LONDON—No one has ever improved on Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe, which is what happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth.
Gordon Brown’s comments this morning, captured by a TV microphone that he didn’t know he was wearing as he left a campaign appearance in the Northern town of Rochdale, conforms to Kinsley’s rule. Pulling away in his gray Jaguar, the prime minister growled that his impromptu exchange with a retired widow named Gillian Duffy was a “disaster” and “ridiculous.” When asked by an aide what went wrong, the prime minister responded, “Ach, she was just a sort of bigoted woman.”
If you watch the video, Gillian Duffy certainly does sound xenophobic as she confronts Brown. “You can’t say anything about the immigrants,” she complains. “All these Eastern Europeans what are coming—where are they flocking from?” (Eastern Europe, I should think.) Brown’s response—that in-migration to the United Kingdom has been more or less matched by out-migration—was perfectly reasonable.
The other truthful aspect of Brown’s explosion was that his staff served him poorly in allowing the argument. Short on funds, the Labor Party is said to be doing minimal advance work for Brown’s appearances. He was within his rights to tell them, in what he thought was a private conversation, that they “should never have put me with that woman.” And not checking to make sure the candidate was microphone-free post-appearance proves Brown’s point.
A codicil to Kinsley’s Law is that a gaffe is most damaging when it supports a stereotype or confirms a pre-existing narrative. The “bigoted woman” episode, which has been running on an endless loop all day on British TV news, is likely to prove damaging because it does both.
It shows the stereotype to be true by revealing the private Brown playing entirely to type as a cranky, tired, and simply not very nice man who blows up at his staff. Being caught in some act of upper-class snobbery would not have the same impact, because that’s David Cameron’s cliché, not Brown’s. And it supports the current press narrative of the campaign, which is of an unlovable and unpopular incumbent in free fall.
The point of campaigning is to win voters over to your side. Today, Gordon Brown showed his rare skill for doing the opposite.