Look North with George Galloway

Proving that I should continue effectively boycotting bookies shops for the time being, I wrote prior to the Bradford West by-election my confident prediction of a clear Labour victory. Just in case you need reminding this soon after the event, George Galloway just sneaked ahead.

In this shrug-shoulders cynical age, the manner of Galloway’s victory could be easily shoved to one side, bunged on Wikipedia and left alone. To be clear, the seat of Bradford West was once considered exceptionally strong for Labour, held by them since 1970. Galloway has broken one record – by virtue of standing a candidate in the general election, his share of the vote increase of 52.8 percentage point is the largest ever recorded rise since the introduction of universal suffrage. It’s worth noting too that the swing against Labour is the second worst of its kind in British political history. Let’s not be too dismissive of this flash in the news headlines; Bradford West has already guaranteed its place in political history, as much a marker on the great long road of British political history as the Liberal victories in Orpington, and Bermondsey, and the Labour victory on the Wirral on the run up to the 1997 election.

So conclusion number one – Labour and Ed Miliband are in trouble, yes? Well…yes. But not emphatically. Bradford West is significant for them by virtue of the lessons we all assumed they had learned when Galloway himself took Bethnal Green and Bow from Oona King: of all the parties who are guilty of taking for granted working class voters and particularly the voters from South Asian immigrants and their families, it is the Labour Party. When the Party dismissed across Scotland last year can still look stunned and slack-of-jaw at the result of Bradford West, you just know lessons have not been learned. There can only be so many times that the same brick can hit the same feet without someone wondering if the pain couldn’t be somehow averted.

Ed Miliband is a weaker man today than he was last week, and given his reputation as Labour leader, that’s the same level of weakness that sends the office loudmouth to KFC over Virgin Fitness. He has been at the centre of a Thick Of It style week of unbelievable news – pasties, petrol, ‘Cam Dine With Me’ – only to conclude with the deflated trump of a pin-pricked balloon. Surely someone within Labour HQ knew the ‘cheat codes’ for Galloway at this point? Or for that matter, the necessity to avoid treating British Muslims as an homogeneous group  of grateful Labour voters? Here in Preston, we’ve seen this come and go in real time: one of the safest Labour wards in the city lost to the anti-Iraq war Socialist Alliance and then Respect, with Labour so unwilling to accept the inevitable conclusions that they would take 8 years to win back the seat. It’s not that Respect have won due to ‘banging the right drums’; Labour just assumed the melody they had been banging would be stuck in the heads by now.

The unmitigated disaster for Labour in Bradford West could yet be overturned in the short-term; there’s boundary changes coming up, with the newly redrawn, more rural West likely to reject Galloway’s charms, just as Poplar and Limehouse decided to put him third in the elections last year. There’s the continued slow motion course changing which Labour continue to stop/start. And there’s the Coalition – rejected soundly by the voters in Bradford – whose fortunes will be turned round by 2015. Or at least one would hope.

Another institution failed in its duties on Thursday: the mainstream media. Having long since abandoned covering by-elections, neither the BBC nor SKY looked able to cover the polling day results adequately until the last possible minutes. For the Beeb, it’s more of a disgrace, for they once had the will and attitude to ensure every parliamentary by-election was treated with respect and good grace. Twenty-four hour news cannot be the only reason for reducing by-election coverage to a scant mention in regional opt-outs; whilst the BBC replayed a repeat of “Hardtalk”, SKY News had grabbed Galloway for an exclusive interview. Even here, though, SKY daren’t take over a third of a studio for anything approaching actual coverage.

Surprised when the media had fits of confusion when Galloway was all but declared the winner? Two studio guests and a decent Twitter feed analyser would have had that sorted within minutes. Thanks to the new emphasis on making current affairs ‘relevant’, the main broadcasters have alienated the very people who want to know, and need to know, the issues of the day. It’s not enough – especially for the BBC – to point to the big screens showing TweetDeck loading up to call their new modern coverage ‘state of the art’. If Auntie means what she says about respecting the little bits of her empire, it’s time to prove it. Next by-election – which could be Manchester Central – the BBC’s outfit oop North must be involved.

The discussion surrounding George Galloway’s win touches on many stepping stones along the river of modern Britain. His victory reminds us that politics can still shock and surprise – maybe even shock and awe! – and that not one of the three main Westminster parties can claim to fully understand the way in which the Muslim vote (and larger BME votes) can be sought and retained. This is not a victory without flaws or potential banana skins; Galloway is a provocative and controversial man, one who was ultimately proved right about both Iraq and Afghanistan. But that does not mean there’s any more of a ‘revolution’ now than there was in Bethnal Green, at which George spoke of a “you ain’t seen nothing yet” atmosphere across East London.

Yes, there has been a shake of a kaleidoscope and the pieces are in flux. For the good of his party, Ed Miliband must now learn the lessons of years of complacent Labour attitude and ignorance….and George Galloway must prove that he is willing to be more of a ‘member’ than just a ‘parliamentarian’. History can only be kind when it is written by the victor. 

