Gordon Brown is in serious trouble today

April 28, 2010

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of several books, including ‘Who Moved my Job?’ and ‘Global Services: Moving to a Level Playing Field’. He is participating in the Reuters Election 2010 politics live blog during the leaders’ debates and on election night. The opinions expressed are his own. –

A pensioner, Gillian Duffy, complained to Gordon Brown about the number of immigrants coming into the UK – amongst other things. It’s a familiar complaint the prime minister will have heard many times before, but this time he made a private comment about her in his car just after the event – calling her a ‘bigoted woman’ – and Sky News had left their radio microphone on his suit … so the private comments were recorded and replayed to the world.

It was a private comment, and many would credit Brown with telling the frank truth. But many online discussions are already calling this a watershed moment, with the implication being that anyone who is concerned about immigration is now tarnished as a bigot by the prime minister.

Any sensible observer would see that Brown was just making a private comment about a member of the electorate who was allowed to let off steam in front of the media machine, but this could be a disaster for Labour.

The immigration question is one of the hardest for our politicians to deal with because they never seem to quite get it right. The Labour Party at present has made it almost impossible for unskilled workers to enter the UK, encouraged people with specific skills to come using the Highly Skilled Migrant Worker programme, simplified visa approvals using a points-based system, and made it far harder for foreign students to work and overstay their visa.

We have heard all of this discussed in the leaders’ debates over the past two weeks.

When you list the measures Gordon Brown has presided over, it looks quite tough on immigrants, but the public perception is that ‘Johnny Foreigners’ continue to flood into the UK. The reality is that immigration is reducing – mainly because of the economic downturn and fragile recovery – but again, why ruin perception with reality?

So, is the problem just that nobody trusts politicians anyway? Especially the incumbent party?

This is really the power of the BNP and UKIP. They don’t behave like ‘normal’ politicians and they focus on the immigration and ‘foreigner’ issues. UKIP has pledged to ban immigration for five years if they had any power over legislation, the BNP has been watering down the racist content of their manifesto, but they still appear to actively favour repatriation of migrant workers.

These parties are getting considerable support with their extreme views, and that’s really because of a failing by the major three parties to be seen to be doing something.

Brown has argued this point on all the genuine changes he has made to the system. Clegg has argued that we need a better understanding of who is here illegally – potentially leading to an amnesty because that would not change the number of people working, but it would mean they pay tax. Cameron has argued for an absolute cap on immigration numbers by skills.

All three of the major parties have ideas on immigration, but they are all essentially failing to communicate the positive values of welcoming people – with skills – to Britain. The skills that help the British economy to succeed – and therefore allows us to live in a prosperous nation far richer than a population of 60 million would suggest.

They are also failing to explain the different types of immigration; what is a refugee, what is an asylum seeker, what is a highly-skilled migrant… and the freedom of labour movement within the 27-nation European Union. All these issues are entirely confused in the arguments of the ‘bigot’… that’s not implying that those who oppose immigration are stupid, but any debate on immigration has to focus on the real issue that concerns them: Are people coming in and taking work from locals?

If that is what people perceive then the mainstream parties need to show that it is not the case, or what they intend to do about it, and they need to do this in a way that people believe.

The prime minister has a good grasp of facts, but when he reels off stats about this and that, the public switch off and ask why the corner shop sells Polish food. Without also thinking about the fact that the Polish shop down the road was a Punjabi shop twenty years ago.

The major politicians need to explore why normal hard-working people are so attracted by the BNP on this issue, why normal hard-working people don’t see any value from the European Union – they just see it as Eastern European workers coming to take jobs, and why a caring and tolerant society like the UK should close the shutters to those not born here.


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Labour made this mess years ago, when they underestimated immigation from new EU members. The British Government predicted that only about 13,000 people would come in
the first year, yet 600,000 Central and Eastern Europeans arrived in the following two years, a figure equivalent to the entire city of Glasgow.

These all need NHS facilities, school places, housing etc. If the government figures are wrong, then the council grants will be out – there are a lot of knock on effects, so it’s no wonder people have concerns!

Posted by Sponplague | Report as abusive

Does he not realise that the microphone is still on – how darehe speak to amember of the electorate in that manner. His body language says it all he is so uncomfortable and very unprofessional. A LOST VOTE.

Posted by chrissie | Report as abusive

By putting UKIP in the same context as the BNP, you are effectively making the same mistake as Gordon Brown. We are a very small island that simply does not have the space, services or infrastructure to cope with our current level of population. High levels of immigration have put massive pressures on our healthcare system, schools, policing, roads/traffic, housing, etc., driving quality down and costs up. This is just one of the reasons that the EU with its expansionist agenda poses real problems for the UK. An unelected commission and unaccountable bureaucracy are other key reasons.

What worries me more is that none of the mainstream parties are addressing the issue of integration and community cohesion. Parties like the BNP will continue to gather support if we don’t start promoting a multi-racial but single culture policy. Countries that have avoided multi-culturalist policies have fared much better at integrating communities.

