A few months back my wife and I reluctantly decided to try and get a cleaner for our home. I say reluctantly because I feel uncomfortable about the idea of anything resembling the idea of having a domestic ‘servant’ – I feel such an arrangement is of its nature demeaning to the employee cast in the role of servant. My wife however suffers from a neurological disability, and I often work 12 hours per day or more, 5 days per week. We struggle to keep up with the cleaning. So we set out to see who we could find.
We telephoned a number from a local free newspaper, and were visited at home by a pleasant lady – I’d say she was in her mid 40’s (as we are) who told us about her cleaning business – we were relatively impressed, and decided to give her a chance to do our cleaning. She talked for some time and during this time she issued the following statement :
“I’m not racist but, a lot of these Polish cleaners that you see these days, they have different standards from us.”
It’s fair to say that I bristled at this.
Well, because I anticipated that she might start to make racist comments about Poles (she didn’t); because most people I’ve come across who do make racist comments invariably start their diatribe with “I’m not racist but …”; because my best friend is a Pole – and I’ve known him since I was 12; because my recently deceased Aunt, though not Polish, was Eastern European, having come to the UK as a Latvian refugee as a young girl; because I’ve employed at least a dozen Poles – either teachers or teaching assistants, in my role as Headteacher of a special school – and found them without exception to be hard working, usually very talented, and in at least one case to be an exceptionally gifted teacher; and finally because I deplore racism – and by extension the racists who promote it.
In short I thought it likely that she was bigoted and racist.
Would I have been justified in saying that to her ?
Well no, I don’t think I would. She didn’t actually say anything derogotary about Poles – just that their standards might be ‘different’ – and she presumably has come across more cleaners from Poland in our local area than I have (not difficult – I haven’t come across any – or any Poles either actually come to think of it) – she may well be right.
So I held my tongue, and engaged her to clean our house on a weekly basis – starting in a couple of weeks time.
Several weeks down the line I still don’t know whether she was bigoted, but I do hope that Polish cleaners do have different standards, because this English one never turned up.
However – my point is, although this woman never technically said anything specifically racist, she hinted to me that she might do – and I was wary – and expecting it – but it never happened. For me to jump to conclusions about her bigotry, would have been just presumptuous as it was for her to jump to conclusions about Polish cleaners.
Today on television Gordon Brown encountered a woman who similarly came out with a comment – out of the blue – about Eastern European immigrants. She said “where are they all flocking from” shortly after she’d said something about vulnerable people not getting access to help, and people who do get help not being vulnerable. And in common with the lady that I talked to, she didn’t actually say anything racist – but like Gordon Brown, I would have been tense in this situation, and I’d have been expecting her to make a racist comment at any second – and yes I probably would have leapt to the conclusion that she was bigoted.
So was he justified in saying so – well no he wasn’t – he’s the Prime Minister and he should be extra careful not to jump to conclusions – extra careful as well not to forget that he’s wired for sound.
Not that I can’t understand how and why he said what he said. To be constantly under the media spotlight all the time, having them judge your every word, every gesture, every look must be so exhausting – to get into the safety of the car away from the glare of publicity – I feel it is entirely natural that a Prime ministerial candidate, would voice doubts and anxieties about his performance, would question how well his team were doing, and would say things that weren’t particularly complimentary about a woman who’d just given him a tough time – even though he’d dealt with it rather well actually.
Understandable. It still doesn’t make it alright though.
But let’s be honest about this. He didn’t say this the second he got in the car, as the videos running on BBC and Sky news would have you believe. It was a short while later – he should have been out of earshot, and he was off air (but not unrecorded). His comments weren’t either blurted out live – they were recorded and played back after the event. And though his comments were unjustified, the conclusions that he had clearly jumped to weren’t entirely illogical.
That he apologised, both to the lady in question, and to Labour Party members (to whom I suspect he’s done the greater disservice) is to his credit.
So to my mind that’s more or less it.
Do I think Gordon Brown was right to do this ? – No I think he was stupid – it was an amateurish mistake
Do I think this will harm the Labour Party ? – I’m not sure – clearly it will with some people – others I am sure are getting heartily sick of the smugness with which the TV pundits are making news mileage out of this – and will quite possibly turn towards Gordon rather than away from him – we won’t really know until election day. I’m sure that many of them are wondering whether Sky would have published any off the cuff comments by David Cameron, had he left his microphone switched on in the car. I suspect the answer is no – but also suspect that Tory supporters will be quick to point out that David Cameron wouldn’t leave the microphone switched on in the first place – which would be a fair snipe.
Will it change the way I vote ?
Well I’m not pleased that this has happened – but I’m even less pleased with the barrage of nastiness that has followed the incident on television, and will presumably continue to do so in the papers tomorrow – so “No !”, it will not change the way I intend to vote.
I’m still voting Labour