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.
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.
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?
We’ve got a deficit reduction plan to cut the debt by half over the next four years.
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.
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.
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.
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.