How Brown’s Gaffe Reveals Labour’s Larger Problems

How Brown’s Gaffe Reveals Labour’s Larger Problems

A. Johnson: What Brown’s Gaffe Reveals About Labour (P. Thompson Responds)

THE LABOUR leader Gordon Brown has been caught off camera criticizing a voter who had asked a question about immigration from Eastern Europe. Forgetting he was wearing a live mic the prime minister was heard sneering, ?She?s just a bigoted woman.? He has since apologized. “What I think she was raising with me was an issue about immigration and saying that there were too many people from Eastern Europe in the country.”

What the voter–the sixty-six-year-old Gillian Duffy–had said was: ?You can’t say anything about the immigrants because you’re saying your a…[trails off]. But there’s all these Eastern Europeans coming in. Where are they flocking from?? When Duffy heard Brown’s comments, she was close to tears. She asked reporters, “What was bigoted in that, what I said?” She added, “My family have voted Labour all their lives–my father even sung the Red Flag, but now I am ashamed of saying I’m Labour.”

The Labour government predicted 57,000 immigrants would come to the UK when it opened up to all the new accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe when the EU was enlarged. Around 800,000 came. There is widespread anxiety about this. Some of that anxiety can be characterized as racist but by no means all.

I think Brown?s disdain for that anxiety captures a wider problem–the fraying of the relationship between the Labour Party and the working class as three big sources of anxiety have been put off-political-limits. In October 2009 when I spoke on the state of British politics at a Dissent forum in New York, this fraying of party and class was one of my themes. Here is an extract from the talk:

Writing in Dissent after the 2004 election, Michael Walzer called for a progressive politics able to connect up democratic values, “the anxieties of ordinary people,” and the commitment to humane reform.

I agree. But in three critical areas the Labour Party is seen among significant layers of working class people to have ignored their anxieties and denied them a voice: economic globalization, European integration, and mass immigration. Each subject has been declared off political limits.

The party?s failure to regulate economic globalization, flexible specialization, and free markets has put it at odds with its base. “We can?t save your old job but we can find you a new one” sounds a hollow promise now. Bankers though, they are OK. Bailed out without conditions, now even the obscene bonuses are back. Brown talks in abstract about reform, but it?s mostly talk so far. He refuses to countenance any lasting and far-reaching structural reform of the financial sector. Result: popular fury. The gulf between the party and electorate grows bigger.

European Integration: When France and Holland rejected the EU constitution the European political class more or less just re-presented the constitution as the “Lisbon Treaty.” It was a neat trick as treaties don?t need popular ratification. Ireland chose to vote on the treaty anyway, and voted the “wrong” way (i.e. No.). It was simply told to keep voting until they got it “right.” (Brecht could have written a poem about the EU.)

In the UK, every party promised the people–who oppose the Lisbon treaty–a referendum. And every party has reneged on that pledge. The British people voted for a free trade area and very limited loss of sovereignty back in 1973, a quarter of a century ago. Since then there has probably never been a majority in the country (certainly no popular vote) for any of the shifts towards a country called Europe. But they fear a country called Europe is being built nonetheless, treaty by treaty, as more and more powers are taken elected representatives in Westminster to be wielded by an unelected European Commission.

Once upon a time we radical democrats would have called all that a scandal and attacked unelected Crown office holders. Not now, it seems. The political class shields the EU construction from popular will, so the gulf grows between the political class and the people.

Mass Immigration: Labour Party predicted 57,000 immigrants would come to the UK when it opened up to the new accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Maybe 800,000 came.

Now this might well be a good thing. The point is, people feel no one asked them, no one explained to them. Worse, it seems it was deliberately covered up. And when they try to object, they are called racists.

Now, don?t get me wrong. A progressive case can be made for regulated globalization, a strong and democratic Europe, and a humane immigration policy. Of course we must respond to “the anxieties of ordinary people,” as Walzer put it, with democratic values and humane reforms.

But we have to make the case and listen to the anxieties. What we can?t do, from the backseat of a chauffeur-driven limo, is just dismiss anxiety as bigotry, as Brown–catastrophically no doubt, in electoral terms–just did.

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