I’m told that there’s a ‘great vibe’ in my old home city of Bradford today.
I’ll bet there is, and I wouldn’t deny them it for the world. It’s a feeling that any Labour voter old enough to remember 1997 will appreciate – not just the joy of victory, but the warm feeling of a shared voice and joint achievement.
The young voters of Bradford have exercised their collective power and made a statement to the world – well done them. Personally I think they’ve elected a poseur and a dilettante, and I fear that they will come to regret their moment of exultation, but – as a number of tweets are proclaiming – the voters have spoken, and to dismiss them as foolish would be equally foolish.
It’s a gesture – but how significant a gesture?
It was gesture politics, of course, of the kind that by-elections frequently produce. My stomach squirmed when I heard George Galloway proclaiming it to be the greatest by-election result of all time.
Rather, the people of Bradford have seized their moment in the limelight to send a message to the world. And they used him to do so.
So last night was a gesture … but what politicians across the spectrum have to work out today is whether it is a one-off exception, or whether it reveals underlying developments in politics in Britain to which they need to respond.
Bradford and the debate within the Labour Party
Astonishingly, the right-wing of the Labour Party are coming out to try to spin this result as a vote against Ed Miliband (e.g. here), as a vote against the ‘left-wing’ in Labour politics (e.g. here).
I think it needs a very long stretch of the imagination to interpret Galloway’s victory in those terms. If anything (as left-wing Labour writers have been quick to point out) the election of Galloway the Labour rebel, the anti-Blairite, pro-Iraqi, anti Afghan War peace campaigner, is a REJECTION of New Labour, and an argument for more radical (and, maybe, left-wing) politics.
Above all, however they spin the election, the Labour right must come to terms with the fact that this result shoots an arrow into the heart of their political strategy.
The New Labour strategy – and Purple/Black Labour’s after it – has always been that Labour does NOT need to appeal particularly to its traditional voters … that it can in effect ‘take them for granted’ (where else have they to go?) and then strike out for the centre ground of politics where the battle for the majority will be won by trying to attract the south-east, upper-middle-class voter.
As Darrell Goodlife points out this morning in his blog, that Byrnist/Blairite strategy is in tatters today. Labour’s traditional heartlands have shown that they DO have somewhere else to go, and that they are prepared to go there when and if the opportunity arises.
Galloway’s victory was not, however – as one might try to infer from Eoin Clark's analysis of the voting statistics – a vindication of left-wing/socialist politics. The voters of Bradford clearly had a specific axe to grind. They were attracted to Galloway because of his stance on Afghanistan and on Islam … as well as the fact that he is an anti-establishment figure and was on Big Brother. If there is one thing that Bradford does not suggest, it is that a more ‘left-wing’ Labour candidate would have done any better. And even if it were proved that he would, the Bradford result does not negate New Labour fears that a shift leftwards in Labour Party politics would extirpate Labour as a political option in the south-east (and thereby condemn Labour to another generation of opposition).
Neither is Galloway’s victory, as Mr Goodlife suggests, a wake-up call to Labour to take more care of its ‘core voters’. To all intents and purposes, Galloway’s victory seems to have been based upon a large turnout of young people – people who may never have voted before – many of whom ignored their imams’ advice-from-the-pulpit to vote Labour. Bradford was not the defection of the ‘traditional voter’ so much as the loss of a traditional area because the young up-and-coming voters rejected Labour … of every hue.
The Terror for Labour
What is terrifying for Labour is that there is no certainty, either, that Bradford is a one-off. There are dozens of communities throughout the Yorkshire-Lancashire belt which mirror the social, ethnic and religious mix in Bradford West, and which might similarly fall prey to charismatic, Galloway-clones.
Should we have seen it coming? It’s only what happened in Scotland, where Labour has been overtaken and replaced by the SNP – offering similar politics, but with a locally-relevant twist.
Thus Labour can no longer take ANY community, however traditionally-Labour, for granted. Those of us working in the north-east must be aware that there is an increasingly coherent appetite for a Trade-union/SWP Party. As he wakes up this morning, Ed Miliband is faced with the prospect that, everywhere north of Northampton, voters could decide that Labour does NOT represent their aspirations, and that they are going to vote for a more vociferous, more radical opponent of the government.
This could be terminal for Labour. It is clear that everybody north of Northampton now hates the Tories and that they want an MP who will stand up and oppose them. What is NOT so clear is whether they will accept Labour as the automatic Party of opposition.
As always, the anti-Right is fragmented. It is not just a matter of Labour shifting its stance and becoming more left or right, more Muslim, more Europhobe etc. to try to ‘hit’ this opposition. Each suffering community is different, and has a different agenda, and will need a different approach.
I tend to agree, therefore, with Mark Ferguson, who today argues that Labour needs to adopt a more community-based approach to politics – that Labour needs its own ‘localism’ agenda, basing itself more firmly in the local community, seeking to be more representative of its aspirations.
But whether it will ever be possible to unite these different local agendae into a single, meaningful manifesto remains to be seen – the big question this morning is whether Labour can continue to constitute a monolithic ‘party of opposition’.
'The Party' has held together really quite well after defeat in 2010; what is the worry is to what degree 'the voters' are fragmenting.
Which makes last night a REALLY bad night for Labour.