Where are they flocking from?

Gillian Duffy was a lifelong Labour voter who told Gordon Brown she was now “absolutely ashamed of saying I’m Labour.”

Mrs Duffy raised a number of issues with the PM: crime; tax on pensions; national debt; immigration and student tuition fees. She spoke forcefully and he responded persuasively in a four minute exchange. Afterwards he dismissed her as a “bigoted woman” in a private conversation.

Why?

You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a… But all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?
(Gillian Duffy, Rochdale, 28 April 2010)

One assumes they may be “flocking” from eastern Europe!… Mr Brown thought the encounter was a “disaster” and the idea of talking to her “ridiculous”. But really the encounter was fine. It was a heated discussion, probably uncomfortable for him, but not particularly harmful. And after the conversation, Mrs Duffy told the BBC she would probably still vote Labour, though perhaps that is now in doubt.

The infamous exchange (from BBC News)

A deception?

My only complaint with Mr Brown’s handling of the conversation was on the issue of debt.

How are you going to get us out of all this debt, Gordon?
(Mrs Duffy)

We’ve got a deficit reduction plan to cut the debt by half over the next four years.
(Mr Brown)

If only that were true… At the end of March, the public sector net debt was £771.6 billion (excluding financial interventions). That is a lot. In the year ahead, our interest payments alone are projected to be £43bn.

£43 billion.

That is more than the government proposes to spend on defence. It is twice the budget for transport or half the budget for education.

It is more than the government expects to raise in corporation tax. It is over half the VAT take.

It’s not as if we can afford to spend so much on interest. Last year alone, the government deficit was £163 billion. It spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. This is not just a number; it is an obscene amount to borrow.

Alistair Darling’s plan is to cut the deficit by half over four years. If he is successful, in four years time we will borrow just £82bn. The deficit will be half what it is now, but the national debt will not be. It will have risen by hundreds of billions of pounds. Any budding chancellor should read my blog on debt: good, bad or ugly?

Gordon Brown told Mrs Duffy he would cut the debt by half over four years. Obviously, he meant the deficit. A slip of the tongue. The difference is profound, but the language is deceptively subtle. Cutting the deficit by half may sound great, but the burgeoning debt draws us ever closer to economic doom.

“A sort of bigoted woman”

I must digress no more. What Gordon Brown said after leaving Mrs Duffy was more damaging for him.

She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour.
(Gordon Brown, oblivious of his personal microphone)

Perhaps he was right? Mrs Duffy selected eastern Europeans to illustrate her immigration concerns. Perhaps she is a bigot?

She seemed to acknowledge the issue could get her into hot water: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a…” It’s impossible to know what she almost said, but I’ll hazard a guess: she was concerned about being labelled a racist. However, she persisted and made the point, somewhat ineloquently, that immigration is too high.

I don’t believe her primary concern is eastern Europeans. I believe it is immigration. For her, recent immigration is characterised by eastern Europeans. It’s a reasonable perception. A million eastern Europeans have registered to work in the UK since the jobs market was opened to them in 2004. I believe she would have been equally concerned about immigration to Rochdale from Spain, China, Australia, Birmingham or, God forbid, Northern Ireland.

That is my perception, and I may be wrong. But Mrs Duffy seemed to recognise the danger of talking about immigration. Even the Prime Minister hears the word ‘immigration’ and thinks ‘bigot’. Mrs Duffy was evidently upset when learned what he’d called her.  He later visited her to apologise.

Gordon Brown hears his error on The Jeremy Vine Show (from BBC News)

Immigration is an important issue. We must be allowed to discuss it. There are many arguments in favour of immigration. There are strong arguments against it too. But even if debate was clear cut, if immigration was acknowledged to be A Good Thing, there will be many who remain concerned. Those concerns should be addressed, not ignored or dismissed as bigotry. That approach has given succour to the BNP, and that is – in my view – A Bad Thing.

Click here to compare the main parties’ immigration policies.

Gordon Brown should have learned from John Major’s error in 1994. He probably has ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet too, but all politicians know that a microphone has only one job, and that is to listen. He must be careful what he says when a microphone is listening.

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Extraordinary Influence

Ordinary people can exert extraordinary influence. I joined a Facebook campaign on Saturday, to oppose billboard advertising promoting marital infidelity. On Monday I blogged about it and updated this on Tuesday, outlining the campaign steps I had taken. I am just one of many campaigners.

The campaign leaders emailed their followers this afternoon to confirm their campaign was successful. They had seen their Facebook group swell to over 3,500 members in just four days. But more importantly, many of us took action and it yielded results.