Great Bradford West Bake-Off

Don’t believe the orchestrated Twitter hype; Labour is going to win today’s Bradford West by-election, and comfortably so. What ‘buzz’ surrounds a shock victory is part double-bluff and mind-games, and part the result of the decreasing interest in covering parliamentary by-elections. Anything for an ‘angle’, even if that comes just the day before polling day and comes across as a hurriedly scribbled puff-piece.

Every democracy has its ‘cuckoo cabal’, from which one curiosity or general odd-ball is plucked every month for a run of rent-a-quotes and media appearances before being plonked back into the pen. Australia has Pauline Hanson, the United States has…..the Republican Party, I guess…..and the United Kingdom can choose from an assortment of men (Nigel Farage, Richard Littlejohn) and a handful of women (notably Nadine Dorries).  This month’s choice of notable numpty is George Galloway, scourge of the pro-Iraq war lobby, Americans (mostly Republicans, it would seem) and the Labour Party. The man who would be remembered solely as one of the greatest orators in Britain were it not for *that* reality TV moment (“would you like me to be a cat?) has been stepping-stone his way back to full credibility having chosen to fight the Poplar and Limehouse constituency two years ago at the general election. He lost, and has been trying to get back to electoral victory since.

Bradford West is not going to be a site of that victory. It’s not just a matter of statistics – it would take an unprecedented standing start win. This campaign has been Galloway acting as the Grand Statesman, whose past pronouncements have been at least within the park of accuracy. It has not been “George comes for your votes” so much as “An anti-Labour roadshow comes to Bradford”. Whilst I would always prefer the defeat of Labour candidates, a Galloway victory would be a success for him, not the constituency. I say that in my humble and personal opinion – Galloway is known to be litigious – only the other day, in fact.

Labour candidate Imran Hussain is in the current mould of that party’s choices – nice, dull, unlikely to rock boats, known in the constituency but that’s about all. Hussain will melt into the backbenches, along side the current roll call of Labour by-election winners during this parliament. How many household names can you recognise – Jon Ashworth, Seema Malhotra, Debbie Abrahams?

Labour need to win Bradford West, and they will. They are still in a dire state – led by the wrong brother, struggling to provide a coherent political message, embarrassingly shrill on the economy. The current ‘buzz’ around Galloway is nothing more than Labour activists doing what they’re told through group emails and on-high instructions; by this time tomorrow, we’ll have to wade through the similarly depressing gloop of spin about ‘Ed Miliband winning against the odds!”. 

Keep Sunday vaguely notable

Nadine Dorries is the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and is the poster girl for the sort of bloke who enjoys Alpha Course meetings as a come down from the BDSM club nights he usually visits. She is an “anti-everything”, often giving statements on the hot topic of the previous day in the most bizarre fashion. You might recall her claim that the expenses scandal had done so  much damage to her colleagues that some of them were “on suicide watch”.

The latest splurge of opinion soup to vomit from Dorries reacts to proposals (released through the pre-Budget leakathon) that the Olympics would be a fine time to relax Sunday Trading Laws. Currently, Britain allows shops to trade on Sundays only if customers can potter around for an hour beforehand fondling the biscuits, flicking through magazines and putting items back in the wrong place having reconsidered buying novelty garden gnomes for a fifth floor apartment.  The basis for restricted trading on Sunday is largely based on religious observance; Sunday is the day of rest, after all, and that means mowing the lawn and listening to Desert Island Discs, not stocking up with BOGOFs at Morrisons.

By restricting trade, shops can offer the same service within constrained hours, often paying staff more for the “novelty” of working on a ‘special day’. This can cause head scratches amongst people for whom Sunday is no more special than any other, who find themselves clock watching before they can set out to buy what they need.

Nadine Dorries’ reaction was typically provocative. “Is the coalition secretly implementing an anti-Christian agenda?” she fumed from her Twitter account, surrounded by the strictly observant religious idyll of Mid-Bedfordshire. (What is “Mid”, anyway? That’s a term used by estate agents and wannabe poets invoking Wordsworth. Apparently it contains a town called “Houghton Conquest”, which sounds like a particularly bad non-league football team).

I’m not sure Dorries is quite in the same….planet, I suppose….with this latest tirade. Relaxing Sunday trading laws will be difficult – there are questions of employment law and employees rights to consider – but that does not mean they  would bring about a destruction of the nation by any measure. Families are not going to split over the right to wander around B&Q, nor will the Church slam the doors on people who choose out of town shopping centres over the pulpit. It is a natural extension of the policy as it currently stands – there is nothing stopping a person buying their weekly shop through the Internet at 3am on a Monday morning or during a lunch break at work. Why ‘bubble wrap’ Sunday trading? If there’s nothing sacred about buying on-line during a lazy Sunday, why keep the High Street within the constraints of a previous generation’s attitude?

Dorries is more often wrong than right, choosing to pick fights in empty venues. Her proposed sex education Bill was a puritan’s wet dream (if such a thing exists, though it would have made a Saint a bit frisky). Otherwise known by the nickname “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children Act”, it would have required schools to drive all their female pupils to one of the Small Isles away from dirty boys and their dirty bits and bobs and desire to hump everything that moves.

