Gordon Brown says he understands concern about immigration
The British prime minister speaks a day after apologizing for calling a woman 'bigoted.' He faces rivals Thursday in a final televised election debate.
The Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2010
London — A day after apologizing for calling an English widow 'bigoted,' British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday said, 'I understand the worries people have about immigration.'
His comments to factory workers in Halesowen, England, came hours before a final televised election debate, which may be his last chance to repair his tarnished reputation.
Brown's extraordinary campaign gaffe was caught on an open microphone Wednesday after his conversation with the woman had concluded, and then was dragged out for hours on television, with him finally going back to the woman's house to apologize.
But candidates on Thursday have to tackle an even thornier issue — how to repair Britain's fragile economy amid deepening economic troubles in Europe.
'Yesterday was yesterday, today I want to talk about the future of the economy,' Brown said.
And with Britain's three main candidates neck-and-neck ahead of the May 6 national election, the country appears headed toward a hung parliament in which no group holds a majority. Urgently needed decisions on the economy may be delayed by the need to build coalitions.
Britain's first-ever televised debates, three in all, have already spurred an unexpected transformation in the country's politics. Nick Clegg, leader of the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats, has turned in two sparkling performances, shocking the election's two heavyweights, Brown of the ruling Labour Party and David Cameron of the Conservatives.
The Liberal Democrats have even leapfrogged Labor into second spot in many recent surveys.
But the TV duels' most decisive moment could come Thursday, with the toxic topic of the economy. Britain has struggled through a deep 18-month recession in which around 1.3 million people have been laid off and 50,000 families have had their homes repossessed.
Whoever governs Britain after the May 6 vote must quickly tame a mammoth 152.84 billion pounds ($235.9 billion) deficit racked up during the global financial crisis. Britain will likely suffer the largest cuts to public services since World War II, taxes are sure to rise and efforts to cut unemployment will take time.
'It really is the defining issue of the campaign — so we'll have to hope that they will finally be nailed down on the subject,' said Howard Archer, chief U.K. economist at IHS Global Insight, before Thursday's 90-minute tussle, which is being held in Birmingham.
Archer said all three main parties have been so far reluctant to give specifics of 'the gruesome details' of budget trimming and economic constraints ahead.
'Of course, they're not particularly vote-winning policies,' he said.
Brown seemed ready to take on what has been his strongest subject.
He promised to use the debate to remind voters of his handling of the economic storms, and to discuss fears that Greece's debt crisis could spread through Europe. Currencies and stock markets tumbled Wednesday on fears over Athens' plight.
Brown vowed to focus on 'how our economy can move through what are difficult times, given what we see happening in the rest of Europe, in Greece and elsewhere.'
In two weeks since the first debate, Clegg has pushed himself forward as a credible new contender to lead Britain — shaking up the dominance of Labor and the Conservatives, the two major parties who have traded power since the 1930s.
Support for the Liberal Democrats has jumped dramatically — to about 30% of potential votes in opinion polls — from 18% before the first debate two weeks ago. The latest surveys show Cameron's party leads with about 33% and Brown's Labor sits third with 28%.
Economic policies will be key for the uncertain voters that all three parties need.
In the struggling town of Lowestoft, on England's eastern coast, a once bustling port has suffered from sharp decline, with little interest in the dwindling catches offered for sale at a daily fish market.
Resident Daniel Edwards said there's one key issue for him. 'Employment. There are no jobs in Lowestoft, I've been unemployed for six months to a year,' he said.
Some angry Britons blame an influx of 6 million foreigners since Brown's Labor took office in 1997 for worsening their plight. Immigrants — many from poor countries — have been accused of snatching jobs, pushing down wages and overwhelming welfare services.
It has driven some to back the far-right British National Party. The issue also got the prime minister into trouble.
Brown, forgetting that he had a television microphone pinned to his chest, called 66-year-old widow Gillian Duffy a 'bigoted woman' Wednesday after she had needled him on immigration at a campaign stop.
Some voters are say they just don't know which party would be best to kick-start the economy.
'I think it's time for somebody else to have a go — who is the right person? Who knows? It's an impossible job,' said Mark Harvey, a supervisor at Lowestoft's market, for wholesaler JT Cole Fish.