So, let’s see if I can match my recent success. (I’m guessing not. I seem to have lost my gift for pith since ranting about the Tories. This one’s quite lengthy.)
Yesterday, Gordon Brown had a chat with a lady he met on the campaign trail, who had some pointed questions for him. The exchange and the fall-out looked like this:
Okay, before any political analysis, one non-partisan thing: Surely saying anything you absolutely don’t want people to hear while you’re wearing a microphone is just dumb.
Maybe it’s just easy for me to say that. I’ve never been miked (mic’ed?) up in my life, so I imagine I’ll be very conscious of it if it ever happens. For anyone who spends much time with microphones attached to them, though, it might be easy to get complacent and drop your guard. So, maybe it’s a slightly unfair criticism. But getting caught saying something because you didn’t realise your microphone was still on does seem like a pretty stupid mistake, especially when it’s only about eight seconds since you were being recorded speaking on camera.
Moving on to the video, the first thing I noticed is that he was arguing with her. Which seems like a bad idea. She didn’t say anything objectionable to begin with, really, just explained why she doesn’t feel happy with the current state of things, regarding local policing in particular. And Gordon was trying to persuade her that she’s wrong. Surely this isn’t the time for that. Surely competent politicking at this point, given the number of cameras pointed at him, would involving reining in the bellicosity as much as possible, listening to what one of your voters has to say, reassuring her of your interest in addressing these concerns, and moving swiftly on.
Whether one crotchety old woman decides not to vote Labour doesn’t actually matter to him in the grand scheme of things right now. He doesn’t need to try extra hard to win her round; he needs to make sure the potentially millions of people watching the news don’t end up thinking he’s a cock.
I don’t think this is cynical, or implies that politics is all about superficial perceptions. One of the best ways not to look like a cock is not to be a cock, after all. It’s just about priorities. I’m not saying he should ignore this woman’s concerns, but trying to mollify her right now in the course of this one conversation isn’t a practical aim.
I mean, at one point she asked him: “How are you going to cut the debt, Gordon?” And while I’m pretty sure I’ve way overstepped any appropriate boundaries already in giving this much political advice to the Prime Minster… I’m pretty sure it’s allowed for you to answer a question like that with an answer like: “Well, that’s a hugely complex issue which we’re giving a lot of thought to and making a number of proposals, but it’s not something I can really summarise in a three-minute impromptu chat with some old baggage who doesn’t know her arse from her ISA.”
Okay, maybe the last bit would divide the electorate in ways he would rather avoid, but you see my point.
Anyway, with regard to the relevant, “bigoted” remarks she made, I was surprised how thin on the ground they were. “You can’t say anything about the immigrants,” was about all she managed, and then asked: “Where are they all flocking from?” of the recent Eastern European immigrants to this country. Gordon dithers a bit, and turns the subject back to education. He makes some coherent points about university and tuition fees; she shakes his hand, they have a brief and friendly chat about her grandkids, and they both move on.
And then while he was driving off in the car afterwards, he’s heard describing the meeting to a professional colleague as a “disaster”, and complains about being set up with “a sort of bigoted woman”. And then the video cuts to some journalists playing that clip to her, and pressing her for an outraged response. (And, later, hassling her to get off her phone when it rings, because they want to keep putting her on the live news, and her personal conversations aren’t interesting to them.) She mostly seemed disappointed that his focus wasn’t more on the questions she was raising about financial issues.
Which seems like a legitimate thing for her to be upset about. She spent a few minutes chatting with the Prime Minster about the local and national political issues that are worrying her, and the only thing he seemed to have taken away from it was that she made a brief comment about immigration, which he’s labelled as “bigoted”. Which might be a rather unfair, presumptuous assessment. After all, she didn’t say that much. It may have been a rather illiberal-sounding question, but for the most part she seemed fairly grounded, and extrapolating that she must a raving xenophobe is certainly premature.
Having said that, the overreaction to Gordon Brown’s response was eye-rollingly depressing.
