Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007. He did not face a leadership contest from within the Labour Party (his only potential opponent, John McDonnell, only received 8.2% of nominations) and Brown was always seen as Tony Blair’s designated successor. He lost the 2010 General Election to David Cameron and the election campaign included the infamous ‘bigotgate’ affair. So what happened and why was it significant?
Gordon Brown was an unlucky Prime Minister. He was unlucky in two senses:
1. In becoming Prime Minister he followed Tony Blair, the most charismatic leader in modern political history. Blair changed the role of Prime Minister arguably more than any figure, apart from Thatcher. How you looked and sounded mattered more than ever, this was a curse for Gordon Brown who was not outwardly charismatic.
2. Just a year after becoming Prime Minister the biggest economic crash since the 1930s engulfed Britain. This was a global economic crisis and was not of Brown’s making – in fact he showed extraordinary leadership on the global stage – but he was tarnished by having been Chancellor of an economy that was now in seeming freefall.
When John Smith died in 1994 it was widely believed that Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair, would become Labour leader. However, following the infamous ‘Granita Meeting’ with Blair of 1994, it was agreed that Blair would become Labour Leader, with Brown his Shadow Chancellor. It was also agreed that Blair would step down after two terms as Prime Minister. Of course, Blair backtracked on his promise, leaving Brown to become PM in the middle of the 2005-2010 Parliamentary term.
Brown was as intellectual heavyweight. With a first-class degree and a Doctorate in History, before entering Parliament in 1983 he was a Politics Lecturer.
As Chancellor of Exchequer he was a dominant figure. He was always on top of his brief and was known as a formidable House of Commons performer. Yet, as Prime Minister, these qualities were not as important. Instead, focus was placed on his apparent social awkwardness, his domineering leadership style and his coarseness in front of the cameras. To make matters worse for Brown, his chief opponent as PM was David Cameron – a smooth political operator who had been called the ‘heir to Blair’. In a recent interview with Sky News, Brown recognised the impact his personality may have had on voters:
If one event highlights the struggles Gordon Brown faced it is the infamous ‘bigotgate’ affair in the 2010 General Election.
On the 28th April 2010, during the General Election campaign, Gordon Brown was meeting voters in Rochdale. The seat was an important swing seat between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Whilst campaigning, he met an elderly voter called Gillian Duffy.
She explained that she used to support Labour, but had been unimpressed with their recent record. Along the issues she raised were the cost of tuition fees, pension taxation and immigration. The two party on good terms and Brown moved onto to meet other voters, surrounded by a multitude of TV cameras:
However, in preparation for a day of campaigning, Gordon Brown had been fitted with a mic on his lapel by Sky News. When he finished meeting local voters he either forgot that he was wearing the microphone or broke the golden political rule – always treat any microphone as a live microphone. As he was driven away, he commented on the encounter with Gillian Duffy with his advisors:
Sky quickly discovered the footage and showed it to a visibly distressed Duffy:
Gordon Brown was already on his way to be interviewed by BBC Radio and quite clearly understood the gravity of the mistake that he had made. The video recordings clearly show his dismay, as he holds his head in his hands while hearing the Sky News footage played back to him:
It was clear that an apology via Radio on TV would not suffice. So, in one of the most surreal moments in British election history, the Prime Minister went to a small, terraced house in Rochdale to apologize in person to a single elderly voter:
A few things come to mind in considering this episode. Firstly, how difficult it is being a politician and not being able to let your guard down. Frankly, if we were all forced to wear a microphone around work each day there would be very few of us who would not get ourselves in a little bit of trouble! Secondly, it shows the influence that 24/7 news has had on politics and particularly on General Election campaigns. Sky News was launched in 1989 whilst BBC News was launched in 1997. These channels focus the entirety of their programming on contemporary news affairs. With 24 hours of news to fill, there is an incumbency on the news channels to gain as much original footage as possible, which is of course why the PM was wearing a pre-fitted microphone. With so much live coverage, it is undoubtedly the case that the personality of the Prime Minister becomes accentuated and, arguably, discussions over policy become ever less important.
For Gordon Brown, the “bigotgate” episode solidified an image that many voters already have of him – awkward, uncaring and disingenuous. After 13 years of New Labour the government appeared tired and people yearned for a change. When auditioning for a role that had been increasingly presidentialised by his predecessor, as a campaigner, Brown was found lacking. In the 2010 General Election Labour secured only 258 seats compared to 306 for the Conservatives. Gordon Brown’s chat with Gillian Duffy and subsequent comments were not the reason for their defeat, but it certainly didn’t help.
‘Bigotgate’ was an ‘open mic’ event during the 2010 General Election campaign. It was damaging to Gordon Brown, most notably because it reinforced an image of him that voters already possessed. It was made possible due to the prevalence of 24/7 media – that is why he was miked up in the first place. 24/7 media has changed the nature of the news cycle and made events like this more likely.