The PM's two words that brought his campaign to a thudding halt... and what it means for the next few days on the trail

As one colleague at the newspaper office I work in said, "I haven't seen so many journalists crowded around the TV since 9/11."

What were we watching? A door, actually. A door in Rochdale (a town up the road from Manchester). This was Gillan Duffy's place, of course, and inside were Mrs Duffy and one Mr Gordon Brown, and here was the banana skin moment we'd been waiting for in the 2010 UK election.

Brown was there to say sorry, to say very very sorry, for earlier in the day he'd been recorded by Sky News calling Duffy a "bigoted woman". He'd been out talking to, you know, ordinary people, and found himself chatting to Duffy, an old Labour supporter who raised concerns about immigration.

"You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're, you're -- but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking in from?" she asked, among other things. The clever answer would have been to say "eastern Europe, probably", but instead the prime minister fumbled his way through a wind-up chat about her grandchildren, then headed back for the Jag.

Unfortunately for Gordon, he'd forgotten to remove the lapel microphone, and Sky News heard him upbraid his aides, like this: "That was a disaster. They should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? ... She's just a, sort of, bigoted woman."

In scenes that at moments made In the Thick of It (if you're a fan, do visit Malcolm Tucker's election briefing for the Guardian) seem like a tame documentary, Brown was swiftly off to a radio interview, where he appeared oblivious to the fact that radio studios tend to have webcams up in the corners these days, and offered his apology with slumped shoulders and head in hands.

Then off to that house in Rochdale, and in went Gordon, for nearly a fricking hour, while we stared at the door, demented hacks that we are. He emerged and his scowl had turned into a clownish grin. And Twitter was flicking over -- with warning hash tags of #bigotlady and #bigotgaffe -- like an autocue on absinthe, and the 24-hour news channels were zooming in on the Twitterati, and the Twitterati were tweeting, Look the TV are looking at us and, well, the media was eating itself delightedly.

But for all the hysteria of the day, this is a hell of a moment in a tight, tight campaign. (Did you hear about the yellow surge? Yes, of course you did. The Lib Dems are THE story.) The problem isn't so much the two-sides-of-Gordon-Brown stuff, nor his media ineptitude. Everyone knows about that, and in a perverse way revelations about his clunking fist off-stage behaviour have done him no harm -- instead playing to the idea of a tough leader, and a useful contrast to the fake tan stylings on Tony Blair and David Cameron.

No, what will really stick to the windscreen of Gordon the Big Engine is the reopening of the immigration debate. Tomorrow's papers are just flashing up on the telly news as I write, and while everyone -- including, gasp, the Financial Times -- is leading with Gordon's gaffe, the Daily Mail tellingly puts it this way: "DEMONISED: THE GRANNY WHO DARED TO UTTER THE I-WORD".

Immigration has only fleeting figured in a campaign to date dominated by the issue of spending and the drama of the TV debates (last of three tomorrow night). It's simmered away, but this will flick it up to boiling point. And as Brown knows -- for this is precisely what led him to say what he said, albeit in what he believed to be a private setting -- there is a large chunk of the UK population that, sometimes bigoted, sometimes not, are concerned about immigration. It's a foreground issue now, and while the Tories and Lib Dems will be ready to discuss it, Brown has sent a thuddlingly clear message that he doesn't want to talk about it all.

Comments (23)

by stuart munro on April 29, 2010
stuart munro

We can't discuss immigration in NZ either, without PC nutters framing everything in terms of race.

But the microphone is revealing - maybe politicians should wear them during working hours - it would reduce their ability to trade on insincerity.

by Robert Winter on April 29, 2010
Robert Winter

The perils of mikes. I am reminded of a conference in which I once participated, in which the eminent keynote speaker, on leaving the hall and its 500 plus attendees unmiked, was broadcast across the hall with perfect clarity as he systematically attacked his chairperson, the quality of the questions from the audience and, and here he was most explicit, the charms of the female section of the audience, whom he described, and I paraphrase, as providing him with no worthwhile opportunities for the coming evening. Alas, the conference organiser sent post-haste to switch off the mike went in the wrong direction, and the ruminations continued until the mike could no longer be picked up.

