Jon Lawrence: When the Wheels Came Off Brown's Campaign Bus

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jon Lawrence is author of Electing Our Masters (OUP, 2009).]

Surveying the wreckage of Gordon Brown's political fightback on the streets of Rochdale, some commentators are claiming that it's all happened before. They're wrong; even taking a very long-term perspective, no senior politician has gaffed quite so damagingly while on the stump as the Prime Minister did yesterday.

It is true that, ever since microphones were invented they have helped politicians put their feet in their mouths. In 1923, at one of the first rallies to be relayed across the country, David Lloyd George made his own gaffe in Rochdale when a crowd of 40,000 overheard him asking an aide whether Richard Cobden was from Manchester. Eighty years on it's hard to convey just how bad that was. Suffice to say that Cobden had been the architect of the 'Manchester School' of nineteenth-century Liberalism, so it was rather like addressing a rally in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle and asking if Robbie Burns was a Scot. In 1993 John Major was famously overheard denouncing members of his own cabinet as 'bastards', exposing both the lie of his own nice-boy public image and the reality of the Conservative schism. But, just as few people really cared when John Prescott hit a protester during the 2001 campaign, such incidents were harmless compared to Brown's gaffe. Only Brown has been caught denigrating an ordinary voter for raising the sort of issues that many voters will sympathise with and many politicians hear regularly on the doorstep, or on radio phone-ins. It really doesn't get much worse, but why did it happen?

The spin last weekend was that Brown would save his political career by getting out onto the streets of Britain to meet ordinary voters face-to-face. With the wheels already coming off the campaign bus, Brown's advisers had clearly gambled that the risks of unscripted exchanges with the general public were outweighed by the opportunity to see him listening intently to the concerns of 'real' voters. Brown was going to take his own advice and 'get real'. Like a moth drawn to a flame, he followed the example of many leaders before him, and tried to exploit the power of face-to-face politics to reconnect with an indifferent public. In 1992 Major had his soapbox, and in 2005 Blair had his 'masochism strategy,' in which he sought to reconnect with voters through a series of gruelling question and answer programmes in TV studios. But, thanks to the leaders' debates, that option wasn't available to Gordon Brown in 2010. Instead he was forced to take to the streets. How bad could it be? After all, in 2001 Blair had turned a long and difficult exchange with an angry voter on the streets of Birmingham into something of a media triumph. Why couldn't he do the same? Of course, the irony of Rochdale is that he nearly did -he seemed to take Mrs Duffy's concerns seriously, and they parted on good terms. If this had been a real exchange, rather than one engineered for the rolling news media, all would have been well. But of course it wasn't. Brown was miked up for a reason; so that we would hear him taking Mrs Duffy seriously, listening to her concerns, treating her as an equal. And exposing that as a lie matters much more than exposing the fact that you don't much like your Cabinet colleagues or a particular journalist - the usual content of political 'gaffes'. It is the blatant hypocrisy of the exchange that is so damaging for Brown, though given how low his political stock already was, perhaps we shouldn't exaggerate the likely fall-out. Even before yesterday's exchange was there really anyone left in Britain who thought that smile was sincere?

Finally, it's worth remembering that Brown's ire was clearly directed more at his aide, the hapless Sue Nye who had brought them together, than at Mrs Duffy herself. If this was intended as part of a 'new masochism' strategy played out on the streets of Britain, no one had thought to brief Gordon Brown about the rules of the game.

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