Gordon Brown’s “Bigot” Blunder: The Beginning Of The End?

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This story is dominating the UK’s election coverage. TIME’s London Bureau Chief Catherine Mayer explains:

The first I heard of the gaffe that has inevitably and instantly been christened “bigotgate” was from an 85-year-old Labour party activist. “Have you heard about Gordon’s latest banana skin?” he asked, shaking his head, sadly. Gordon – Britain’s incumbent Prime Minister Brown – had been campaigning in Rochdale, Northern England, earlier today, the activist explained. Brown had spoken to a woman in the crowd after she heckled him during a television interview, and appeared to sympathize with her concerns. He then climbed into his car, still wearing the TV radio mike. That’s when the world learned what he really thought of his unplanned interaction with a member of the public. “That was a disaster. Well I just…[inaudible] should never have put me [inaudible] that woman. Whose idea was that?” An unseen aide replies: “I don’t know, I didn’t see.” Brown blames another adviser for the “ridiculous” decision to expose him to a real voter, and worries that the media will carry the story. The aide asks what the woman – later revealed as 65-year-old Gillian Duffy – said to him. “Oh everything,” answered the peevish Prime Minister. “She was just a sort of bigoted woman. She said she used be Labour. I mean it’s just ridiculous.”

The Labour activist, a one-time supporter of Brown, had no doubt how toxic the gaffe was, and for a number of different reasons. Here’s one of them. Party spin doctors have been keenly aware that the PM isn’t necessarily an electoral asset, and had limited his public appearances to the televised leaders’ debates and carefully choreographed events attended by the party faithful. Brown’s low profile was so noticeable that observers began to joke about him as “Labour’s secret weapon.” A change of campaign tactic augured a higher quotient of Brown and a greater exposure to actual voters. After today’s blooper, the spin doctors may be thinking again.

Rochdale resident Duffy had indeed used an unfortunate phrase when she first spoke to Brown, referring to “Eastern Europeans…flocking in.” But her concern about immigration is widely shared and has helped to erode support for Labour in the party’s traditional blue-collar heartlands, where competition for jobs and housing has been exploited by parties with strong anti-immigration messages. In Rochdale both the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the far right National Front are challenging the Labour incumbent.

But the biggest threat to Labour retaining Rochdale in the May 6 elections comes not from the right but from the newly buoyant Liberal Democrats. Rochdale is one of the party’s top target seats, and with the Lib Dems, until recently Britain’s third party, now running ahead of Labour in some polls, Brown’s visit to Rochdale was intended to shore up the vital Labour vote. Oops.

A poll due to be unveiled later this evening will show the Conservatives extending their lead, with Labour second and the Lib Dems third. This was taken after the Conservatives ran campaign spots warning against a hung parliament – a likely outcome of a strong Lib Dem vote – and before bigotgate. Nobody, not even the most seasoned of psephologists, really knows whether the Lib Dem surge will continue.

But everyone is certain that Labour is in big trouble. Party insiders aren’t sure what would be worse for the party: outright defeat at the elections or a messy scenario leaving Brown attempting to cobble together an alliance with the Lib Dems. The party activist I spoke to this afternoon has long been mulling Brown’s replacement. Last night I had a couple of beers with a former special adviser to a member of Brown’s Cabinet. He, too, is focused on the post-election, post-Brown era. But both the activist and the former adviser are troubled by the same anxiety. They agree we’re witnessing the death of New Labour – of the dominant center-left consensus created by Tony Blair and, yes, Brown. But if the Lib Dems maintain momentum and Labour comes third or retains power but without a popular mandate (easily possible unless the Conservative lead continues to increase), might this be the beginning of the end of Labour?

Full video of Brown’s exchange below (it gets cringe-worthy/interesting around the 4:40 mark):