What happened to the Politics of Conviction?

Poor old Gordon Brown. The British PM isn’t the most riveting personality on the global political stage but he’s unwittingly enlivened an otherwise turgid British election campaign.

I’m referring, of course, to his now-infamous comment that a 65 year-old woman he’d glad-handed on the campaign trail was a “bigot”. Because she’d had the temerity to ask him about immigration – an issue of real public interest across the length and breadth of the UK.

Brown made the comment as he drove away from the scene and his words were picked up by a SKY News radio-mic still clipped to his lapel.


The media, assembled en masse for the walkabout photo opp, had a field day. Cue the PR blitz. Back to Rochdale he trundled, his prime-ministerial Jaguar and its trailing security Landrover filmed weaving in and out of the old bangers rusting away quietly on Mrs Duffy’s housing estate. And he grovelled. Boy did he grovel. For 40 minutes he squirmed and wriggled behind the “bigot’s” lace curtains.

When he finally emerged he told the assembled media that he’d “misunderstood” “Gillian”, and he’d “made a mistake”.

But did he do the right thing? Was he right to have apologised and grovelled – going even so far as to call himself a “penitent sinner”?

The tofu (bland and tasteless) school of public relations, it seems, would give you an emphatic “yes”. I’d beg to differ. Here’s why:

By wriggling and grovelling and eating humble pie he showed that he’s prepared to compromise his genuine views and beliefs on the altar of political expediency.

Mrs Duffy’s question wasn’t bigotry. It was a legitimate question about a very real issue of concern to ordinary people. But Brown clearly thought it was bigoted. Worse for him, he said so in the privacy of his car and there was no way he could deny it.

He had only two other possible avenues of action: Grovel and Grind and hope the issue blows over, or brass it out.

I think he should have brassed it out. He should have explained which of Mrs Duffy’s questions he thought were bigoted and why, and used this as a platform to go into more detail about the very sensitive issue of immigration and how Labour intended to deliver a solution that is fair to all.

Played carefully, he could even have turned the whole thing into a vote-WINNING exercise.

Instead, having demonstrated amply to the nation that he acts one way in public but totally differently in private, he compounded the horror. By wriggling and grovelling and eating humble pie he showed that he’s prepared to compromise his genuine views and beliefs (for that was surely what they were) on the altar of political expediency. It all spells I-N-S-I-N-C-E-R-I-T-Y. And if that’s a vote-winning formula then strike me dumb!

As it turns out, the grovelling didn’t help. Two days after the event “Bigotgate” is still the biggest story on the UK election beat and it dominated today’s final TV debate between the three party leaders. And, surprise! Immigration is suddenly the hot election topic du jour! So it looks like someone missed a prime opportunity back there, don’t you think?

Brown can blame tofu PR. That spineless, insincere and path-of-least-resistance school of thought.

Brown can blame tofu PR. That spineless, insincere, path-of-least-resistance school of thought that says a public flailing and a good spell in sack-cloth and ashes is the best way to wriggle out from between a rock and a hard place. The school of thought that gave us the wholly needless raft of public apologies from Tiger Woods, just days before he played a major tournament. The school of thought that gave us that spectacularly over-the-top ‘resignation’ from our very own Housing Minister Phil Heatley.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a good apology. It can, and does, have its place. But when the sentiment of apology is abused for the purposes of deflecting the flak, and getting back to business as soon as possible, it becomes an utterly hollow exercise that can backlash spectacularly.

There are too many tofu traders out there, and too many “penitent sinners” prepared to swallow their wares without question. In business, as in politics, conviction is what counts. If you say what you believe, and believe what you say, you’ll get cut a lot of slack. Try to pull the wool over the punters’ eyes with a lot of phony hand-wringing and you’ll get kicked where it hurts.

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