John Harris

Journalist & Author

Gillian Duffy v Nick Clegg doesn’t come close to ‘bigotgate’ | John Harris

Labour patronisingly uses Gillian Duffy for political stunts, yet it’s done little to address what lay behind her original face-off

Last year, during an early-evening lull at the Labour party conference, I found myself in the murky bar of Manchester’s Radisson hotel. Whispers were circulating that the legendary Gillian Duffy was in the house. And so it proved: just behind me, evidently enjoying the best hospitality her hosts could offer, was the redoubtable Rochdale pensioner, seemingly invited to prove that Labour had learned from her miserable encounter with Gordon Brown, and was back in touch with its core supporters. And now this: having re-landed in the culture via her backing for David Miliband in the Labour leadership contest, she’s now all over the papers thanks to her meeting with Nick Clegg. “Could you please tell me why you went with the Conservatives last year instead of going with Labour?” she asked him, before accusing him of giving her the “same speech” as usual, and concluding that “it’s all gone wrong”.

This time, the meeting was less than accidental: the face-off with Clegg was the suggestion of Rochdale’s Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, who had Duffy ferried to a local factory by a party activist, and used the occasion to enthuse about her cooking. “Gillian baked me a cheese and onion pie the other night,” he said. “It was very nice.” Indeed.

Welcome, then, to a rather irksome and extremely post-modern attempt to maintain a class narrative about the coalition’s failings (you know the drill: “out of touch with ordinary people”, and all that), which actually suggests that the only way even the Labour party knows how to treat the likes of Duffy is to rather patronisingly use them as props.

In the minds of the Labour people who organised this latest stunt, the imagined public response was presumably something like this: “Look at ‘er! A genuine working-class Labour voter! Takes no crap, and tells it ‘ow it is! The voice of reason, an’ no mistake!” Just as Brown wilted in her presence, so the public schoolies now in power would surely crumble.

But enough already. Duffy’s clash with Brown (there’s a transcript here) was a brilliant moment of symbolism because of what it said about New Labour’s distance from its party’s own electoral bedrock.

Duffy’s ire about eastern European immigration (and, though it’s often forgotten, welfare policy, the taxing of pensions, and tuition fees) cut to the heart of the party’s neglect of how ignored millions of people felt, and in Brown’s dismissal of her as “a bigoted woman”, there lay an object lesson about how disconnected the political elite had become from the working class. I wrote a piece as the aftershocks of the episode kicked in, which nailed the essential problem thus: that as “Britain has gone through convulsive change after convulsive change, nobody in power has ever bothered giving them much of an explanation”.

That’s why “bigotgate” was so symbolic, and remains so – but it’s also why asking low-grade questions about recent political history to Nick Clegg doesn’t begin to compare. Worse, though Duffy is doubtless tickled pink by her ability to crashland on our TV screens whenever she fancies, the fact that she did so at the suggestion of her local Labour MP rather sells her short. As far as I can tell, beyond a vague shift of tone, the party she has so loyally supported down the years has still done precious little to address what lay behind the face-off that first hurled her into the public consciousness. Until Labour does, she should perhaps keep a slightly lower profile.

(Sound of phone ringing in downtown Rochdale: “Hello, Mrs Duffy? It’s Newsnight here. Yes, we’ll send a car …”) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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