On this day ten years ago, a hot-mic moment by a fading prime minister changed the course of British history and became one of a thousand straws that contributed to the breaking of the political consensus’s back, playing its part in both Brexit and Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide election.
On April 28th, 2010, Labour’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown was touring northern constituencies, campaigning for that year’s general election. Meeting a voter in the street, Mr Brown talked to Gillian Duffy, who listed among her concerns high levels of taxation and mass migration to Britain from the European Union.
Clearly dissatisfied with the encounter, Prime Minister Brown got into his car and was driven away. What he had forgotten was he was still wearing a radio microphone, so the television cameras could capture his visit.
Sharing his disgust of the 65-year-old widow with an aide, and inadvertently broadcasting it, he said: “That was a disaster… should never have put me in with that woman. Whose idea was that? … she was just a sort of bigoted woman. She said she used be Labour. I mean it’s just ridiculous.”
Caught in the act, Mr Brown later gave a strange sort of apology on national radio, explaining that he had found being taken to task over historically high levels of immigration as “annoying”.
This encounter only happened because — as a Sky News report of the time pointed out — Brown was coming under criticism for only talking to his own supporters. Given how well talking to an ordinary person in an unscripted meeting went, you can see why the political class still so carefully choreograph their forays into the outside world.
It was one of the most sensational hot-mic moments in history, and Gordon Brown found himself out of office within two weeks.
It has been claimed the ‘bigoted woman’ remarks, as they came to be known, changed the course of the 2010 election. Perhaps it did. Despite Brown’s contrite apology immediately afterwards, it dominated the last days of the campaign. With the political mood music set after 13 years of Labour government and so soon after the 2009 expenses scandal, perhaps Gordon Brown was never going to scrape by.
But the event certainly had further-reaching consequences. In one careless remark to a forgotten microphone, Britain’s only serious left-wing party showed for one horrifying moment its true face: the snarling, contemptuous reality of modern Labour elite that cannot stand its own supporters.
In the old world, Britain’s two establishment political parties could both depend on an absolutely rock-solid constituency of loyal, tribal, geographically-concentrated voters. Labour had its northern heartlands, the votes of today’s electors won from their great-grandparents a century ago amid great industrial cities and passed down generation to generation undamaged, despite the industry evaporating and the communities fracturing. The Conservatives had their Surrey stockbroker belt and the new middle classes who found their loyalty through Mrs Thatcher.
This rendered both parties safely able to ignore their core supporters, and able to bicker bitterly over the centre-ground where a small number of people, it was believed, would swing every election one way or the other. This had the obvious effect of bringing both Tories and Labour together, turning them into barely distinguishable centrist groups.
That was good news for the small number of people these parties were fighting over, but many in the unappreciated majority began to realise the parties they had loyally supported for years no longer resembled or represented them. Formerly working-class Labour had transformed into the sneering party of the wealthy and woke north-London metropolitan bubble, while the Conservatives had transformed from law and order to Heirs to Blair.
For the left, Gordon Brown vs Gillian Duffy killed the illusion. Ten years ago today, the mortar started crumbling from the so-called ‘red wall‘, the impenetrable line of traditional Labour strongholds in the north. Nearly a decade later, that wall would fall in the 2019 election with Boris Johnson’s landslide as ex-Labour voters voted Tory in droves.
It is also worth mentioning that Mrs Duffy voted for Brexit, as did millions of other people in what we now think of as former Labour heartlands. Those voters were instructed in no uncertain terms to vote for the European Union by their political masters in 2016, but rebelled — no doubt in part because they knew the not-so-secret contempt those leaders hold them in.