Gordon has, I fear, finally made certain that he should start writing his autobiography. Ed Balls must be polishing his CV, as will others.

by Tim Watkin on April 29, 2010
Tim Watkin

The thing that gets me is the faux outrage. I can't imagine a day of campaigning goes by when the leaders don't come out of meetings or walkabouts and bitch to their aides and talk about some idiot or tosser they came across. Plenty of journalists would have walked away from that media scrum thinking or saying the same thing. Yet now everyone's acting offended at something that everyone knows is commonplace.

In many ways it's remarkable the language Grumpy Gordon used was so mild.

by Andrew Geddis on April 29, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Gordon's broadcast slip-up was nothing. THIS is what unintentionally broadcast truth sounds like ... (possibly nsfw).

by Toby Manhire on April 29, 2010
Toby Manhire

Agree, Tim, that there's a whiff of hypocrisy about it all -- I've heard politicians off the record use much fruitier language, and you could debate the ethics of Sky broadcasting what was a private conversation. John Prescott thinks it's all a Murdoch plot. But I don't think it's the huffing and puffing that is the problem - had it been on another issue it wouldn't have left such a sting.

Meanwhlle, an Eastern European in the UK writes: "the political culture in the UK is such that no politician has any choice but to grovel to the bigots."

by stuart munro on April 29, 2010
stuart munro

Yeah, but, Gordon couldn't answer the lady's question.

And he couldn't answer because open immigration is one of the pillars of the Washington consensus because it drives down wages.

The self-styled liberal left have aligned with the nutty right in betraying their constituencies by not only promoting open immigration, but by attacking anyone who even tries to discuss the economic aspects of it.

Gordon was the bigot, and, he didn't answer her question.

by Andrew Geddis on April 30, 2010
Andrew Geddis

"And he couldn't answer because open immigration is one of the pillars of the Washington consensus because it drives down wages."

Gosh - someone should tell the UK's Socialist Workers Party that they are doing the work of the world's evil capitalist puppet masters. I mean, listen to this crazy talk:

Racism is the enemy of working class solidarity. When times are hard, racist myths which pit ordinary people against each other increase.


If people believe that immigrants are to blame for the problems in society, it lets the real perpetrators off the hook.

by stuart munro on April 30, 2010
stuart munro

@ Andrew

It is of course automatic (or autonomic?) for you to make the leap from immigration to racism, but immigration resistance, where it occurs, is rarely based on race.

It has to do with nationalsm -the other post modern bete noir. I'm sure you will edify me will the terrors of that phenomenon - but the nation state remains the unit of political accountability, and the standard by which political actions are judged.

In a democratic polity, policies must either 1) meet the preferences of the citizens,or 2) serve the long term or enlightened best interest of the citizens. Any other actions are improper.

So, when your average 60 year old grandmother hits the PM with a 'please explain' - the job is to explain.

I doubt anyone has managed to tell the Socialist Workers party anything, but their position is simply absurd, and it astonishes me that a presumably intelligent person would credit it.

Immigration is, like everything else, a mixture of goods and ills, and it must be examined and discussed as such.

Immigration policy should be as open to scrutiny and debate as any other policy, and as demonstrably in the public interest. Where politicians cannot defend their policies, the public are entitled to expect that they will change them.

by Chris de Lisle on April 30, 2010
Chris de Lisle

I think this is one of those points that gives people an opportunity to vent. It's not really that Gordon Brown expressed contempt for Mrs Duffy, but that it is evidence of the sort of contempt many suspect that Brown feels for the the ordinary British person?

