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.