“This is what we would call a Bradford spring” — the familiar soft growl emanated from the radio at half-past seven in the morning, courtesy of the BBC’s Today. Christ, one thought, reaching for the dial, what now? What could be more ominous than waking to the susurrant tones of George Galloway, ex-MP, activist, Big Brother contestant, and cat imitator? God, has he killed someone or something?
Well, not, as it turned out, but it was pretty stonkingly amazing nevertheless. Gorgeous George, standing under the Respect party banner, had won the Bradford West byelection, by a stonking majority, taking 18,000 votes out of a total of just over 30,000, sending Labour to under 10,000, the Tories to 2000, and with the Lib-Dems losing their deposit.
The result is unprecedented in post-WW2 British electoral history and probably since the days of rotten boroughs — in an eight-candidate race, Galloway scored 53%, an absolute majority in a seat held by the opposition. Bradford West has been Labour since 1974, it has a large Muslim population, the outgoing member, Labour MP Marsha Singh, was retiring due to ill-health, and another community candidate was replacing her.
Furthermore, all current anger was being directed at the Tories, following their recent budget, which, with its tax breaks for the rich, and a freeze on pensions, had sundered the notion that “we’re all in this together” once and for all — not to mention pastygate.
Galloway’s campaign was good — with an open-topped bus, and a leaflet in several languages pointing out that he was a lifelong teetotaller, and in that sense, more Muslim than the Muslim candidate — but we’re talking about a 55% drop in the incumbent party’s vote, from 18,000 to 8000. And, as Galloway pointed out, Muslim peak bodies and local mosques continued to support Labour. So what the hell happened?
Some are seeing it as a stunning rebellion against Labour’s continued failure to really show that it will offer an alternative to the blitzkreig of cuts and privatisations being imposed by the Tories — citing in particular, Labour’s embarrassing failure to say that it would reinstate the 50p tax rate. Others are seeing it as a combination of a left vote, an anti-war vote, and an anti-political vote — the most visible candidate not of the three parties gaining the bonus.
Some on the left are seeing it as the great rebirth of a force to the left of Labour. Some Tories are arguing that it was helped across the line by a massive Tory tactical vote — the Tory vote fell by nearly 80% — from 12,600 to 2700, while Respect’s vote increase was nearly 1500% — from 1200 to 18,300. Labour, determined to prove everything said about them, blamed it on Galloway’s “fame” from appearing on Celebrity Big Brother five years ago.
There is some truth to all of these things — even Labour’s desperate excuse. But not enough. The melancholy fact for the major parties is that Respect could give them back 2000 votes each, and still have won. There was unquestionably a hardcore Tory vote doing a “tactical” — but the size of these are always overstated by party hacks, and many Tories would simply find it impossible to bring themselves to vote for Galloway, a Glasgae Catholic Stalinist of the old school.
Beyond all the flummery, the shift appears to have come from boots on the ground — which is good and bad news for Labour. Respect had dozens of people hitting the streets for George, and even though the party (it is technically a coalition) is small — no more than a few hundred members after the Socialist Workers Party pulled out — that was enough to outpace Labour and get the message across. The absence of sufficiently precise polling meant that the gradual shift towards Respect was missed.
Respect can’t replicate that at a national level in a general election — indeed there’s little chance it could cover the eight or 10 seats in the East End, Leicester, and a few other northern spots where it might be competitive, in a period of enmity towards all major parties.
But Labour’s informally remarked on inability to run a community campaign, and to have the sort of coverage that would get people out on a week day byelection is also a measure, and a far more serious one, of a party’s inability to turn out the vote, even as it kicks goals in the media. It is now a decade since the 2001 election, where Labour’s turnout vote fell off a cliff. So did the Tories’, but not by nearly as much, and theirs clambered back up to some degree.
Labour’s never have, its branch structure has decayed, and its relationship with British Asians (i.e. Pakistanis and Indians) has been poisoned by a decade of war, and by its continuing refusal to come out against Afghanistan, at a time when it is clear to all that it is nothing more than squalid farce.
For the past 10 years, the Labour centre has been indifferent to the 5 million votes lost to them by lower turnout — arguing that many of these were “insulation” votes in inner-city seats, where there was no real competition. The game was for ever more a contest for swing voters in the densely populated south-east, and they had to be reassured that the party was patriotic, low-taxing, etc. Though there has been a somewhat leftish movement by Ed Miliband, it has occurred within this frame.
Thus, Labour got complacent about seats such as Bradford West — so much so that they had already booked a Friday appearance for Miliband in the city, the day after the election, and one that had to be hastily cancelled. With local elections coming up on May 3, any boost they may get in taking seats back from the Tories, may be blunted or reversed by the impact of a revived Respect party. Labour has responded to this in fine form, with its secretary-general immediately departing on a two-week skiing holiday.
Moreover, Galloway’s return to parliament provides Miliband with a fresh problem. Whatever people think of Galloway, no one denies that he’s a fine orator of the old school, great with a prepared speech and quick on his feet. He will be uninhibited about baiting the Tories on their wholesale attacks on the NHS, on government schooling and much more, potentially exposing the bet-hedging of Miliband E, on these matters — and reminding people that, in full flight, the leader of the Labour Party sounds like a Muppet with a cold. We are likely to have the dulcet tones of Gorgeous George sliding under the duvet for some time to come.