It serves as concrete evidence that he is elitist and rude, which is a whole lot more important than whatever policies he might have (which are complicated and will change completely in the five years between now and the next election).

by Graeme Edgeler on April 30, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Gosh - someone should tell the UK's Socialist Workers Party that they are doing the work of the world's evil capitalist puppet masters

And they're not the first, the quite cool 1946 animated short The Brotherhood of Man, 'sponsored as a contribution to the American people by the UAW-CIO' shows that unions have been doing the bidding of the owners of capital for some time as well!

by Claire Browning on April 30, 2010
Claire Browning

Faux outrage? … not so sure. I think it’s valid information for voters: the whole exchange was on telly last night, so I know as much about her as Brown presumably does (or did at the time), and the woman doesn’t immediately strike me as a bigot. What she said was poorly articulated, unfortunately expressed, not a subject for a 30-second glad-handing photo opportunity, but you don’t have to agree with it to recognise that it is underpinned by valid, universal policy questions -- how open-minded is it to refuse to even discuss them? And even if they weren’t, Brown owes her some basic courtesy, as a life Labour supporter, and someone brave enough to step up to all those snapping gawking cameras for his photo opportunity. She presented as genuinely shocked and hurt and so she should have been; I don‘t care if she is a bigot, I felt sorry for her. She spoke in good faith to someone she thought she liked and trusted. Anyone as ungracious and stupid as Brown (and your keynote speaker, Robert) -- biting the hand that feeds -- deserves what they get.

by stuart munro on April 30, 2010
stuart munro

If people believe that immigrants are to blame for the problems in society, it lets the real perpetrators off the hook.

Quite so - it is, for example, people like Lianne Dalziel, who enabled the continued exploitation of Russian 'slave crews' by Sealord, Independent Fisheries and Amalgamated Marketing, in clear breach of NZ labour laws and heaven knows how many international protocols. And she personally assured me that that was all over.

But even imprisoning her, or her successors, would not in and of itself resolve the problem. When immigration policy is improper, it must change.

by Claire Browning on April 30, 2010
Claire Browning

PS. Although it is true -- arguing against myself now -- that Mrs Duffy wouldn't have had to endure shock and hurt, if the media had kept mum. And since publication sure wasn't in her personal interests, nor arguably the national interest either -- if you believe the chap who said [I'm paraphrasing] Gordon Brown is screwed already, so this will make zero difference -- it's pure media self-interest. How have the sales / ratings been, last few days?

by Tim Watkin on April 30, 2010
Tim Watkin

Candid comments like that are always going to cause a huge sensation, not least because so much modern politics is carefully scripted and focus group-tested to balance maximum political gain and minimum frightening of the horses. It lifted the curtain, and that's fascinating.

However the faux outrage comment is fair, I think, because nearly every politician or person in public life, if they were honest, would be thinking 'there but for the grace of God, do I'. Indeed, who amongst us hasn't been friendly to a colleague, client, whoever, and then later talked to a confidante saying what a pillock they were?

Was she a bigot? We don't know her well enough to know, but her line was, roughly, 'you can't even talk about these immigrants without being called...' and she started to say a word beginning with 'r'. I'm guessing it was 'racist'. Maybe that was as far as she would have gone, but that's a classic example of a viewpoint that goes on to say 'THEY all come here and take OUR jobs' and 'We've got too many of these Polacks here now...'.

Who knows about this woman? And as Claire says, as a life-long supporter she was due respect. And she has a right to her view. But it felt like she was on the verge of what I would describe as dangerous territory.

Stuart, immigration isn't open in the UK. As in NZ, they now have a point system. For all that, we live in a world now where people like to live in other countries and cultures, indeed you're doing it youself. Do you really want to make the case for stronger nationalism and the limitations, wars (cold and hot), protectionism, and yes bigotry, that so often goes with it?

Of course immigration must be able to be debated. But if we're going to debate it, be honest enough to recognise that just about every democracy has at one point or another seen the 'immigration debate' hijacked by bigoted, fear-mongering politicians. The two do go hand in hand, hence Brown's air-sucking reaction and, I suspect, some of the other comments above.

by stuart munro on May 01, 2010
stuart munro

Well, yes.

You know that Korea, though perfectly liberal in many respects, has, in some areas as much parochialism as the next place. And well they might - they are guaranteed to get the short end everywhere else. So if I get the short end ever here, I am neither surprised nor outraged.

