Respect's landslide by-election victory, which swept George Galloway back into parliament as the MP for Bradford West, sent shockwaves through the mainstream parties. Mark L Thomas looks at why Galloway won and what his victory shows about the possibility of success for electoral challenges to the left of Labour
A few days after the Bradford West by-election, a shellshocked Labour activist described his experience of the campaign: "From around 15 March till the 22.... it seemed we were going to win - we had our headquarters set up in each ward and our campaign was leaps ahead in backing, money and numbers....[then] during this last week I'd check the #bradfordwest hash tag, and for every pro-Labour tweet there were easily ten pro-Galloway ones, seemingly from young Asian Bradford constituents...We'd pass kids in the street who would shout 'Galloway' at us all the time.
Their campaign was so much better organised and so much more enthused, it was quite unreal, I've never witnessed anything like this in British politics, and I really don't say that lightly. The communication between activists on the Galloway side was phenomenonal."
The outcome of the election was just as phenomenal. It wasn't just that George Galloway won the by-election, an impressive achievement in itself.
It was the sheer scale of his victory that was truly stunning, turning a Labour majority of over 5,000 into a 10,000 majority for Respect. Labour lost just over 10,000 votes in a seat they have held since 1974. The Tories, who made Bradford West one of their target seats in 2010, lost nearly 10,000 votes. The Lib Dems, who used to win by-elections like this, lost 3,000 votes and their deposit. In total the two governing parties managed just 4,251 votes between them, a mere 13 percent of those cast.
The result left the political and media elite reeling. Labour had been so confident of victory (after all, no opposition party has lost a seat it was defending in a by-election in 12 years) that detailed plans for a victory parade by Ed Miliband through Bradford's streets the day after the election were sent to TV broadcasters before the polls had even shut. The celebrations were hastily cancelled. Even the bookmakers were badly caught out, with Ladbrokes reportedly losing £100,000.
This explains the venom that was immediately directed towards Galloway after his victory in much of the press and TV coverage decrying him as "divisive", "odious", a "populist" or, in the words of the Guardian's first report, promoting a "fundamentalist" anti-war message.
How then can Galloway's remarkable victory be explained?
The dominant explanation has been to point to the sizeable number of Muslim voters in the constituency. The suggestion appears to be that Galloway is a kind of Pied Piper who, as soon as he plays a tune called "Iraq", is able to waltz off with a Muslim block vote.
Even the normally astute Mehdi Hasan, writing in the Guardian, accepted this picture, writing: "It was the Muslims wot won it," before going on to bemoan, "Why is it that most British Muslims get so excited and aroused by foreign affairs, yet seem so bored by and uninterested in domestic politics and the economy?" and demanding that Muslims must "step outside their comfort zone of the anti-war movement".
Bradford West does possess a large Asian population, though still a minority at 43 percent according to the 2001 census (the 2011 census information has not yet been published), and 38 percent of the residents describe themselves as Muslims.
But the six wards that make up the constituency are highly diverse, stretching from City ward, with a large student population, to major communities from Pakistani backgrounds in the Toller and Manningham wards which have some of the worst housing in the city, to the leafy and semi-rural outskirts in Clayton and Thornton wards, both of which are overwhelmingly white.
Although no figures for the breakdown of the votes by ward have been officially released, Galloway's claim in the Guardian that Respect won in all six wards has not been challenged and seems informally to be the accepted view.
The war in Afghanistan and Labour's betrayal over Iraq were certainly issues in the campaign - though ones with a resonance that is hardly limited to Muslims. A survey for the Runnymede Trust last year found that opposition to the war in Afghanistan runs highest among people from Pakistani backgrounds (at 68 percent), but this is only slightly ahead of anti-war feeling among those classed as "white British" at 64 percent.
The previous Labour MP for Bradford West, Marsha Singh, voted against the war in Iraq and against spending on Trident. But Imran Hussain, Labour's candidate in the by-election, when challenged by Galloway in their one confrontation of the campaign on the Sunday Politics TV programme, expressed support for the war in Afghanistan (Hussain otherwise avoided any public hustings).
But the same Runnymede Trust survey also showed that, as deep as hostility to the war runs, it is not the top concern of most voters - only 4 percent of "white British" and just 1 percent of ethnic minority voters placed it as their top priority. Instead the biggest issues are, unsurprisingly, the state of the economy (white British 39 percent, ethnic minorities 31 percent), the financial crisis (23 and 17 percent) and unemployment (6 percent for white British but significantly 20 percent among ethnic minorities).
Galloway's campaign tapped into that mood in a city that has never really recovered from the final destruction of its textile industry in the early 1980s. Once one of the wealthiest cities in the country, Bradford now ranks as the 32nd most deprived local authority. Youth unemployment has risen more sharply in Bradford West than anywhere else in the country in recent months, according to the TUC. In some parts of the city it is double the national average. No wonder Bradford topped a national survey of places most at risk of shop closures.
Galloway's campaign literature raised demands for jobs, an end to university tuition fees and stopping the break-up of the NHS as well as getting the troops out of Afghanistan. Class issues were at the centre of the campaign.
Despite the claims of some commentators that it was an appeal to be seen as the "real Muslim" candidate in the by-election that was the key to his success, it fact it was Galloway's pitch that he was the "real Labour" candidate that really struck a nerve and galvanised support.
Galloway expressed this clearly in his election victory address at the count, when he said he wanted to "appeal to the Labour Party to turn away and break decisively from the path of treason set for them by Tony Blair almost 20 years ago and from which they have not properly resiled. They must stop taking their supporters for granted, they must stop imagining that working people and poor people have no option but to support them if they hate the Tories and the Lib Dem coalition partners - they have to stop supporting illegal, bloody, costly, foreign wars....I appeal to the Labour Party to be a Labour Party again.....That's the way to really defeat the Tories and the Liberal Democrats."
