The real lessons for Britain from Bradford West
Calm down: Galloway’s by-election victory was neither a ‘Bradford Spring’ nor a triumph for Islamism. But it was more than a one-off.
It was, they tell us, ‘a one-off’. Top pundits have tried to put the shock victory of Respect candidate George Galloway in the Bradford West parliamentary by-election down to the ‘unique’ personal appeal of the new member of parliament, to suggest it has limited relevance for wider UK politics.
Well, yes and (mostly) no. Bradford West wasn’t a typical boring by-election campaign – Galloway turned a 5,000 Labour majority into a 10,000 Respect one. Neither is ‘Gorgeous’ George a run-of-the-mill provincial candidate, as a glance at film of him dismembering his mediocre opponents on local TV would demonstrate. But look beyond the Westminster parochialism of those pundits, and there are some lessons with bigger implications.
1) It’s less a ‘Bradford Spring’ than an autumn in British politics.
In his victory speech the ever-modest Galloway hailed his remarkable triumph as a ‘Bradford Spring’, a popular uprising on the Arab model. What this result really demonstrated was the depth of the autumn-style decay in mainstream British politics, where all of the parliamentary parties have shed their distinctive political foliage and been reduced to a dull, indistinguishable mulch.
Parties without political principles or clear values can no longer count on loyal constituencies or movements of support. As a consequence there is no such thing as a safe parliamentary seat – as Labour discovered in 2005 in its ‘safest’ seat of Blaenau Gwent in south Wales (lost to an independent), and now in Bradford West, where the Tory vote also collapsed. In these circumstances electoral swings and results can be more arbitrary and less predictable. It becomes possible for an anti-establishment party such as the far-right British National Party or an anti-establishment personality such as Galloway to make a dramatic breakthrough. But the key factor is the collapse of the old political centre rather than the emergence of any new political alternative. (In that sense there are indeed parallels with the ‘Arab Spring’, though not in the sense that he meant – see The hole at the heart of the Arab revolts.)
2) It was more like a riot than a revolution.
Writing the day after his success, Galloway compared the by-election result both to a revolution and a riot, describing it as Bradford’s version of last summer’s events in other English cities. He was half-right at best. This was no left-wing revolutionary upsurge. Indeed, as Brendan O’Neill has argued elsewhere, far from marking a resurgence of radical left politics, Bradford West confirmed its demise (see George Galloway’s victory confirms the demise of the radical left).
Respect ran an ‘Islamicised’ campaign, appealing to the area’s many Muslim voters on the basis of divisive and insular communal politics. This included a remarkable leaflet, signed in Galloway’s name, which assured them ‘God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not… I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have… I, George Galloway, have fought for the Muslims at home and abroad all my life…And with your support, and if God wills it, I want to give my remaining days in service of all the people – Muslims, Pakistanis, and everyone in Bradford West’, and much more in a similarly ‘socialist’ vein.
Galloway’s campaign emphasis on his opposition to Britain’s ‘illegal, bloody, costly foreign wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan appealed to that local constituency. But this did not look like an anti-imperialist revolt, either. After all, Britain’s bloody 2003-2009 Iraq War would surely have been more of a burning issue at the 2010 General Election, when the Respect candidate won around three per cent of the vote rather than Galloway’s 56 per cent.
Galloway’s suggestion that this was Bradford’s version of the 2010 England riots is closer to the mark, though not in a good way. Respect’s vote reflects a similar sort of two-fingered gesture to the status quo by alienated sections of the Bradford electorate. But electing the maverick Galloway really represents no more of a coherent political statement than smashing a smart shop window or throwing a brick at a policeman. It looks less ‘anti-war’, more anti-politics.
3) It doesn’t mean the Taliban is taking over Bradford, either.
The flipside of the claims of left-wing ‘revolution’ is the equally misguided notion that Bradford West was a triumph for Talibanesque reaction. Respect’s victory led to scaremongering and panic among some on the right, claiming that this represents a major breakthrough for ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ in Britain.
