At the heart of the Gillian Duffy story is, I think, a debate about sincerity (a theme I have touched on before).
First, of course, we question the sincerity of Gordon Brown, who – shock! – said one thing to a voter’s face, and another thing behind her back. I think that the Lib Dems captured the right mood. Nick Clegg said that “if we all had recordings of what we mutter under our breath we’d all be crimson with embarrassment” and Dr Evan Harris made the “there but for the grace of God go all” point this morning. Meanwhile, the Tories (in the shape of George Osbourne) came up with a marvellously hypocritical, holier than thou response which could easily be exposed by a Tory counter-gaffe at any moment. Cue question’s about the Conservatives sincerity too.
But the “bigot” label is also, essentially, a question about Mrs Duffy’s sincerity too. With Brown’s accidental on-air muttering, he was voicing the thought that such questions about immigration are somehow illegitimate. On the face of it, he is clearly wrong to think this, and wrong to dismiss the concerns of what should be his core constituency. Nevertheless, the particular type of language that Mrs Duffy used is an echo of the shrill misinformation we get from the tabloids. For many people (and I count myself among them) when they hear it, they become suspicious, and percieve the effects of propaganda. At the Angry Mob blog, Uponnothing analyses this unease:
The ineloquence of Gillian Duffy seems to stem from what tabloid newspapers have tried so hard to create; a kind of unthinking acceptance that the country is overrun with immigrants. What happens is that people like Gillian pick up the general narrative but can’t quite remember the details, largely – I like to think – because their brain subconciously rejects them as bollocks. Look at the way she talks about claiming benefits for example:
But there’s too many people now who are vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable can’t get claim, can’t get it.
You can see she is trying to regurgitate the narrative that she has been fed, but it doesn’t come out quite right. You can see she is trying to say that immigrants get all the benefits whilst people in need get nothing, yet something prevented her. Maybe when people write about what a genius Littlejohn is, and how he can put into words what the rest of us cannot, perhaps there is some truth in this. Perhaps if Littlejohn had been responding to this statement he would have been able to quickly draw agreement from Gillian: ‘You mean that we’re showering immigrants with benefits whilst British taxpayers, pensioners and vulnerable people suffer?’ Littlejohn might reply. ‘Yes, that is exactly it’ Gillian would presumably exclaim, marvelling at Littlejohn’s mastery of basic narratives.
(I have percieved similar sound-bites perculating into the general language around other tabloid issues too. I remember a discussion about terrorism once, where the chap I was talking to expressed worry about “people who would do me and my family harm.” The formulation “who would do” stuck out – it was out of keeping with the language of the conversation and not how he normally spoke. It was recognisable as a sound-bite, a piece of rhetoric that had been written and practiced.)
The problem with this insight is that it is only useful if you live inside a liberal-left bubble. Unfortunately, it is a useless account of the world if you seek to persuade people that you are worthy of their vote. I’ve long held that the Daily Mail readership are persuadable by good and sincere arguments, and alienating people through gaffes is not the way to do this.
The Angry Mob is on much less ephemeral grounding when takes on the “you can’t talk about immigration” trope. Former UKIP candidate Will Burrows made this point during the Cambridge Union debate in October, which I was pleased to be able to quash:
So when a taloid journalist or politician makes some bigoted remark like ‘immigrants are ruining the country’ we are right to be outraged. Because they are ignoring the subtlety, the complexity, of these political debates.
You can have a debate on immigration in this country. They do it all the time in think tanks, in Whitehall. What you can’t do is say something crass and expect the rest of us to accept you as a genuine political player.
To illustrate the sort of subtlety I mean, here’s a moving post from elmyra, a self described “flocking Eastern European”, on how isolated and attacked the immigration debate makes her feel:
A desperate need to justify myself. I pay higher-rate income tax. I contribute to the UK economy, I contribute to UK society. I probably pay into the tax system more than I get back out of it. Extending that justification to other immigrants – parts of the UK economy probably would collapse without immigrant labour; I wonder how much immigrants contribute in total to the economy; we all come here to work, and we work damn hard. A range of other economic arguments, all around contribution, all around this incredibly Tory notion of my money being the only thing that entitles me to anything like decent treatment from this society.
More anger. This time at being disempowered and disenfranchised; at being a cheap target for political point scoring because Gillian Duffy and the 60 million people like her have a vote, and I and the couple of hundred thousand people like me don’t, and therefore she will always get a grovelling apology from the Prime Minister, and we won’t.
A desperate attempt to reclaim power, to find some leverage: I wonder if I can stop paying taxes, if I can get some sort of campaign going for all immigrants to stop paying taxes – I bet they’d notice us then. Oh, I wonder if I can challenge Gillian Duffy to take the citizenship test.
The slow, sad realisation that the political culture in the UK is such that no politician has any choice but to grovel to the bigots. Because standing up and explaining to them instead that immigrants make a massive contribution to the economy, let alone that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of nationality, citizenship or contribution, would be political suicide.
Effective and persuasive, because it is sincere.