“The most sensational by election victory in history”. For once it is difficult to argue with George Galloway’s comment on his stunning win over Labour in yesterday’s Bradford West by election. But as the dust settles, has anything changed?
The Coalition parties did badly in this election, but can be forgiven for having a chuckle. Labour’s loss was spectacular, and it has been a tough week for the government. For whatever reason, the media had turned on them over a series quite sensible moves (pensioners’ tax allowances, VAT on takeaway food, preparing for a potential strike by tanker drivers), which were admittedly exacerbated by some presentational gaffes. Labour had been taking some undeserved credit for this; and now they’ve been shown to be as out of touch with the real world as they allege the coalition parties to have been.
But Labour’s big problem is that they are seen as a party of government rather than one of protest. This leaves them vulnerable in by elections like this to candidates that seem to embody anger and frustration more. But it is a good thing if they actually want to win a General Election. In the narcissistic game of trivia played out by politicians and political correspondents this is a reverse. But no reason to panic.
Mr Galloway’s Respect party is a personal vehicle, not a convincing political movement. It attempts the feat of allying left-wing (“Old Labour”) ideas with cultivating the Muslim vote; this difficult reconciliation seems only to be feasible through Mr Galloway’s self-obsessed personality. He has tried and failed to broaden his appeal.
For the Lib Dems (not so implicated in the week’s gaffes, but having to share responsibility) the result is not a big deal either. They lost their deposit in a seat where they were already weak; the decline in vote was not quite as spectacular as for Labour and the Conservatives, and they comfortably saw off the Greens and UKIP. But it offers no particular hope of the party digging its way out of its poor standing in most of northern England, to say nothing of elsewhere.
By far the most interesting feature of this election has been the behaviour of the Muslim community – which seems to have been the main factor behind Mr Galloway’s success, harnessed by some very astute campaigning. According to Nasser Butt, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Tooting, who spent the last week in Bradford, the charge was led by younger members of the community, who persuaded their elders to rebel. This was reversal of the normally paternalistic way that politics is done in these communities.
This is an exciting development, even if it causes liberals some angst. Muslim communities (in this case mainly Pakistani derived) have a strong sense of grievance. This seems to be shaped by two things: the West’s ill-judged military campaigns in the War on Terror, and the generally liberal ways of the society that they inhabit, which runs roughshod over their conservative sensibilities. The latter’s flashpoints are the toleration of gays, perceived insults to their religion from a free-speaking public, and the modesty of women’s dress.
If the Bradford dynamic can be repeated elsewhere, it means that the Muslim vote is much more in play, instead of being stitched up with elders in little local deals, or not voting at all. The liberal fear is that it will put pressure on politicians in the wrong direction on issues like gay rights and freedom of speech. Maybe so, but I think it is a price worth paying. As the communities become more involved in mainstream politics, they will come to understand the need for compromise and building coalitions. And they will feel listened too. They may also come to understand that liberal views are held with passion and principle, and are not merely the signs of decadent society. In the long run this is good.
Meanwhile yesterday also saw a local by election in Southfields, in Wandsworth. There was no earthquake here. The Tories held off a strong Labour campaign, taking nearly half the votes cast. The Lib Dems, who did not put in a major effort, were pushed back to under 6%, but beat the Greens (under 3%) – something that did not usually happen in Wandsworth before 2010. Unlike last year’s Thamesfield by election, when the Lib Dems fought at full throttle to get 17%, Labour can’t blame their defeat on them this time. The Tory one-party state moves on unruffled. There was a Muslim independent candidate, but he made little impact, with 38 votes (1%), two less than UKIP.