A seismic shock has been delivered to the British body politic and its insular, complacent, steady as she goes assumptions.
It is one with many levels, layers and complications: the return of George Galloway as the ‘Respect’ MP for Bradford West overturning a Labour majority of 5,763, winning by a margin of 10,140 over Labour, with an impressive 18,341 votes (55.9%), considerably more than the combined Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem vote of 12,402.
Already the qualifiers are out, implying that really the status quo is fine. Nick Robinson says it is, "An extraordinary result but surely a one-off political coup by a political one-off" (1). Then there are all the qualifiers about Bradford West and ‘Gorgeous George’. The seat is unique; it swung against the national mood in 1997 and 2010. I even heard someone from Labour put down the ‘George’ surge to his celebrity status and TV appearance on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’.
This result is a harbinger of wider trends, which go well beyond George Galloway’s appeal and attraction. The entire British political system, class, the state and the mainstream political parties are in deep crisis.
This result was a resounding rejection of Labour, Tories and Lib Dems. The Tories may be in dark days, the Lib Dems universally despised, and Labour seen as inept and ineffective, but more crucially who and what do these hollowed out, compromised entities stand for today? They stand not for their traditional constituencies, but for different shades of ‘Britain plc’.
No wonder the voters of Bradford West have turned to the nearest populist demagogue they can find, one with a telling turn of phrase and stellar set of campaigning skills.
There may only be one George Galloway thank goodness (2), and I write that as a fellow Dundonian who grew up round the corner from him and knowing some of his family, living in a semi-detached maisonette in St. Mary’s.
But I suspect there will be many more nights like this. The events of the last week contribute to it. The narrow prism of the so-called political debate talking about ‘Camdinewithme’ and ‘pastygate’, of huge issues being traduced to narrow, petty squabbles while the big questions go unexplored.
The British political system is broken. Political parties are empty shells, hollowed out with few members, ideas and genuine activism. Party identification is a dyeing breed concentrated in older voters. It’s becoming an alien concept to voters under 40 who have been brought up constantly being told about ‘brands’ and ‘choice’ in their consumer and lifestyle behaviour. This philosophy doesn’t translate to a politics of loyalty.
The three establishment parties are part of the problem, but the crisis is one of the entire way and system of politics and the ideas it represents. In a PR system like Germany’s, the Pirate Party are already scoring more than the free-market Free Democrats, and that is with an influential Green party. Here, the first-past-the-post system will lead to wild by-election upsets, lone campaigners causing upsets, and the main parties being spurned by voters.
This climate is going to be increasingly disputatious, messy and unpredictable. Having said that it is not a predication, we can easily imagine elections when UKIP do well, or the BNP causes embarrassment, or new popular voices and forces emerge. With our conventional political competition becoming so narrowed and emptied of meaning, new energy and movements will emerge.
The British political classes will claim they need to ‘learn the lessons’ of Bradford West, while desperately trying to keep the show on the road. Cameron’s Conservatives will claim life in a Labour northern town is desperate under the people’s party, and it was a vote against Labour complacency. At the same time senior Cameroonistas will recognise that the Tories remain an unappealing force in the North of England.
The Lib Dems have been reduced to a toxic entity in large parts of the UK outside of the South West of England. But the result is a humiliation for Labour, for Ed Miliband and his ‘I’m slightly detached from New Labour’ strategy that fails to completely disown its rotten, problematic legacy.
Labour also find that, even more than the 1980s and 1990s, it must address at least ‘two nations’ if not more, a Labour part of the UK which is a mix of the angry, disenchanted and disillusioned, while another part is questioning and suspicious of Labour and its values. And then there is the issue of young Muslim voters, who feel suspicious of all mainstream parties, and are open to the appeal of a populist such as George Galloway.
George Galloway said after his victory that the Labour Party ‘must stop imagining that working people and poor people have no option but to support them if they hate the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition partners’ (3).
Politics north of the border where Galloway was born, grew up and was a MP for eighteen years march to a different pulse, with a majority SNP administration and forthcoming independence referendum; indeed in the last Scottish Parliament elections less than a year ago Galloway faced the ignominy of finishing fifth in the Glasgow region with a mere 3.3%.
The wider challenge is to democracy and the direction of the UK. What choice, what voice is allowed in our narrow, truncated, corrupted political system?
It isn’t surprising that Peter Kellner’s research finds that a large number of people would choose a technocratic, unelected government over a government by elected politicians (4).
We have had practiced on us and imposed for the last 30 years a profoundly anti-democratic politics of manipulation and populism in the interests of a tiny, unrepresentative elite. Now people are beginning to bite back. There will be more Bradford Wests, some even more unpleasant than George Galloway’s victory. What is a threat is also an opportunity; to show, illuminate and challenge the weakness of the ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ so that voters can re-inhabit politics and imagine it afresh.
1. Nick Robinson, ‘Bradford: an Extraordinary One-off’, BBC News, 30 March 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17559759
2. See David Morley’s well researched, carefully put together account of Galloway, Gorgeous George: The Life and Adventures of George Galloway, Politico’s Publishing 2007.
3. Peter Hoskin, ‘George Galloway is an MP again’, Spectator Coffee House, March 30th 2012, http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7752373/george-galloway-is-an-mp-again.thtml
4. BBC Radio 4, Today Programme, 30 March 2012.