Far from mobilising a Muslim block vote, Galloway's campaign became a vehicle for a revolt by a younger generation against the clientelist politics that has marked Labour's way of operating in the city (and not just Labour of course).
The now notorious "Bradree" system that saw the selection of council candidates for Labour carved up by particular families was epitomised by Labour's candidate Imran Hussian, deputy leader of the council. Hussain's campaign literature emphasised his family connections - his father was a councillor in the same ward he now represents. As Galloway put it, to not be associated with a local political establishment that has presided over the city's decline was a positive advantage.
Yet such methods are not unique to Bradford or to the Asian community. Labour has repeatedly looked to maintain its hold in different localities through doing deals with influential hierarchies - from the Catholic church in Scotland (where it guaranteed separate schools) to the National Union of Mineworkers in former coalfield towns.
But this used to be combined with a mass base and the party used to deliver real material gains. At its peak Labour had over a million members. Today the party is probably only a fifth of that size, even after the addition of the 65,000 people who Labour say have joined the party since the general election.
By contrast, Labour-run Bradford council is now pushing through the Tories cuts. Two weeks before the by-election campaign began, the council voted through £28.5 million cuts to services over the next year on top of £44 million cuts this year, and a further 600 job losses on top of over 1,000 job cuts in the last two years.
Iraq and increasingly Afghanistan are just one aspect of a wider sense of abandonment many Labour supporters and former supporters feel towards the party. All this reflects something much wider than sentiment in Bradford. A deep gulf has opened up between the mood of the majority and the mainstream political establishment.
The Lib Dems initially acted as a buffer absorbing much of the anger towards the coalition's polices. They are now a largely broken force. One recent poll suggested they would only hang on to seven of their current 57 MPs at a general election. What's changed over the last few weeks is that the Tories' polling figures have started to erode sharply. The combined impact of a blatant class budget that cut taxes for the richest in society, the cash for dinner with Cameron scandal and the drive to hand over the NHS to private providers has served to crystallise unease even among Tory loyalists (driving some, at least, towards UKIP). Two out of three people now see the Tories as the party of the rich.
This has led to a paradox at the heart of politics in Britain. Labour has now had a string of polling results that put it nine to ten points ahead of the Tories for the first time since the election. Yet in Bradford its vote crumbled.
This points to the softness of Labour's support. It benefits from hatred of the Tories but Labour's message of austerity at a slightly slower pace, its endorsement of the coalition's public sector pay freeze, its failure to lead a fightback over the NHS and continuing support for the war in Afghanistan have fed a mood of frustration, disillusionment and anger among many towards Labour.
The dominant ideas among the majority of workers in Britain remain reformist. That is, most workers remain committed to the need for a bulwark against the ravages of austerity and the market within capitalism. Labour's abandonment of that project has seen a succession of political forces seek to occupy some of the ground Labour has vacated. The Scottish National Party in Scotland has attempted to present itself as a force to the left of Labour, as did the Lib Dems in part until they entered office with the Tories. Respect represented a genuine challenge to Labour from the left, and had some significant successes in 2004-6 when Galloway won in Tower Hamlets at the height of the fallout over the Iraq war. It was able to win a raft of councillors. Today, if anything, Galloway's victory occurs on a much broader political basis.
What took place in Bradford was a convergence of anti-establishment and anti-austerity mood along with the sense that Labour is failing to act as an alternative and an individual, Galloway, capable of acting as a catalyst for that simmering discontent. Galloway's record as a former MP and leading political figure in the anti-war movement, his proven capacity to win a by-election against the mainstream parties and his ability to articulate the anger at the establishment gave him and Respect credibility as a force able to mount a serious challenge, rather than a wasted vote.
Results and prospects
Galloway's victory helps pierce the stultifying consensus in British politics over austerity and war. Elections may not fundamentally change society but they can help reshape the ideological debate, and give expression and confidence to those who want an alternative, in turn boosting the prospects for a fightback. Elections, and election success, can also provide a fulcrum for new and existing activists to group around.
The scale of the coalition's assault on working class living standards is creating the beginnings of a restructuring of working class consciousness. The 2 million-plus workers who struck on 30 November last year was one expression of that, as too, in different ways, were the riots and the Occupy movement. Bradford West was an electoral expression of that same mood. It has reopened an electoral space to the left of Labour - something that is all the more remarkable given that Labour is in opposition.
The next test of how big this space is and the possibilities involved will be the local elections in May.
But this is part of a wider phenomenon than Britain. When the biggest financial and economic crisis since the 1930s broke in late 2008 one question was would the left benefit?
The complicity of mainstream social democracy in presiding over neoliberalism, bank bailouts and the turn to austerity initially seemed to open the door to the right. But 2011 saw a decisive break, with the revolutions in the Middle East, a deepening trend of mass strikes across Europe and the eruption of a new anti-capitalist movement. We are also seeing a revival of forces to the left of established social democracy - most notably in Greece, where parties to the left of Pasok are polling at around 30 percent and in France with Jean-Luc Mélenchon's dramatic presidential campaign. But it can also be seen in the Netherlands, where the left Socialist Party has overtaken the Dutch Labour Party in some polls, while in Spain the Communist Party-dominated United Left has seen a revival in its electoral fortunes.
On the whole it has been left reformist forces, embodied in figures who have broken with the mainstream or which possess some social weight (like the Communist parties in Spain, France or Greece) rather than the revolutionary left that have been the biggest beneficiaries of this process so far.
The key challenge for revolutionaries is to be able to relate to these developments, help crystallise the emergence of new forces and link the fightback at the ballot box to the fightback in the streets and, above all, the workplaces.