Early on Friday, George Galloway, the never-say-die man of British politics, made yet another comeback. As a candidate for the Respect Party, he wrested the Bradford West parliamentary seat from the Labour Party, winning the by-election by over 10,000 votes. Galloway was expelled by Labour in 2003. Since then, he’s cleverly manipulated discontent with the status quo to feed his political survival.
Although it was a stunning victory for the far-left Respect Party, it was also a significant personal victory for Galloway against Labour, the party that expelled him. “This is a rejection of the mainstream parties with their Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Tweedledee-and-a-half approach. It was people saying they want political leaders they can believe in, who say what they mean, do what they say and don’t lie to people. We don’t say one thing to one set of people and something else to another,” he told reporters afterward.
For his part, Labour leader Ed Miliband, was chastened. “It was an incredibly disappointing result for Labour in Bradford West and I am determined that we learn lessons of what happened. I’m going to lead that. I’m going to be going back to the constituency in the coming weeks to talk to people there about why this result happened. Clearly there were local factors, but I also say only four out of 10 people voted for the three mainstream political parties,” Milliband is reported to have said.
Mark Ferguson, writing in the New Statesman, is adamant that it is Milliband’s Labour Party that has emerged the greatest losers from Galloway’s victory. “Let us be clear. This result is pretty disastrous for both Ed Miliband and for the Labour Party. Not only did Labour lose a seat in parliament, the opposition party has also been robbed of an opportunity to capitalise on a particularly bad week for the coalition government. After a week of dreadful headlines for the government, the last thing Labour needed was a story that threatens to turn the media narrative again,” Ferguson said.
Voices from within the Labour Party believe it is the party’s failure to connect with immigrant communities, or the Asian vote, that ultimately cost the Labour Party the Bradford seat. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, speaking to the BBC, said her party had not won over young Asians or Muslim women. “I think it is the case that Labour wasn’t connecting enough with young voters in Bradford’s Asian community. My sense, too, is that we weren’t connecting enough with Muslim women in Bradford.”
Bradford West is one of three seats in the West Yorkshire city of Bradford and, though commentators have rushed to attribute Galloway’s victory to the Asian population of the constituency, the western corner of the city is home to a diverse community. It extends from the city centre itself, with the student population of Bradford University, through the predominantly Pakistani areas of Toller and Manningham, which have some of the most overcrowded and run-down housing stock of the city, all the way out to the semi-rural outskirts of Bradford Clayton, Thornton and Allerton.
Bradford West has long been a Labour stronghold but in 1997, when Labour swept the rest of the country, Bradford West was one of the few seats where the Conservatives had advanced – blamed again on rising sectarianism in the country. The former Labour MP, Marsha Singh, was seen to be a Sikh representing a largely Muslim seat – her 1997 Conservative opponent, Mohammed Riaz, is Muslim. Bradford West then has for some time been viewed as a seat decided by the whims of its Asian population – whims that appear to be incongruent to trends in the bigger picture of British politics.
When Singh resigned from her Bradford West seat due to ill-health last month, it was Gorgeous George who pounced on the opportunity to win his way back into the House of Commons. The Labour candidate was Muslim. If the wisdom had up to now dictated this constituency had been allowed to run unopposed, then Labour may well have had the seat. Yet Galloway, in his irrepressible campaign over the last few weeks, sought to depict the Labour candidate as, well, not Muslim enough. In a rather shameless if not comical letter to the Bradford West community, Galloway declared, “I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate can do the same.”
Galloway accused Labour of running a sectarian campaign. He lobbied hard and his aides worked hard to rouse voters to go to the polls last week. “Nobody predicted this result and I was the only person in Britain who thought I would win it,” Galloway told local media on Saturday.
Despite his bravado, Salma Yaqoob, the leader of the Respect Party, revealed the surprise the result delivered to the party itself. “We’re just absolutely delighted that we’ve won and, not just won, but convincingly won. I’m not going to stand here and pretend that we predicted this. It has been a surprise, a very pleasant surprise. We felt there was a huge momentum, a fantastic energy when we were out campaigning, but the size of the victory has even surprised us,” she is reported to have said.
Still, what exactly this result is indicative of in the bigger political picture is now a subject of heated debate. David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East believes Galloway’s victory serves as punishment to Labour. “This was the Asian community within Bradford, really, who are in some ways punishing the Labour Party for abusing them and using them in the past,” he is reported to have said.
Sunny Hundal, editor of the left-wing blog Liberal Conspiracy, however, believes the Bradford West result speaks of a Britain no longer held ransom to the vagaries of two-party politics. He believes the “Westminster bubble” has neglected to admit the rise of a new political order. “The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party; UKIP and Respect have all become viable foes in certain areas, and most of the time it’s Labour that fails to take advantage of a terminal decline in vote-share of the Conservative – and now Liberal Democrats,” he says.
Hundal quotes Sean Dolat, who worked for Labour in Bradford, saying Galloway ultimately succeeded in presenting himself as the more authentic Labour candidate. “Galloway constantly promoted himself as the ‘Real’ Labour candidate. I think this helped people change sides with greater ease.” Dolat, however, speaking as he does from a decidedly Labour perspective, believes Galloway’s victory was at its core won on his ability to rise to local issues that had long jaded other politicians. The restoration of the Odeon theatre complex, the prolonged pause on the construction of the planned leisure and shopping complex called Westfield debacle and the shambolic state of the Bradford council, have all been highlighted by locals as issues Galloway used to resonate with voters.
“This by-election was fought over local issues like the Odeon and Westfield, rather than a granny tax or the 50p tax rate, and the fact that it was Labour’s fault, so don’t believe what you hear from the media that this was a rejection of Ed Miliband: it was an overwhelmingly local-issues-based by-election,” Dolat says.
Steve Anderson, writing in the Independent, points out that while the timing of Galloway’s most recent comeback is significant, it is not his first strategic election victory. “In similar scenes to 2005’s general election, when he dramatically swiped the east London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow from Labour, Galloway targeted votes from the large Asian community in Bradford West. However, he was also successful in areas without large Asian populations,” Anderson says.
Galloway is a colourful character. Known for his public condemnation of George Bush and Tony Blair over the Iraq war, he’s risen to prominence as a nagging voice of contrarian politics. He’s championed the cause of Palestinian solidarity, called for Britain to withdraw from Iraq immediately and been utterly fearless in taking on every corner of the British media. In the choice of his causes he’s chosen to champion, he’s also become something of a pet Muslim. He is, of course, Roman Catholic, but it has been his ability to connect with a good many British Muslims on their restlessness with British foreign policy that has allowed him a window of opportunity into these communities.
As one person I consulted about the spectre of Galloway puts it: “The attitude of his Muslim supporters is disturbingly colonial. We need the big brave white man to speak for us because we can’t do it ourselves – his command of English is so much better, after all.” There is little doubt after all, that be it Bradford or Palestine, Galloway has adapted his political survival on cleverly exploiting these little windows of opportunity.
One journalist I asked believes Galloway’s most recent comeback will translate into little for the people of Bradford West. “The truth is Galloway will do anything for the limelight. He’s using what is a pretty bad economic time in Bradford to appeal to the worst instincts of some voters. Just like in Tower Hamlets, though, when the voters realise he will never help them with a housing problem, or immigration advice, or ask a question in parliament, or do any of the normal humdrum things a good MP does, they will kick him out.”
And when all else fails, Galloway could always return to Big Brother and pretend to be a cat again. He certainly has preened himself well for the role of a purring feline. DM