So What Happened At Bradford West?

by Jackie_South on March 30, 2012

I’ve always been a great fan of Alan Hansen’s football punditry: usually the most inciteful analysis together with a generous dose of Scottish dourness.  But of course his most famous moment was when he got it wrong: “You can’t win anything with kids”.

As Ray North pointed out, I’ve had my own Alan Hansen moment over the Bradford West by-election.  There was I confidently predicting an easy win for Labour.  I must have got my crystal ball from the same shop as him.

In my defence, I was hardly the only one to get it wrong.  Bookies have lost a fortune today through putting the odds on a George Galloway victory at 33 to 1.  Up until the last two days, no-one outside Respect saw this coming.  On Wednesday, the Guardian’s Helen Pidd was reporting on Respect’s optimism and the Rev. Graeme Hancocks commented on my piece (posted in the early hours) about the enthusiasm of young Asians.  The same day Luke Akehurst – very right-wing Labour but a good reader of elections – issued a call to arms on Progress for the election to stop Gorgeous George.  Too little, to late but Akehurst isn’t to blame for that.

Here’s the pie-chart for the result last night:

It is worth comparing that with the one I posted earlier this week for the 2010 general election result.

Putting the two together, you can see here what happened to each party’s votes: the first column for each party is the by-election result, the second the 2010 result.

This is a staggering result that is in many ways unprecedented.  Galloway said in his victory speech that “By the grace of God, we have won the most sensational victory in British political history.”

It depends on how you measure these things, as there have been by-elections with larger swings: Bermondsey in 1983 and Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981 for example.  But where Galloway has a point is that these upsets were at least anticipated by the media at large whereas Bradford West caught the national media and the three big parties napping.

The chart below (last one, I promise) shows all the by-elections since 1979 where a seat has changed hands:

(click on the chart and then click on it in the new window to examine in more detail).  It is worth noting that for North Down and Fermanagh and South Tyrone new parties were standing and the previous one was not, so the swings are larger.  One you strip those out, only Bermondsey has been larger since 1979, although both Glasgow Govan and Christchurch also registered swings of over 30%.

So, what happened?  Unlike Ray North, I do think an internal enquiry by the Labour Party is needed to look into this: a shift of this size does not happen for a single reason, it is the combination of a number of factors and Labour will want to look at the scale of importance of each.

Broadly, these fit into four areas:

  • national electoral factors
  • local electoral factors
  • the relative strengths of the candidates
  • the quality of campaign organisation

Clearly, as Ray has stated the relative quality of the candidates has mattered a great deal.  Even the most tribal Labour supporter would have to concede that Galloway will make a more interesting addition to the Commons at the moment than Imran Hussain would have done.  Hussain is apparently not the strongest of speakers and stayed away from all the hustings meetings.  There are parallels here with Labour’s loss of Glasgow Govan, where their candidate shop-steward Bob Gillespie (father of Bobby) was outclassed by the powerful street oratory of the SNP’s Jim Sillars.

Indeed, Govan and Bermondsey have other parallels as well: in both, the local population felt that the Labour Party locally had become complacent and lost touch with them.  That appears to have been the case in Bradford too, where a younger generation has tired of Labour’s dealings with the Muslim population being mainly through the old ‘Bradree’ structure.  It is clear that this younger generation in turn persuaded their parents and relatives to back Galloway: in this sense, he is right to draw the ‘Bradford Spring’ parallel.

The other local factor is the wounds that are still there in the Muslim communities following the 2001 riots in the city.  The sense of injustice at the hefty sentences handed down to the youth involved was a bitter pill for many Muslim families.  That festering disquiet should be a lesson for us all given the draconian sanctions imposed for last August’s riots.