Posted by mhayworth | Report as abusive

The damage caused by this story goes beyond that inflicted on Gordon Brown.

First of all Mrs. Duffy has been dropped into a vat of boiling media oil which she did not deserve.

Secondly, from a purely selfish point of view no-one will ever trust a professional sound engineer like me ever again. I use microphones every day of my life and those with whom I work expect professional standards and professional discretion. I have countless bits and pieces of indiscretions and off-mic casual chit-chat which just go straight in the dustbin.

Without News International’s insatiable hunger for any kind of negativity about Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg, this off-mic comment by Gordon Brown would have stayed where it belonged – in oblivion.

This has done a lot of damage which professional people like me will have to live with for a long time.

Posted by TonyF112 | Report as abusive

This goes further than a comment about one person. It shows a complete disregard for any view on immigration other than his own. He is not listening to the British electorate !
By extension, Mr Brown is calling a bigot all those who oppose the current mass immigration into the UK from the European Union. In his eyes we are all bigots if we do not accept his views.
Further and just as important, he does not seem to care about preventing illegal immigration.

Posted by garyjay | Report as abusive

You say: ‘Any sensible observer would see that Brown was just making a private comment about a member of the electorate who was allowed to let off steam in front of the media machine, but this could be a disaster for Labour’

Have we sunk so far to the left now that we talk about a voter being ‘allowed’ to let off steam in front of the ‘media machine’ as though it was a mistake to do so? Did you read 1984 thinking it was a training manual for the socialist politial elite?

Posted by mhayworth | Report as abusive

@mhayworth You know I don’t mean that. The point is that Brown as a politician should not make these comments about a citizen with a vote. It’s the people who elect the representatives and in a democracy it should remain the people who hold power over their representatives.

The point I was emphasising was that Brown is just a man too. If someone had just had a row with you, where you could not respond completely because cameras were trained on your every movement, then you might say something ‘off camera’ that would be regretted later on. I’m not defending him as PM – just making an observation that he is human too.

Posted by markhillary | Report as abusive

@garyjay Your comment about the ‘bigot’ term applying to all those worried about immigration is pretty much the nightmare scenario for Labour – and it’s clear that it could now be a major problem. However, it’s not right to suggest he has done nothing about illegals. Most illegals are actually those coming in to study English, or IT, or some other course who then overstay because they want to work in the UK – not the hordes hanging onto the bottom of a Eurostar. And Brown has actually done a lot to tackle students becoming illegals. It’s fair to criticise him on immigration, but unfair to say he has done nothing.

Posted by markhillary | Report as abusive

@TonyF112 It’s certainly an issue for people in the media. This was a Sky microphone left on the PM – so I can imagine all politicians being very wary of radio mics in future and potentially only using their own kit…

Posted by markhillary | Report as abusive

I have only taken recent interest in politics, but an experience economist.

I believe it’s a mistake to politicise a personal comment, after all PM is also a person and realistically a PM is not there to make personal arrangements but a difference at larger level which would in turn affect our lives. So the focus should be really on the policies and the clarity on them.

Gordon Brown has come out very well indeed in the clarity of his position and policies, which the other major parties have failed to achieve during these debates. That’s not to say Gordon Brown is correct, but he has a credible plan for most issues.

Nick Clegg, on the other hand has surprised many people with his performance and had many realistic ideas to improve the condition. Whichever party comes to power, I believe Nick Clegg has a major role to play in British Politics in the next government and the years to come, and I hope he insists on some of his ground breaking ideas (e.g. existing immigrants, tax breaks and pension link to earnings) to be introduced by the government. It is almost unthinkable of having a governement without the Liberal Democrat support. Also, I believe Nick Clegg would make a very good PM for UK, but he would be able to negotiate his way by tying up with labour and would benefit if he takes the advantage of labour’s experience and solid policies. Brown would not to bad if he goes back to his old job, where his strength lies.

David Cameron, though getting publicity with rather cheap practices of blaming others and having a vague concept of how the government should really be like. It’s alrming that despite having seen him thrice on the TV the only thing I can remember about him is his aggression with other party leaders rather than any really patch breaking policies to offer.

Posted by Globalcitizen | Report as abusive

[…] Gordon Brown is in serious trouble today Reuters UK (blog) – Apr 28th – 11:04 […]

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@Globalcitizen are you some anti-Tory blogger painting David Cameron as the anti-christ? Typical lefty tactic.

Posted by SimonDrake-com | Report as abusive

Who’s really in trouble is the entire country.

Gordon Brown may be off beam but David Cameron is even more so. It’s repugnant and economic lunacy to impose swingeing public service and job cuts on millions of ordinary people at a time when the economy is so fragile. This is part of the erroneous monetarist ideology that the Tories’ are still obsessed with.

In reality this will exacerbate, not mitigate, the economic hardship by reducing spending activity in the economy. History is replete with evidence to support this, not least the Great Depression.

All of the parties have become entranced with flawed monetarist ideology but the Tories are the worst. A return to Thatcherite extremism will be a disaster.

Posted by Adrian556 | Report as abusive