There is no compulsion to consume from anyone outside PR companies and advertising agencies and yet Dorries sounds downright scared of what might flow from relaxing the laws, even temporarily. I know there are questions to be asked about consumerism and capitalism generally – they will always be there to consider. Relaxing trading laws would touch the surface of those topics and as is so often the case, Dorries attempts to tackle the subject only to appear completely out of her depth.

Say It Again

The Internet never forgets, I know this more than most.  It is good practice to keep this in mind whenever you’re launching something – be it a new product, a come-back single, an App, or candidature for a parliamentary career.

Last night, at a suspiciously late hour, the Conservatives chose Jackie Whiteley as their candidate for the forthcoming Bradford West by-election. Two years ago, Ms Whiteley became their spokesman for Rotherham

As is often the case in these things, and again it’s something I know about, the chosen candidate is quoted as being this, that and the other about their ward, division, constituency or what-have-you. In my past experience, these quotes come from a Big Book of Leaflet Copy. Rarely do candidates genuinely speak in that peculiar mix of tourist board and local paper editorial. 
Ms Whiteley is quoted from prior to the 2010 election saying:

“It is a real privilege to be the Parliamentary Spokesman for Rotherham. Having previously campaigned in the seat at the general election and as the owner of a small business, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Rotherham’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the community.” 

Ms Whiteley is quoted from last night saying:

“It is a great honour and extremely exciting to be the Conservative candidate for Bradford West.  As the owner of a small business and local employer, I have got a real understanding of the issues and concerns of Bradford’s residents and local businesses.  I will continue to campaign passionately for jobs, investment and a brighter future for the local community.” 

Memo to Conservative candidate HQ – or to any Party for that matter. The Internet remembers. It holds on to facts, faces, quotes and scandals. It also remembers that a candidate sincere about Rotherham can be sincere about Bradford. If you wanted Jackie Whiteley to be passionate about jobs, investment and a brighter future, you have succeeded only in making her sound computer generated and insincere.

boring boring gay marriage

And if a man shall lay down with another man, they shall be forced to consider booking the hotel earlier next time

It’s March 2012 and the biggest, brightest and most contentious political discussion in contemporary Britain is “Should marriage be redefined so as to incorporate anyone who loves anyone else?”. Flying over one highspeed railtrack of comment is the Religious Express (taking in ‘militant atheism’, ‘dangerous secularism’, ‘tetchy Alpha course preachers’, that sort of thing), whilst clickity-clackiting over on the political branch line is the Post-Blairite Social Policy local stopping service. And lo, didst the resulting points problem outside the station inconvenience us all.
The gay marriage debate is so boring. Redefining marriage to incorporate same-sex couples should be no more contentious than redefining junk food to incorporate Innocent smoothies (oh come on, have you seen the sugar content?). What we get instead is a protracted circus of moral handwringing and social commentary straight from the Big Book of the Bleeding Obvious.  Cardinals whinge, social conservatives clear their throats and homosexual couples are cultural vandals smashing bus-stops with SkullCandy headphones
It should come as no surprise that the religious vox-pops sound to me like echoes of an historic age. In centuries gone by, the words from former Archbishops of Canterbury would be treated with absolute respect because in most cases the holders of that position had long since died and their words were coming through the foam-mouthed babbles of Mrs Humendthwump, the poor-house cleaner. As the old joke puts it so clearly, marriage is an institution and I have no desire to be put into one of those. Whether the persons involved are of the same sex or otherwise is of neither great personal concern; nor should it stoke too may fires amongst the sage old voices of the various Churches.

Christians have every reason to walk upon this subject’s ground with care because of the rules and regulations laid down by the teachings on which their belief is based. Same-sex marriage is not explicitly forbidden, leaving many of the on-high pronouncements conclusions of opinion rather than scripture. And these opinions speak in the accent of panic and confusion, of a form of nostalgia. Remember when every man and woman you met in the street were married and every child was looked after and cared for? Happiness in all its forms, and the only way to pronounce ‘homosexual’ was like Norman Evens or Cisse and Ada.

The debate is boring because, broadly speaking, everything which the Moral Compass Corps. attacks is drenched in the same stodgy mess of paranoia, prejudice and judgement. What results from this is the turning of an interesting subject into a dirge; it’s like Homer Simpson doing impression of white-noise. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples is the natural extension of civil partnerships, which has not caused the country to collapse or existing divorce rates to sky-rocket anymore than they were doing already. I can’t even consider it particularly important if the redefinition happens immediately or after the next election; it’s an inevitable extension of a common sense policy, one of the rare moments when Blairite social tinkering actually did something good.

What is boring is how tired both sides of the argument sound. We all know circumstances, some very close and personal, in which the claim that marriage between a man and woman does not extend very far beyond “a vague commitment” does not match reality. Settling down with someone for the rest of your life can be a decision made beyond religious considerations – it’s stunning that we still have to frame arguments within these constraints.

Being against the redefinition is not the same as being homophobic, of course. But the ballpark as open gate and I can see the usual suspects limbering up to play. Let us try and keep this year’s political debate getting lost in the moral maze; this is not the year to be “social commentaried” to death….