The Bigotgate Blunder

Gordon Brown’s “bigotgate” blunder yesterday was a PR mistake in another way, too.

Modern political PR operators have lost their nerve. They have become control freaks, obsessed with managing away every hint of risk from their candidates’ daily schedules. ”Ordinary” members of the public are wheeled up, carefully selected for their doglike devotion to Party and Candidate. They receive their pat on the head, they wag their tails and off they go.

The Prime Minister’s reaction yesterday when he found himself actually talking to a real member of the public (albeit a lifelong supporter of his Party) was as interesting as it was startling. The fact is that his discussion with Gillian Duffy had been far from the “disaster” that he thought. Yes, she had raised a list of concerns. But he had answered well, listening courteously, talking kindly and with sympathy, and setting out his case with effective clarity. He had looked good. Mrs Duffy’s gentle challenges provided him with hugely more opportunity to express himself than a dozen hand picked sycophants would ever have done.

But so sheltered has he become from the realities of real voter contact that this brief exchange felt to him like a “disaster”. He was wrong. And his minders were wrong, just as most political minders are wrong. They need courage. They need to believe in themselves. Great politicians are risk takers. Successful risk takers. And that’s how they rise above the crowd. No half-decent politician should ever be afraid of contact with the public. This is their real chance to perform. It was only when the “grey man” of British politics, John Major, dragged out his soap box and stood on street corners taking on all comers that he was able to turn around an unwinnable election. This election’s so tight, a well-judged throw of the dice might just change history. But I’m not sure modern politicians have the guts or the instinct for that kind of risk taking. Sometimes, though, if you try too hard not to lose, you can forget how to win.

Terence Fane-Saunders