Thursday, 29 April 2010

Bigotgate, Cleggmania and the PR election

I woke up this morning and discovered that Gordon Brown was still leader of the Labour Party. I thought he probably would be, but after yesterday, I wasn't certain.

Yesterday wasn't good. His conversation with Gillian Duffy and the aftermath was politically disastrous. I don't know the future, but I suspect that he will not be leader of the Labour Party in 10 days time, and that his unfortunate remarks will cost several Labour MPs their seats.

Let's be honest. The PM came over as two-faced, as holding voters in contempt, and as viewing anyone who has concerns about immigration as being a bigot. His attempted clarification - that he had misunderstood what Mrs Duffy said to him - only made matters worse, since it looked like an admission that he was slow on the uptake and out of touch with voters. When in a hole, stop digging.

In a way, it shouldn't matter. Two-faced? To be honest, a lot of people I know are two-faced and what they say varies enormously with the company they are in. So I'd expect it of a politician. Holding voters in contempt? I'd expect most politicians to do so, at least some of the time. Viewing people who have big concerns about immigration as bigots? Most middle-class progressives do.

Interestingly enough, I first heard the story not from the media, but from a friend - and he clearly felt a good deal of sympathy for Gordon Brown. (To the best of my knowledge, he's not a Labour voter.) But I think that's going to be a minority reaction. Labour's hope of winning the election ended yesterday.

I suspect that this will turn out to be one of the two key moments in this election. The other, of course, is the first "prime ministerial debate"*. And both moments were not really about policy - but about personality and image. The Prime Minister's image is probably at an all time low, Mr Clegg's at an all time high. And, to be honest, image is what really counts with the majority of undecided voters.

And so it's 1997 all over again. A young, fresh face - untainted by high political office - and, effectively, an unknown quantity - talking about change and offering something new and different - is ready to take up his appointment with destiny. Because a lot of people are ready, if not to believe him, at least to give him the benefit of the doubt.

* I must confess that I am very uneasy about this. There is no question that these debates played a large part in creating the LibDem surge. All credit to Nick Clegg, he performed well. But surely it is also true that the decision about which parties should be included is, in itself, a contributory factor to the surge. Which means that the LibDems have been given publicity that was denied to parties like UKIP and the SNP.

To exclude Nick Clegg would have been unfair - even though no-one seriously thought of him as a potential prime minister a month ago. To include UKIP - who beat both Labour and the LibDems in the recent European elections - would have really meant that the Greens and the BNP would have had to be included, not to mention the SNP, and probably Plaid Cymru.

Should the debates have been allowed to take place at all? I don't have any answers - just uneasy feelings. And the shocking way that the BBC behaved at the Norwich North by-election (see here and here) makes me even more uneasy.

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