old widow and lifelong Labor voter, Duffy might have seemed just the kind of constituent Brown needs to burnish his credentials with the average British voter.

Alas for Brown, Duffy also had the presence to ask about a concern that increasingly has been on the minds of British voters in recent years: the record-high rates of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, and its impact on British towns like Rochdale. As the cameras flashed, Brown obligingly nodded along, praising Duffy as a “very good woman.” In the safety of his official car, however, Brown lashed out at his aides for forcing him to endure what he called “a bigoted woman.” The whole exchange with Duffy was “ridiculous,” huffed a flustered Brown. And there the matter might have rested but for one detail that Brown in all his ire had overlooked: the microphone on his lapel was still live; the media captured his entire outburst.

In its striking condescension, Brown’s moment of unaware outage called to mind President Obama’s equally revealing assertion, during a 2008 presidential campaign stop, that “bitter” voters in small-town America “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Obama didn’t quite call these Americans bigots, but the implication was clear enough. But there the similarity ends. Politically, “Bigotgate,” which came on the day before the final British prime ministerial debate, will likely prove far more damaging for Brown than Obama’s off-the-cuff candor did for the president.

There are two main reasons for that. The first is that the scandal has served to underscore the considerable political weaknesses of Gordon Brown. After long dwelling in the shadow of the rhetorically deft Tony Blair, Brown has proved an inept successor. Not only does he lack Blair’s gift of eloquence, but he has no enthusiasm for the back-patting and handshaking that is the essence campaign politics and, hence, no talent for it. Little wonder that his calculated attempt to reach out to the average Briton has backfired in such spectacular fashion.

As expected, Brown has spent the hours post “Bigotgate” in a state of profuse apology, even making a 45-minute trip to beg forgiveness from the “bigoted woman” herself. He now insists that that was the wrong word to use and that he in fact shares Duffy’s concern about controlling immigration. Yet, these efforts to repair the damage have been clumsy and not at all credible. Bill Clinton may or may not have felt the voters’ pain, but at least he did a passable impression of empathy. A similar feat is clearly beyond Brown.

Bigotgate is also damaging because it reveals just how out of touch the UK’s governing elite is on an issue of paramount concern for voters: immigration. In worrying about the high rates of immigration, Duffy was in fact speaking for many in the country. Polls show that immigration is the second-most important topic for British voters, with 29 percent naming it as one of the most pressing issues facing the country.

Those concerns are well founded. Britain’s powers-that-be dramatically underestimated the impact of mass immigration into the UK over the past decade. In 2009 alone, Britain experienced a net migration – the sum total of immigration in and out of the country – of over 200,000. That figure, high for what is already considered one of Europe’s most crowded countries, was actually a decline from 2007, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics, when the net migration reached 233,000. That was almost six times the rate of net migration that the UK had throughout the 1990s, when the rate was around 40,000-50,000 people per year. (The total population of the UK is around 61 million, 51 million of which resides in England.) In the context of this massive influx of foreign immigrants, it’s not surprising that Britons have started to wonder where it will all lead – whether in terms of social cohesion, quality of life, or the cost in taxes for the welfare and social services for which immigrants are eligible.

If Brown and Labor’s last-place standing in almost all of Britain’s major opinion poll is at least in part a reflection of that anxiety, then Bigotgate seems certain to contribute to the party’s defeat in the May 6 general election. Brown won’t lose solely because of immigration. But his inability to speak cogently about that issue – or even to tolerate its being raised by voters – is a good indication of why he and his party are so out of favor with the British public.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine.