Election campaign: Not so magic moment

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By Kevin Williamson

Political parties put in a lot of effort, and spend a lot of money hiring PR people, to make sure their election campaigns go smoothly.  But as Rabbie Burns famously told a homeless rodent: “the best laid plans o mice and men gang aft agley.” 

Iain Gray may come to rue the day he ran for cover into a sandwich bar when protestors harangued him at a Glasgow station.  Votes aren’t always cast on manifestos and policies. Often it’s about impressions.  The impression many got from that incident was that Gray was afraid of the public he seeks to represent.

Last year Gordon Brown found out the hard way about the relationship between unplanned gaffes and overall impressions when he was on walkabout in Rochdale.  There he encountered a pensioner, a lifelong Labour voter called Gillian Duffy, who he first of all patronised and then hypocritically insulted without realising his mike was still turned on.  It was a pivotal moment in that election campaign and there was no way back. The words “bigoted woman” will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Brown wasn’t the first Labour leader to make such a disastrous gaffe on the election trail.  One of his predecessors, Neil Kinnock, was the uncrowned High Priest Of Buffoonery.  This was the man who snatched political defeat from the jaws of almost certain victory in 1992.  In that campaign he made two high profile gaffes that went off the Richter Scale in cringe value.

The first was at Brighton when he fell over into the sea while waking hand-in-hand with his wife.  As pre-arranged photo opportunities it was a beauty.  Okay, anyone can fall over and look stupid.  But the idiotic Kinnock chose to jump to his feet and make a stupid clenched fist salute – as if to say “take that you bastards” – to the sniggering array of national press and TV cameras.  He came across as a total prat.  This was confirmed at an infamous election rally in Sheffield where he started foaming at the mouth like the worst ever auld fart trying to be cool.  “We’re alright!” he bellowed to a full house of party droids. They cheered and laughed, sycophantically.  This only spurred him on to further stupidities.  “We’re alright!”  He shouted it again.  And again.  Aw, Jesus, groaned the general public. He went down in history as one of the biggest losers in Labour Party history.

Jimmy Carter was arguably one of the most liberal-minded and progressive of recent US Presidents.  But many people remember him for that moment in October 1979 when he stopped, wheezing and sweaty, while running a race.  “I’ve got to keep trying,” he gasped.  But his legs went all rubbery and he needed to be helped to his feet by a Secret Services man.  The impression was of a man unfit for office.

As the May elections loom ever closer it is debatable whether Iain Gray has the ability, charisma, ideas or chutzpah to overturn his “bigoted woman” moment.  Even though he’s getting an easy ride from the Scottish media his own campaign team are privately pulling their hair out at how ineffective he is in comparison to Alex Salmond.  A Presidential style election is the last thing they want but it’s debatable if they can undo the damage at this late stage. 

People can be cruel.  If Gray loses an election that seemed sewn up just a few short months ago he better enjoy eating sub sandwiches.  Because he’s going to be offered them everywhere he goes.