Labour in turmoil ahead of final UK election debate

The final UK election debate Thursday night is supposed to focus on the economy, a strong issue for the Labour Party. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown's outburst after meeting a working-class supporter may give further boost to Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
UK election: Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2nd r.) arrives for a campaign stop at the Thompson Friction Welding factory in Halesowen, central England, Thursday.

The left-wing manifesto released in 1983 by Britain’s Labour Party ahead of its worst postwar general election defeat has famously been described as “the longest suicide note in history."

Twenty-seven years later, the ruling party’s leader is being credited with producing the shortest such message. It comes after a blunder on the election trail that may have torpedoed Labour’s campaign ahead of next Thursday’s election – and left the Labour campaign in turmoil as Brown prepares for tonight’s third and final live televised debate with the leaders of the other two main parties.

Speaking to an aide Wednesday following a street encounter with an elderly working-class supporter of his party, Prime Minister Gordon Brown described the voter as “a bigoted woman,” unaware that his remarks were being picked up by a microphone.

Critics have seized on them as the alleged proof that Brown and the Labour Party’s elite regard the party’s working-class base as little more than voting fodder.

Debate's focus is the economy

The theme for tonight's debate, the economy, is one that should have provided an opportunity for the Labour leader to play to his strengths by focusing on policy and arguing that the Keynesian actions he took in the wake of the 2008 banking meltdown saved Britain from economic Armageddon and led the way for the rest of Europe.

Brown’s remarks, as well as others picked up as he drove away from a feisty but apparently friendly meeting with Gillian Duffy – a widowed grandmother who worked for 30 years for the town council in Rochdale, England, and had questioned Brown over the scale of immigration from Eastern Europe – have instead been seized upon as evidence of unsavory character traits that some have long sought to tar Brown with.

“This was the authentic Gordon Brown – thin-skinned, paranoid, and perpetually on the hunt for someone else to blame,” claimed The Sun, the right-wing tabloid that remains Britain’s biggest selling newspaper.

Echoing the widespread judgment of pundits Thursday, its front-page headline read: “Gillian only popped out for a loaf. She came back with ... BROWN TOAST.”

Although the incident has yet to be factored into any recently released polls, the latest figures have shown that Labour remains stuck in third place with 28 percent.

The opposition Conservative Party leads with about 33 percent, while the centrist Liberal Democrats are at around 30 percent and appear to be sustaining their breakthrough surge in support enjoyed since their leader, Nick Clegg, appeared in the first television debate.

Immigration in spotlight

The incident, in addition to dealing a potential death blow to Brown’s hopes of staying on as prime minister, has catapulted the issue of immigration into the spotlight.

It continued to dog Brown when he addressed workers Thursday at a factory in Halesowen, in England’s West Midlands.

During a question-and-answer session with staff, one worker demanded to know what he was going to do about it. Brown insisted that he understood the sense of public concern, pointing to his introduction of an points system for workers entering the UK from outside the European Union area of free movement.

"I understand the worries people have about immigration. I understand the concerns about what is happening to people's neighborhoods, and I understand the fears that people have," he added.

Wednesday’s incident has also shown up deep fault lines between the Labour Party itself and the white working-class voters who traditionally formed its core support.

Those fault lines go all the way back to a change in direction after Labour’s bruising 1983 election defeat, when it began a process of seeking to broaden its appeal. The rebranded New Labour project, spearheaded In the 1990s by Tony Blair, was the culmination of that change in direction, in which more middle-class voters who had previously supported the Conservatives were assiduously courted.

Mark Garnett of Lancaster University, whose field of expertise includes British political culture since 1970, said that Britain’s white working class has steadily vanished from the considerations of politicians from all of the major parties.

Westminster bubble

Instead, the focus had shifted toward an imagined “caricature” of British voters as being tolerant, middle-class, and receptive to the language used in the “Westminster bubble” of Britain’s political elite.

High-profile meetings with supposedly random voters on the campaign trail are now normally carefully choreographed and often staged.

“Politicians had some contact with real people in the 1970s, when they had more opportunities to interact with the electorate but there has been a detachment of politicians from the general public," says Mr. Garnett, who predicts that Labour will not be able to recover. "What we saw yesterday was an encounter between Mr. Brown and a genuine member of the electorate.


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