He was on his way somewhere, in the middle of a busy working day barely a week before a major election, when a woman came up to him and started asking him difficult, accusatory questions, while a camera crew filmed it all. He wasn’t expecting it, but out of the blue comes this woman telling him how disappointed she is with him personally, and he knows that everyone in the country will judge him on how he handles it. He answers her questions for several minutes, trying to keep his composure under this abrupt line of questioning and under the scrutiny of the media.
This is probably a more stressful scenario than I’ve ever encountered in my life.
Yes, he should expect to face this kind of thing more than me, since he’s running for so prominent a public office, but he’s entitled to be a little shaken up by suddenly being thrust into a very public confrontation like that. And, based on my own experience of enduring social situations that one finds stressful, I wouldn’t begrudge him the chance to vent about it afterwards.
He was in a private space, speaking privately, to a trusted confidante, in a manner not meant for public ears. He tried to shake off some of the tension and worry that had probably built up during the exchange, by making exasperated noises and complaining about the bigoted woman. I’m not sure if the tape cuts off at that point, or if this particular YouTube clip just stops there, but based on that I’d say he was, if anything, fairly restrained.
If I’d been him, and had somehow held it together throughout such a socially straining encounter, I would have wanted to diffuse some of my own tension too, once I’d got into my car and shut out the world, and retreated momentarily to a safe and private space. And if I’m honest, I might well have used less generous phrases than “some bigoted woman” to describe my feelings of frustration and awkwardness at what had just happened. “Mad old bitch” comes to mind as one example.
And no, that’s not a fair way to describe her at all, but venting like this isn’t supposed to be rational. When my bus gets held up on the way to or from work, I sometimes embark on a lengthy tirade (usually just in my head or under my breath) about how Transport For London is obviously entirely staffed by clueless fucking wankers. I know it’s not, but it would spoil the therapeutic effect to have to admit that at the time.
So I moan and bitch about the horrendous injustice of a simple bus journey from Croydon to Bromley taking nearer seventy-five minutes than forty-five because of some utter dickhead bus-driver, and then I have a cup of tea and feel better.
The point is, what I mutter in between expletives in private moments isn’t representative of how I really think about people most of the time. I have no general pervasive prejudice against bus-drivers. And Gordon Brown probably isn’t actually contemptuous and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people like whatsherface there. I’m not even close to being cynical enough to think that he genuinely doesn’t care about things like the national debt, or university tuition fees.
What’s wearying about all this is the way the media jumped on it at the first whiff of a potential scandal. Their questions to her were either pointlessly speculative (“Why do you think Gordon Brown said what he said?”) or pointlessly loaded (“Is that what you expect of a politician?”), and they were transparently trying to stir up something they could turn into a story, rather than just reporting on any news that’s already there.
Just as wearying was the way Gordon apparently felt like he had to bow and scrape as much as they demanded in the aftermath. Perhaps sadder still is the notion that, politically speaking, diverting all his attentions away from running the country and toward sucking up to this one woman to apologise for an off-hand comment made in private might actually be the best thing for him to do.
My sympathies are predominantly with the people who see this as a nice fresh angle for creative humour.
Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’ve changed my tune somewhat from a tweet I wrote when I first heard about this. The gist I’d got of it wasn’t quite right, because I hadn’t read or seen much about it yet; I just wanted to join in. So, yes, I’ve been swayed by the facts since then.
A few links to other perspectives before I’m done. The Angry Mob has an interesting take, with some more scrutiny of what the woman actually said. It’s possible her views are genuinely more bigoted than I’ve discussed here, but that seems to me like one of the less pertinent aspects of this whole mess.
Catmachine has some of the same ideas as me, but is less waffley about it.
And finally, Mili is a flocking Eastern European, and I for one am happy to have her. This is worth reading; being a privileged middle-class British native myself, I’d got the whole way through the above rant without considering the place in this fracas of actual immigrants to this country. So, to clarify: whether or not Gillian Duffy is a bigot, or just has some slightly old-fashioned views and chose her words a little carelessly on this particular occasion, the sentiments she deliberately and publicly expressed were offensive to many legitimate citizens of this country. And I’m not okay with that.
So. How am I doing?