In fact, communal politics are nothing new in Britain’s ethnic communities. For years, ‘community leaders’ have sought to win influence by delivering local votes in blocs to the major political parties – often, but not exclusively, to Labour candidates. The less clear and distinctive the parties’ politics have become, the more communal identity politics have come to the fore. Now things have gone a step further, with the communal vote in Bradford West deserting Labour altogether and going over to the Respect candidate – as has happened before on a smaller scale in local elections in east London. The key factor remains, however, the collapse of the Labour machine rather than the rise of any Yorkshire Taliban. The Bradford West result, largely based on petty communal politics, is less of a triumph for Islamic fundamentalism than a symptom of the absence of any fundamental loyalties or beliefs in British political life today.
4) They haven’t got a clue what anybody outside Westminster is thinking.
At a national level, the most striking thing about the Bradford West result was how it took the political and media elite almost completely by surprise. There they were at Westminster last week, happily musing about how the fuel panic and ‘pastygate’ might damage David Cameron’s Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government, and confidently predicting that Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour Party was ‘well placed’ to clean up in the polls. Then suddenly, on another planet called Bradford West, an alien breed known as ‘ordinary voters’ stunned the entire Westminster village.
It was a graphic illustration of how detached and isolated from the populace the political and media elites have become. The immediate responses to the result rather reinforced the point. According to one neighbouring Labour MP, Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother a few years ago had been ‘a very significant factor’ in persuading local people to vote for him rather than the Labour candidate. Leave aside for a moment the small fact that Galloway’s risible appearance on CBB, crawling around the floor in a red catsuit unflattering to the fuller figure, was widely considered to spell the end of his political career. And leave aside also the question of who introduced ‘personality’ and celebrity politics as a substitute for principles. The idea that people are sheeple who will vote for whoever they see on reality TV summed up the mixture of incomprehension and contempt with which the elite views the masses today. They have not got a clue what any of us is thinking.
The only way they can try to get ‘back in touch’ with reality seems to be via the sort of farcical PR stunt involving posh politicians trying to prove they eat cheap takeaway pastries that was so rudely interrupted by the result from Bradford West. It will take more than a trip to Greggs to make a meaty political connection with people.
5) It is time finally to accept that Labourism is well past CPR.
For all his talk about revolution and the ‘Bradford Spring’, Galloway used his victory speech to emphasise the need for the Labour Party to go back to its roots and ‘unite the coalition’ it once had, to get people like him back on board. The next day he proclaimed that he stood for ‘real Labour values’. Despite everything, there is still no decisive political break with the past.
Yet the lesson of Bradford should surely be that the Labour Party is past resuscitation, even if it was worth saving. It used to be said that a donkey could get elected in core northern seats, so long as it wore a Labour rosette. At least a vote for that donkey, however, represented a real and lived allegiance to a labour movement. Now the donkeys are still there but the political movement and allegiance has disappeared. An ass now stands a chance of winning in former safe seats wearing any rosette that is not Labour.
Yet at the moment when it should be clear that things have changed for good and alternatives are needed, Galloway and Respect want to get the genie back into the Labour bottle. As an old loyalist of the Labour left (he was expelled in 2003) who said the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union was the worst day of his life, we should perhaps expect little else from Galloway. But that is no good reason for others to go along with him. Far from opening up a political spring, clinging to the corpse of Labourism is more likely further to close everything down.
6) The elite sinks deeper into denial about the crisis of democracy.
No sooner had they got their breath back from the shock of Galloway’s win than the political elite tried to dismiss it as a ‘one-off’ and effectively pretend that it had never happened. The media went back to its otherworldly musing about how the Tories’ donor-petrol-and-pasty problems might ‘play’ for Ed Miliband.
This is as much a denial of political reality as talk of ‘revolution’. Bradford West was only the latest sign that British democracy is in deep crisis, with the hollow shells of the mainstream parties and institutions lacking authority, credibility and roots in society (which is why they have to look to the rich or union barons for handouts). Alongside Galloway’s electoral victory, the other potentially significant results to emerge lately came from two YouGov surveys – one which reported that ‘Voters are so disgusted with politics that the three main party leaders are collectively the least popular in the history of polling’, and another which reportedly suggests that ‘voters would be just as content with an unelected technocratic cabinet as an elected government’. Galloway’s upset was a dramatic consequence of that political crisis, but it doesn’t get any of us any nearer to a solution.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)