‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’
I like to start columns with a quote from a great political thinker, in this case the singer Kelly Clarkson.
In last week’s column I warned George Galloway might win in Bradford West and urged people to head there to help, as I did myself on polling day. We lost and I don’t feel any better for having foreseen disaster.
Clearly the Bradford Labour party now has a massive problem. Mr Galloway is a ferocious street-fighting political operator and it will take a massive cultural change in the Bradford West CLP towards a more open, engaged and campaigning ethos to beat him in 2015.
That there is something systemically wrong in Bradford is evident from the fact that Labour had already lost the supposedly safe Bradford East constituency on a 7.6 per cent swing in the 2010 general election.
When something is badly wrong in a local Labour party and in its relationship with the wider community, sometimes the only way to lance the boil and start addressing it is after the shock of election defeat.
It’s a shame this did not start in Bradford after the loss of one constituency in 2010 rather than after the loss of two now.
We went through this in my own borough Hackney, with a period of severe infighting between rival factions, with undercurrents of communal race and faith based divisions, and political corruption that ended with a Tory and a Lib Dem councillor jailed for the UK’s biggest proxy vote fraud. In our case the problem was externalised when one faction defected en masse in 1996, 17 councillors forming a rebel group then joining the Tories and Lib Dems. In 1998 this hung council in what should be a Labour stronghold was confirmed in the borough elections. All this happened in the heyday of New Labour when we were 20 per cent ahead nationally! Sometimes all politics really is very local.
We won back big in Hackney in 2002 and have since gone on to build a reputation as one of Britain’s most improved local authorities, and won 50 of 57 councillors in 2010.
But it was hard work, involving a complete regeneration of the Labour group on the council and the local party, a massive increase in campaigning, and external intervention and support from the NEC, regional party and LGA Labour group.
Bradford Labour has a tough task ahead of it and will need careful, evidence-based external support and, if necessary, intervention to make the transformation needed to beat Galloway.
Nationally, we need to ask how we did not spot this coming when it was the talk of Twitter and the political betting community for days beforehand.
It ought to have been obvious after Bethnal Green that any seat Galloway runs in with a high Muslim population there is a risk he might win.
It ought also to be a mantra that no seat is safe in a by-election, particularly an inner city one with complex ethnic and municipal politics, and that the most potent electoral threats are non-conventional ones from insurgent minor parties.
Five years ago the by-election threat in Bradford might have been the Lib Dems. Now it is Respect in this kind of seat, but in a more Guardianista seat it could be the Greens, or in a white working class one the BNP.
Once Galloway was running we should have poured all our fire on him and destroyed him on takeoff. He is controversial enough that the ammo is there. We have the template of how to beat him from Poplar & Limehouse in 2010 and Jim Fitzpatrick and key campaigners from his team should have been shipped up to Bradford to repeat their success, seeing as Galloway is reputed to have brought in his Tower Hamlets team.
The reaction of some of our own Hard Left meanwhile has been one of ‘I told you so’, as though a by-election in one of the most demographically idiosyncratic constituencies in the UK suddenly provides justification for a wholesale change of direction for the party. Some individuals on election night came near to auto-excluding themselves from the party with their glee at victory for a fellow ‘anti-imperialist’. Others have argued we were wrong to expel Galloway over his disgusting remarks during the Iraq War. And some have argued the by-election shows our entire core vote is alienated and will only be re-enthused by a radical shift leftwards. This sort of lazy minded, shallow, post hoc shaping of the evidence to fit your own prejudices is remarkable in the extent of its hypocrisy. The same people advocating a bastardised form of triangulation with the Leninist and Islamist coalition making up Respect, or an effective merger with it by readmitting Galloway to Labour, based on losing one seat, would vehemently decry any compromise with the concerns or disillusionment of millions of voters who shifted to the Tories, costing us a net 90 seats at the general election.
Most of these people were conspicuous by their absence from Bradford West during the by-election or indeed, ever, and seem to have based their analysis on wishful thinking rather than engagement with the electorate.
Until now the kind of insanity that crept into Labour’s post-defeat debate in 1979 has been thankfully missing. Bradford West has given the usual suspects the excuse to offer their usual solutions.
Ed Miliband needs to put them back in their box and fast.
A by-election can’t kill a party. But it can provide a wakeup call that in the long term makes us stronger, less complacent and more engaged with communities both in Bradford West and in other seats like it.
Photo: Tom Green
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