The Respect campaign was energetic and passionate, whilst the Labour one appears to have barely gone through the motions.  A Labour activist who has been a draftee usually for by-elections told me that the party hadn’t bothered to email him about this one.  Labour MP John Mann was particularly scathing about the quality of the campaign organisation.  General secretary Iain McNicol will be a very unhappy man today, and will attract criticism.  Part of this is down to the Party throwing all its efforts into the London Mayoral race and treating Bradford West as a minor sideshow: that has not only used up much of the party HQ’s efforts but, as London is by far Labour’s most active region, robbed the party of foot-soldiers who might otherwise have been drafted in.

But this is not just a result that is about Galloway’s charisma, the poor campaign and the troubles of Bradford.  Where were Eds Miliband and Balls and Rachel Reeves in the week – three Yourkshire MPs from nearby constituencies?  Looking faintly ridiculous buying sausage rolls in Redditch.  It isn’t just the local party that was seen as letting the people of Bradford down: Labour’s disastrous decision in the new year not to push back as hard against the cuts suggests that the people’s party isn’t listening to the suffering of the people under the Coalition.

The leadership can play the game to appeal to the metropolitan chattering classes, but sausage rolls are not likely to figure in the diet of many Bradfordian Pakistanis.  The party turned a deaf ear to them in the Iraq War, did too little to address deprivation there whilst in power and now seems unwilling to promise any relief to the area’s woes if they get back into power. The leadership’s sleep-walking strategy of hoping that the government’s unpopularity and incompetence alone can deliver victory, without worrying about giving real hope to ordinary people, is a dangerous one.

And of course, this is a by-election.  The voters there knew that the result would not change the government, but some of them may have chosen to send a message to the Labour Party.  The graphs above also suggest that there may have been some tactical voting by the usual supporters of the Coalition parties to both embarrass Labour and to register dismay at the government’s farcical performance over the last fortnight.

Like Glasgow Govan, or indeed Bethnal Green and Bow, it is possible that Bradford West will return to Labour at the next general election when the decision is about who runs the nation.  But a 56% level of support for Galloway in a by-election with such a strong turnout won’t vanish easily.

Labour will only do this if it wakes up to the fact that the Blairite era, of just chasing the median vote in the belief that the base support has nowhere else to go, is dead.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth March 31, 2012 at 9:05 am

Thankyou for this article, Jackie, I’ll forgive you the bar charts for the link to John Mann’s piece. He’s right on the money – this election was won and lost in Urdu (so I think the London Mayoralty is a red herring).

It is not only the Labour Party who are sleepwalking. In most if not all of the large cities of England there are primary schools whose rolls are majority Muslim – in some cases up to 80% or more.

And it isn’t just that they’re Muslims. Most of them, as in Bradford, are Urdu speakers and most Urdu speakers have family links to Pakistan. And Pakistan is a failed state. (If you doubt me, read Ahmed Rashid.) Its people are Muslims first, members of a tribal or ethnic group next and citizens of Pakistan very much last. I mention this so you may size the problem of persuading Urdu-speaking Brits in Bradford, Leicester or wherever to take their UK citizenship at all seriously. Particularly if the persuasion takes place in English. Or by white people.

I agree that Galloway is primarily interested in Galloway. But in other, ethnic, hands, Respect is capable of sending perhaps twenty MPs to Westminster within the next generation. And what will we do with a political party that demands that Urdu be made an official lannguage in England? or that communities can hold referenda to introduce sharia law?

We won’t know what to do. All we know about are the politics of class. And they are no longer the whole story.

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David Blythin March 31, 2012 at 9:31 am

“The graphs above also suggest that there may have been some tactical voting by the usual supporters of the Coalition parties to both embarrass Labour and to register dismay at the government’s farcical performance over the last fortnight.”

By my reckoning, allowing for the lower turnout, the tactical voting could have been of the order of 9,000 votes to Respect. Add that to the Galloway factor and Labour complacency, and you have most of your explanation. I was and still am unhappy at having Ed M as leader….you don’t choose a man who looks like a bullied schoolboy as your leader even if he has many other fine qualities….but whilst agreeing with many of the criticisms of Labour by you, Jackie, here, and by Ray in the previous article, I think Bradford West is something of a one off.

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