Globalisation appeals to politicians because it allows them to be even less responsible. The antidote is a healthy level of civic nationalism. The Korean people don't take crap from their government like kiwis do - they had over 200 000 people in Gwanghamun protesting Lee Myung Bak's unilateral decision to let in untested US beef- and if it hadn't been for the Olympics the president would probably have been thrown out.

I expect people to be parochial in their own country, and politicians to be strictly loyal to their own polity. Bad things would happen to a Korean president who sold state assets. He would die young, if not in prison married to the guy with the most cigarettes.

As for me, I will be welcome while they choose to learn English, which may not be forever. But I wish it was,  because every day in New Zealand the corruption of our politicians makes me sick to my back teeth.

by stuart munro on May 01, 2010
stuart munro

I am doing it myself because my government corruptly gave my job to a Russian mafia. And before you scoff, official estimates from folk who study organised crime put the criminal capitalisation of Russian industry at 70%. Which sector of market capitalisation do you suppose runs chartered fishing vessels? The legitimate 30%?

So don't give me the party line that immigrants don't steal jobs, I am its living antithesis. Many of my former colleagues, not educated enough to retrain, committed suicide.

So spare me your piffle, and concentrate on holding politicians accountable, or NZ shall perish of corruption as surely as Russia has.

by Claire Browning on May 01, 2010
Claire Browning

Tim, yes, I sure wasn't disputing the dangerousness of the territory, or the connections between a so-called 'policy debate' and full blown bigotry. Because I suspect, if pressed, many with residual concerns about immigration wouldn't be able to articulate any other argument than the kind of points you raised, or variations on a vague theme of cultural insecurity. Nationalism, in Stuart's words -- the same rich vein Mr Peters used to mine.

But while acknowledging that real risk, another thing bothers me. Implicitly, what someone like Mr Brown is saying to someone like Mrs Duffy (assuming her views are genuinely held and deeply felt) is: there isn't a place in this country for people like you. Sure, you can live here, but your voice and your views don't count, because they might be unacceptable views; we're too scared even to poke around them a bit to find out.

I just don't see how this helps the insecurity; if anything, it's bound to exacerbate it.

By contrast, look at all the air time and political time given to climate change sceptics -- and that was in a context backed by actual science. Whereas in the immigration context, it is just a clash of policy views, or maybe not even a clash, just a question of whether, along the immigration policy spectrum, the country in question has the settings right.

by william blake on May 01, 2010
william blake

I think of the 1985 German publication Ganz unten (Lowest of the Low) by Gunther Wallraff as being the benchmark for bad immigration practice.

Wallraff is an investigative journalist who disguised himself as Turkish worker and reported on social and working conditions as he experienced them as a 'guest worker' ('guest' as certain migrants cannot become citizens) in the Thyssen steel factory. He speaks of the daily humiliations, the hostilities and the hatred. He was doing the work that German citizens would not do for the rates of pay he recieved.

Perhaps like the Pacific people who fruit pick in the South Island orchards; work that kiwis won't do for the pay rate is too low or the work too hard depending on how it is viewed.

by stuart munro on May 01, 2010
stuart munro

@ 'William' Indeed. And should working class Germans have welcomed Turkish workers? It's true that their anger should mostly be directed at their treacherous leaders- who changed immigration working rules. But of course, getting accountability from politicians is harder than finding another job.

Where is the rule that says employers must always be allowed to draw on sources of cheap labour? If you allow this, then local conditions are never allowed to influence wages.

Who bears the social costs of low-wage migrants - I can tell you that ex-soviet slave crews never paid a cent in tax, and they participated fully in the criminal justice system. I'd be very surprised if the shell corporations that did the leasing paid any tax either.

Traditionally, south island fruit was picked by New Zealand university students and holiday makers. But these folk indeed found wages inadequate, especially after growers like the Marlborough vintners began recruiting Indonesian pruning gangs, and a lively and illicit trade in unpermitted workers ensued.

But of course, 'William' will be supporting the rights of growers to circumvent the law, not the established customs of New Zealand society.

Do pacific islanders have a right to work in NZ? No more than any other foreign national. And any government that lets any in, with unemployment running at 7%, is acting directly against the national interest.