Facebook campaign

A successful campaign

Did we know we would be successful? No. Was it risky to campaign in this way? Yes. We faced criticism from several different angles.

Some critics felt free speech was paramount. Yes it’s important, but it does not trump all else. In any case, if advertisers are entitled to free speech, so are campaigners.

I am not generally against free speech. I supported the BBC’s decision to host the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time. In the end I felt an opportunity was missed to allow him to develop his ideas and face serious challenge, but I stand by my support for the decision. However, this campaign was different. The adverts appeared to breach the ASA code (although it didn’t initially accept this). Many of the BNP’s policies and utterances are offensive, but their political mandate was empirically recognised in a recent election.

Some critics argued it was a waste of time campaigning against something which was legal. If it wasn’t legal we’d just call the police! Marital infidelity is not a breach of criminal law, but it is a breach of civil law. It is a breach of contract between those who choose to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live. Or at least for as long as they remain married! The advert was not illegal, but we certainly believed it fell foul of advertising standards.

Some critics made the point that the website was not forcing individuals to break their marriage vows. They suggested visitors to the website were prepared to be unfaithful already and that advertising could not be blamed for the breakdown of their marriages. Yes, there is a truth within this, but it’s too simplistic to rest the argument there. Advertising works. It has a material effect on people’s decisions, which is why successful companies devote substantial resources to it. It’s also true that the website makes it easier for individuals to stray.

Marriage takes work. It ought to. Society doesn’t need organisations seeking to profit out of threatening the institution still further. Other organisations such as Relationship Central set a much better example.

If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
(Manic Street Preachers, 1998)

Finally (among the main arguments I saw) some critics felt we were giving the oxygen of publicity to the website in question. See the Streisand effect for more on this phenomenon. It is true the campaign probably had this effect, but I believe it was better to take action than to walk on by. The website has received publicity, but challenging the advertising was important. The risk was that we may have failed while granting free publicity to our opponent’s cause. But we succeeded and the risk paid off. Such campaigns will not always succeed, but they are still worth fighting. We drew a fresh line in the sand for the ASA to consider before approving future advertising.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
(War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1869; or Edmund Burke)

In our campaign many good men and women did something. And they did a good thing. One of the organisers, Jon Yates, explained early on that we needed to be more than a Facebook group to get results. Daily actions were suggested.

I took a number of simple steps to help. I was amazed at the reach of one of my efforts. When I discovered one of the billboards was in my own constituency, I wrote to my MP, Jim Fitzpatrick. I also copied in my local councillors and one of them, Ahmed Hussain (Conservative), was tenacious in his response.

Cllr Ahmed immediately contacted his party colleagues and key officers in Tower Hamlets. He also raised the matter with City Hall and within a few hours the Deputy Mayor, Richard Barnes, was involved. Tim Archer, the local Conservative PPC, dipped his oar in, with a letter to the Chief Executive of the ASA asking why the complaints weren’t being investigated. The MP and his Labour colleagues on the council also took an interest. All this from one email.

Never underestimate what’s possible, especially in an election year! I am not the reason this campaign was successful, but I know I played my part. I was one of many.

Now there is a new campaign. This one is – in effect – to encourage White Label Dating (a B2B internet company) to break its link with the website in question. It will be tough but…

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
(Margaret Mead)

QT – Is the criticism justified?

I found Question Time fascinating on Thursday evening, but slightly dissatisfying for reasons I’m still thinking through.

I stand by my view that the BBC made the right decision to include Nick Griffin. But it’s taken a lot of criticism for the format of the show, starting with Mr Griffin himself. Read the editor’s defence here. I doubt very much that the audience was hand-picked to look a bit ‘ethnic’ or to give Griffin a hard time, but I do have some sympathy with other criticisms.

I believe the issues debated should have been wider than immigration, race and the BNP itself (+five mins on Stephen Gately). What about the postal strike? It’s a idea that’s explored further by an old friend of mine on Doobs’ Musings. Of course there are times when one issue attracts attention more than others, and QT needs to reflect that, but I don’t believe the time to do that is when one of the panellists IS the story. It had the effect of drawing the focus to him (unfairly) and denying him the opportunity to discuss anything other than media stereotypes about the BNP (also unfairly). The other panellists and the audience could easily have tied the man in knots on all sorts of issues and I’d like to have seen more of that.

I enjoyed the baying audience, and in that respect, Griffin got everything he deserved. But I believe David Dimbleby should have given the man more space to explain his points. Griffin is clearly a racist. There is enough evidence from both the distant and recent past to make that clear. But some of his points were dismissed as racist without proper exploration. That made him look bullied and it was unnecessary. The BNP’s policies are stuff and nonsense across the board: political claptrap. That’s what needs to be exposed. The racism is obvious, but the thinking it leads to is simply stupid and that’s what could have been exposed better.

