Brown apologises for calling supporter a bigot

 

WESTMINSTER 2010:UK PRIME minister Gordon Brown was struggling to cope with the political damage caused to Labour’s general election campaign after he called a lifelong Labour supporter a bigot following a conversation between the two yesterday.

Mr Brown met with Gillian Duffy during a canvass in Rochdale after she had initially called on him to say what he was doing to deal with the United Kingdom’s mounting national deficit.

Subsequently, she complained about immigration from Eastern Europe: “There are too many people now who aren’t vulnerable but they can claim [welfare benefits] and people who are vulnerable can’t get claim,” she told Mr Brown.

Still wearing a television microphone, Mr Brown was overheard speaking in his car to an aide minutes after he had left the 66-year-old pensioner: “She’s just this sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be a Labour voter. Ridiculous.”

Having heard the tape of his remarks played back to him in a radio station, Mr Brown was visibly embarrassed, and quickly apologised to her by telephone and later in a 45-minute meeting at her home in the Lancashire town.

Though Mr Brown described the initial encounter as a disaster, Mrs Duffy had told reporters afterwards that she thought highly of him and would vote for Labour – though after she heard what Mr Brown had called her she said she would not be voting for anyone.

Reflecting Labour’s concern that Mr Brown’s conduct could lead to traditionally loyal party supporters not voting next week, the prime minister sent a message to all party members saying: ‘I would also like to apologise to you.”

Mr Brown’s action has also put immigration centre-stage in the campaign. So far, politicians have tried not to focus upon it, despite clear evidence that it is the second most troubling issue for voters, just behind the economy.

Foreign secretary David Miliband and health secretary Andy Burnham last night both insisted that Labour was in tune with the public’s concern, pointing to the points system now being introduced.

Speaking as he left Mrs Duffy’s home, Mr Brown said: “I’m mortified by what’s happened, I’ve given her my sincere apologies, I misunderstood what she said and she has accepted that there was a misunderstanding, and she’s accepted my apology.

“If you like, I’m a penitent sinner. Sometimes you say things that you don’t mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes when you say things you want to correct it very quickly.”

However, Mrs Duffy did not accompany him to the door as he left and, so far, has not said whether she accepts Mr Brown’s apology, and whether she would change her decision not to vote.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Mr Brown had been wrong to say what he had said, and right to apologise: “It was just wrong, wrong when someone asks a perfectly reasonable question. Whatever people say you need to treat people with the respect they deserve.”

He said people “occasionally mutter something they wouldn’t want made public”, adding: “I’m not going to start hurling abuse at my opponents – he’s right to apologise.” Conservative leader David Cameron said nothing.

In his message to Labour members, Mr Brown said: “When the mistake I made today has so dominated the news, doubtless with some impact on your own campaigning activities, I want you to know I doubly appreciate the efforts you make. Many of you know me personally. You know I have strengths as well as weaknesses. We all do. You also know that sometimes we say and do things we regret. I profoundly regret what I said this morning.

“I am under no illusions as to how much scorn some in the media will want to heap upon me in the days ahead,” he said.

Pointing to tonight’s final TV leaders’ debate, Mr Brown told party members: “I hope tomorrow you see once more someone not just proud to be your leader, but also someone who understands the economic challenges we face, how to meet them, and how that improves the lives of ordinary families all around Britain.”

What the PM said to Ms Duffy and what she said to him

This is the transcript of the conversation between the British prime minister and Gillian Duffy in Rochdale.

Gordon Brown:You’re a very good woman, you’ve served the community all your life . . .

Gillian Duffy:I am, I’ve worked for the Rochdale council for 30 years . . .

Brown:Good. You deserve . . .

Duffy:And I work with children and handicapped children.

Brown:Oh well, working with children is so important isn’t it? Have you been at some of the children’s centres?

Duffy:But what I can’t understand is why I am still being taxed at 66 years old because my husband’s died and I have some of his pension tagged on to my pension?

Brown:Well, we’re raising the threshold at which people start paying tax as pensioners, but, yes, if you’ve got an occupational pension you may have to pay some tax but you may be eligible for the pension credit as well. You should check.

Duffy:No, no, I’m not, I’ve checked and checked and they said I’m not

Brown:Well you should check it again just to be sure.

Duffy:Yes they’ve told me, I’ve been down to Rochdale council

Brown:And you know we’re linking pension to earnings in two years’ time, we’ve got the winter allowance as you know which I hope is of benefit, two fifty . . .

Duffy:I agree with that, it’s very good, but every year I speak to people of my age and they say ‘Oh well, they’ll be knocking it off’

Brown:We’ve done bus passes as well, free prescriptions ...

Duffy:But how are you going to get us out of all this debt, Gordon?

Brown:We’ve got a deficit reduction plan, cut the debt by half over the next four years, we’ve got the plans that have been set out to do it – look, I was the person who came in and said . . .

Duffy:Look, the three main things that I had drummed into me when I was a child was education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable. There are too many people now who aren’t vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable can’t get claim.

Brown:But they shouldn’t be doing that, there is no life for people on the dole anymore, if you’re unemployed you’ve got to go back to work. At six months . . .

Duffy:You can’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying you’re – but all these eastern Europeans coming in, where are they flocking from?

Brown:A million people come in from Europe, but a million British people have gone into Europe. You do know there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well. So education, health and helping people, that’s what I’m about.

Duffy:I hope you keep to it. Brown: It’s been very good to meet you. And you’re wearing the right colour today! How many grandchildren do you have?

Duffy:Two.

Brown:What names are they?

Duffy:They’ve just come back from Australia where they’ve been stuck for 10 days, they couldn’t get back with this ash crisis.

Brown:They got through now?

Duffy:Yes.

Brown:We’ve been trying to get people back quickly. But are they going to university, is that the plan?

Duffy:I hope so. They’re only 12 and 10.

Brown:A good family. Good to see you.

Duffy:And the education system in Rochdale I will congratulate it

Brown: Good. Good to see you, take care.

This is the conversation that occurred between the prime minister and his aide later in the car.

Brown:That was a disaster. Should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?

Aide:I don’t know, I didn’t see.

Brown:Sue (Nye’s), I think. Just ridiculous.

Aide:Not sure if they’ll go (the media) with that one.

Brown:Oh, they will.

Aide:What did she say?

Brown:Everything. She’s just this sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be a Labour voter. Ridiculous.