But don't let that get in the way of William's argument- 'it's all because they're brown' - really - and the Russians are all caucasian. 


It's all about race.

You're all racists.

Sorry 'William', am  I stealing your lines? Maybe you should get some better ones.

by Craig Ranapia on May 02, 2010
Craig Ranapia

The thing that gets me is the faux outrage. I can't imagine a day of campaigning goes by when the leaders don't come out of meetings or walkabouts and bitch to their aides and talk about some idiot or tosser they came across.

I'm sure they do, Tim.  And I'm sure there's plenty of politicians a lot closer to home who the show you produce is a festering boil on the arse of the body politic, and it is hosted by a creature who has the manners of a feral dog and the morals of a crack whore.  I think that would provide a certain insight into said politician's attitude towards public scrutiny and accountability, don't you?

As for Gordon Brown's little outburst, pardon me if I don't feel much sympathy for the exposed hypocrisy of a man who has spent the whole campaign attacking his oppoents as, at best, hypocrites if not outright liars who cloak their real agendas behind carefully stage managed photo ops.

by Andrew Geddis on May 02, 2010
Andrew Geddis


Given that you are "presently teaching English & current affairs in Korea because there are no good jobs in New Zealand", don't you feel a bit bad about undercutting the wages and conditions of Korean language teachers? After all, consider this. Or even this.

But maybe globalisation and the ability of people to move to where you can become economically better off is bad only when other people are involved?

by stuart munro on May 03, 2010
stuart munro

@ Andrew: Not so much - I compete with Korean Language teachers on the basis of being a native speaker - which is a level of expertise most will never reach. I am paid about equally, but cannot be promoted - and my job title is 'teacher aide' a bit of a come down given I've been teaching for 12 years. Historically, Korea couldn't get anything like the numbers of native teachers it wanted. They were very happy with anyone competent, literate, & polite.

Any competent language teaching program wants a few native speakers - about 1:6 is considered ample. I'm the sole native speaker in a school with about 20 Korean English teachers. A secondary major issue is style. Korean teachers teach for the Confucian style 'Suning' exam. Native English speakers often find the questions in it supercilious and semantically empty.

The teaching of English is politically fraught in Korea. There is even a fairly ripe racist anti-foreigner lobby group that only recently lost direct access to the Minister of immigration. But the wage parity thing is simply a matter of international rates - wages are not high in Korea, and foreign graduates won't work for much less than they could make at home. It's the cost of living that makes the low wage worthwhile (cheese is cheaper than in NZ, for instance.)

Parents want their children to learn from foreigners. Or they do if they mean for their children to travel. Korean English teachers don't like us much, but they can't do what we do. We are not permitted to teach privately - but when I used to, I'd earn roughly three times what I make at present.

If NZ's treacherous Immigration ministers hadn't, and weren't still giving our fisheries away to the Russian Mafia, I'd never have had to leave NZ. I wonder how much you suppose that career change cost? My Korean friends asked me to come here to teach their kids. We can't all teach law (gratis I presume?) you know. I did teach refugees in NZ for five years - but no one would pay me for it, and I've as much right to eat as the next guy.

I'm supposed to be a fan of globalisation? What do you suppose all that crap did to my career path? I lost between 15 & 20 years of seniority. And my friends topped themselves. Three off the boat I started on. What other industry has a 10% suicide rate? You remember how the Nelson coroner got upset about sucide a few years back? I wonder if you can guess why.

So, is globalisation bad? For me, there's no question that globalisation of work, and of natural resources, and perhaps financial markets, is fraught with problems. It is really only the globalisation of culture that is defensible.

And what would you say, if Otago hired a bunch of young Indian Lawyers to replace you? I'm sure they can be had cheaper internationally, and though your unique and experiential expertise gives you an edge, could you do the work of 3 Indian lawyers? In NZ law, perhaps. What about six, or ten? How would you feel if Otago 'found a way around' the minimum wage to replace you in this fashion?

I could do the work of six Russian fishermen, at the time that it mattered. But not eighty.


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