What he has to say about the indigenous British population wouldn’t stand the scrutiny of a gnat. But rather than actually demonstrate that scrutiny, it was again dismissed as racist and that let the viewers down. Channel 4’s FactCheck scrutiny after the event is very worthwhile.

I barely mentioned Bonnie Greer in my earlier post. But I thought she was outstanding. Her lightness of touch cut straight through Griffin several times. He thought she was flirting with him and kept laughing inappropriately (just to show how well he gets on with a black woman?)

Jack Straw was weaker than I thought. He let himself down on the question about whether government policy had led to more BNP support. His tactic was to explain/defend the policy. Now the policy may well be defensible, but the avoidance of the question was all too obvious and frankly unnecessary. The main parties’ approach to immigration has cost them support in certain areas. And that has benefited the BNP. That may be an acceptable price to pay for the right policy or it may not be, but Mr Straw ignored that distinction to his cost.

Sam Coates of The Times ranked the key players and gave Griffin 7/10. Equal to Jack Straw and certainly more than I’d have given either of them. The BNP makes much of this on its website. I don’t agree with Mr Coates on much of what he says, but his views are interesting and certainly worth a read.

Listening to Nick Griffin is unpalatable, but he is an MEP, he is entitled to his opinions, voters are entitled to vote for him and those who didn’t are entitled to hear from him. It was right to hear from him on Question Time, but it could have been done better.

Talking the BNP down

Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, is among the guests on BBC Question Time on Thursday. The idea was mooted in early September, some time after they won two seats in the Euro-election. They were already represented on a number of local councils and the London Assembly.

I’m looking forward to it. The BNP deserves to be heard. More importantly, it deserves to be challenged. Around the table with him, along with David Dimbleby, will be Jack Straw, Baroness Warsi, Chris Huhne and Bonnie Greer.

Mr Straw, the Justice Secretary, has many years experience facing down the BNP in his Blackburn constituency. Baroness Warsi, a muslim, is the Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action. She is on record as saying she understands the concerns which draw some people to the the BNP. It’s her job to answer those concerns on behalf of the Conservatives. Those concerns need to be addressed, not ignored. Who better than Mr Straw, Baroness Warsi and the great British public to take on this challenge! Here are some questions they might consider putting.

The BNP is controversial for obvious reasons. It has its supporters, but its detractors are widespread. Its constitution is overtly racist and offensively nationalistic, allowing only “indigenous Caucasian” Britons to join. In court last week, Mr Griffin has agreed to use “all reasonable endeavours” to revise this. He has no option, and it’s for that reason alone that his party will probably agree to it.

Some of the BNP’s detractors appear perpetually apoplectic. They’ll throw eggs, break car windows or urge the BBC not to broadcast their infantile views.

I disagree with this approach. Too much of what the BNP apparently stands for is revealed through the words of others. In fairness, we ought to hear from them. Not because they have something interesting to say, but because they have received significant democratic endorsement. It didn’t work when Prime Minister Thatcher tried to gag Sinn Fein. Gagging the BNP won’t work either. And throwing eggs at Nick Griffin reduces the level of discourse to somewhere far beneath student politics.

I really appreciated the recent Radio 1 Newsbeat interview with Nick Griffin. That too was controversial, but I found it enlightening. I write as a relatively politically-aware news journalist, someone who wouldn’t normally rely on Newsbeat for my political education, preferring Sunday AM, Nick Robinson’s blog or Adam Boulton for this. But Newsbeat exposed Mr Griffin and I was pleased to hear it. I have no doubt some listeners will have liked what they heard and so be it. We are all entitled to our views. But the judgements we all make ought to be well-grounded.

The BNP is not just about racism. Or immigration. Or repatriation. It is about many things. Some of what they they say has a kernal of sense. But more of what they say is nonsense. And they can be effectively argued down without going anywhere near the race issue.

It is not for mainstream politicians to collude against those whose views most of us find abhorrent. That is the job of the voters and we must be armed as effectively as possible to make the right judgement at the ballot box. Otherwise, what is democracy for?

Nick Griffin is an intelligent man. Under his leadership, his party has made leaps and bounds. But what he and his party stand for is appalling. They are fascist and extreme (though not so clearly aligned to the right as is commonly perceived). We should not use the tools of fascism to close down the debate. Let’s rise above that, listen to them and let them be damned by their own words.