The superlatives have fast run out in attempts to sum up George Galloway’s victory for Respect in the Bradford West by-election.
It simply is off the scale of normal electoral measurement.
But what are its political implications? Firstly, it tells us something about the fragility of Labour’s base. Despite the catastrophic failure of New Labour, the party has hung on to the loyalty of large numbers of working class people.
But Bradford West shows that this loyalty is conditional. In refusing to promise to reverse the cuts and opposing strikes, Ed Miliband has taken Labour’s so-called “core supporters” for granted. He has now learned that there is a high price to be paid for this.
Of course, Labour has swung into action to rubbish Galloway’s victory by claiming that Respect ran an “ethnic campaign”. Take, for example, this from the Guardian’s Blairite political editor, Patrick Wintour:
“It appeared that the seat’s Muslim immigrant community had decamped from Labour en masse to Galloway’s fundamentalist call for an immediate British troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fightback against the job crisis.” This disgraceful passage was rapidly rewritten online.
But in a more considered piece Lanre Bakare wrote of Galloway, also in the Guardian, “He is a divisive politician whose second tweet after winning read: ‘Long live Iraq, Long live Palestine, free, Arab, dignified. George Galloway MP.’”
Now what exactly is “divisive” or “fundamentalist” about opposing the hugely unpopular war in Afghanistan or the coalition’s austerity programme? Such comments simply demonstrate yet again the isolation of the political and media elite from the rest of us.
It is in any case a huge cheek for Labour to accuse anyone else of “ethnic” politics. For decades the party has relied on deals with “community leaders” in black and Asian neighbourhoods to deliver the vote for its candidates.
These alliances have become increasingly important in a period when the decline in working class organisation and broader social fragmentation have made the unions less effective in mobilising voters. During the 1985 Labour Party conference Roy Hattersley, then deputy party leader, expressed an almost colonial arrogance about “my Asians”, when he talked about his Birmingham Sparkbrook constituency.
Central to Galloway’s success in Bradford West was his ability to bypass these clientelistic local structures and mobilise Muslim youth for his campaign. He has described the politics of this campaign as “Real Labour”.
This appealed to the widespread feeling that Miliband has continued Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s policy of detaching Labour from its historic role of representing the interests and aspirations of ordinary working class people.
This stance is not without its problems. Most obviously, it casts a nostalgic glow over the earlier history of the Labour Party. Labour in office has always acted in the interest of British capitalism, usually at the expense of its working class supporters.
But the power of Galloway’s appeal is also a sign of the residual strength of Labourism. Labour and its counterparts have embraced neoliberalism. So it is quite inevitable that challenges from its left will often be most effective when couched in the political language of traditional social democracy.
Galloway’s breakthrough is comparable to the very successful campaign in the French presidential elections being waged by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Left Party.
Mélenchon served as a minister in the last Socialist Party government in 2000–2, but led a breakaway a few years ago.
A radical and revolutionary left that plans to have a future has to start by acknowledging the achievement of Galloway and Respect.
They have re-opened an electoral space to the left of Labour.
We now have all to work together to ensure that this great second chance isn’t wasted.