By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A07
LONDON -- In the heat of Britain's closest election race in decades, a national debate has broken out over the most unlikely of questions: Is Gillian Duffy really a bigot?
The straight-talking Duffy cornered Prime Minister Gordon Brown during his now-infamous visit to her town on Wednesday, openly complaining that political correctness had made it so "you can't say anything about these immigrants." Moments later, Brown was caught off-camera calling her a "bigoted woman" in a blunder that is suddenly propelling immigration to the forefront of the British campaign.
The incident is underscoring the polarizing power of immigration on both sides of the Atlantic, with the focus in Britain largely on the waves of Eastern Europeans who landed here over the past decade. Though the economic crisis has led many to pack their bags and return home, they remain a beacon of blame, especially among the British working class, for overburdened schools and hospital wards.
So the Duffy incident touched a raw nerve. On Twitter and Facebook, in tabloids and on personal blogs, tens of thousands of British voters are seconding Brown's motion in calling Duffy, 65, a bigot, an act for which he spent 40 minutes apologizing to her. Others are hailing her as a working-class hero brave enough to take on a political class too liberal and privileged to see the immigration problem around them.
Far-right parties, meanwhile, rolled out campaign materials emphasizing an anti-immigrant stance. Some analysts are predicting strong showings Thursday for those parties, though probably not strong enough to capture any seats in Parliament.
"This is confirming the suspicions of the working classes that the socially liberal upper classes and politicians have a slight contempt for them and think they are just silly old bigots who really don't understand," said Ed West, a blogger for the right-leaning Telegraph who took to the Internet on Friday with a piece headlined "Bigoted Gillian Duffy Makes Me Proud to Be British."
For Brown and his rivals -- Conservative Party front-runner David Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats -- the incident is thrusting an issue they had all hoped to sidestep to the center of the campaign.
For different reasons, all three are viewed as vulnerable on the issue, which became the single hottest topic Thursday night during the last of three prime-time election debates.
Clegg, the dark horse who surged in the polls after the debates began, found himself on the defensive after a member of the audience asked why politicians "have become removed from the concerns of real people, especially on immigration." Brown and Cameron used the opportunity to attack the Liberal Democrat's plan to offer a partial amnesty to illegal immigrants. Friday on the campaign trail, Clegg was dogged by more immigration questions from reporters.
Brown, meanwhile, is in a position of not only bouncing back from his colossal gaffe but also of defending the Labor Party's record of opening its doors wide and early to immigrants from less- wealthy nations in the European Union. Over the past 48 hours, he has sought to portray himself as unwaveringly tough on immigration, saying Labor's new countermeasures were stemming inflows. He promised to reserve some types of jobs for British citizens.
Yet Cameron, now leading in the polls, is perhaps in the most delicate position. During the 2005 race, the Conservative Party's anti-immigration stance was widely seen as a major factor in alienating socially liberal voters from Britain's political center -- precisely the segment he is courting in an effort to return his party to power for the first time in 13 years.
"Going hard on immigration goes against David Cameron's rebranding of the party as one that is less conservative," said Daniel Korski, senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. "That is going to make him struggle to find the right balance on this issue now. He can't be seen to capitalize."
Coverage of Brown's gaffe, which has saturated British airwaves and Internet sites, has increasingly been framed in terms of class. Tweets, texts and Internet comments sympathetic to Duffy portray her as a victim of liberal snobs. Duffy, a lifelong Labor Party voter, was visibly shocked when she heard the comments, which Brown blamed on a "misunderstanding" of her words. "I want to know why he called me a bigot," she demanded.
But thousands have lashed out at her, as well as at Brown's decision to offer so strenuous an apology. Some, like Milena Popova, 29, an IT project manager from Bulgaria, said the incident moved her to tears.
"My concern is that immigration is a shortcut blame for unemployment in the economic crisis, and that it's becoming impossible for mainstream politicians to stand up for us," said Popova, who posted a blog item that has attracted comment from people on both sides of debate. "We end up having sound bites like what Mrs. Duffy said, and that can be misleading and hurtful."