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Galloway's victory: everyone's an expert, says Mehdi Hasan

Why did Bradford West fall to Respect, and how bad it is for Labour?

Were you up for Galloway? I was - and I was gobsmacked by the result. A phenomenal, unexpected and landslide victory for the far-left Respect Party. Galloway, the bombastic founder and former leader of Respect, beat the Labour candidate Imran Hussain by more than 10,000 votes, with an astonishing swing of 37 per cent, in a seat that had been won by Labour in every single election since 1974. His was the first by-election victory by a candidate outside of the three major parties since March 1973 (when Dick Taverne seized Lincoln from Labour). And at just over 50 per cent, the turnout, as David Blunkett put it on the Today programme this morning, was "remarkable" too.

So what happened? How did this happen? The blogosphere and Twitter this morning are both abuzz with quick insights and ready-made pearls of wisdom on the 'meaning' of the Bradford West result - with regard to race relations, the Labour Party, British Muslims, identity politics, inner cities, the white working class, Ed Miliband's leadership - from Westminster-based journalists who draw on their years minutes of experience reporting on the ground, and talking to voters, in cities like Bradford, Leeds and Birmingham.

The truth is that none of us hacks saw this coming, so why on earth do we rush for pat explanations once the result's in? How about some proper reporting from Bradford first? Let's see what the evening news bulletins come up with, and what the constituents of Bradford West are actually saying. (Incidentally, on the subject of not seeing it coming, the best (worst?) tweet came from a smug John Rentoul on Wednesday: "Could he give Miliband/Labour a bloody nose?" A George Galloway #QTWTAIN from Political Betting".)

In less than twelve hours, there have been a plethora of explanations and "narratives" from self-proclaimed experts. I'll be honest: I have no idea how much biraderi and Pakistani-style clan-based politics played in provoking Labour's defeat in Bradford. Nor do I have the faintest clue as to whether or not, as one of my colleague Dan Trilling's Bradford contacts told him, the result was "partly driven by uni educated grads coming home and dismayed by lack of jobs+corrupt local politics". Unlock Democracy, the pressure group, tried to claim in a press release this morning that the result was a consquence of "the recent cash for access scandal" and a clear rejection of mainstream party politicians as "the people of Bradford West fired a shot across their bows". Really? Or was it, perhaps, all about the presence on the ballot paper of George Galloway himself, the provocative, outspoken larger-than-life politician-cum-media-personality who knows how to court the "antiwar" and "Muslim" votes (but just not, remember, in Poplar and Limehouse)? Maybe. Then, of course, there were the suggestions on Sky News and Five Live in the early hours of this morning that Galloway had won in the 'white' wards of the constituency too (and, I should add, we await a full breakdown of the vote), as well as the text to me from a senior Labour figure this morning which referred to "white w-c hostility to an Asian Labour candidate" and a "local party that needs some sorting out".

I'm with Labour's Harriet Harman, who said on the Today programme this morning that it's too soon to "jump to any swift conclusions" about the meaning of the result and that it was foolish for commentators "to sit in London and pronounce on what happened". Hear, hear.

On the subject of Labour, it's worth pointing out that when Ed Miliband's party won every single one of the previous five by-elections to be held since the 2010 general election, few commentators cited those victories as evidence that Labour was on course for a general election win in 2015. Yet a single defeat in Bradford has led to some of the more hysterical members of the political blogosphere - yes, I'm looking at you Dan Hodges - saying things like "the Labour Party is no longer fighting to win the next election. It's fighting to stay in existence." Um. Ok. Last time I checked, the Labour Party had a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, the Tory-led coalition was presiding over a double-dip recession and psephologists were pointing out how Cameron needed a 7.4 per cent lead over Labour at the next election just to secure a single-seat majority in the Commons.

Yes, it was a bad, bad night for Labour as they lost a safe seat that both Eds had visited and campaigned in - and their vote share collapsed. But, lest we forget, so did the Tories' share of the vote, with Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi reduced to pointing out on Sky News how the governing party had

kept our deposit

Congratulations! This morning, an ebullient ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie tweeted:

Ed Miliband didn't win in Scotland. Ed Miliband didn't win in Bradford. If he doesn't win in London it's crisis time for him.

Hold on, I don't deny the Labour leader will have questions to answer if Livingstone doesn't win in London in May but let's be clear: even if Labour loses the mayoral election, the party will have been defeated by Salmond (Scotland), Galloway (Bradford) and Johnson (London). In all three of them, the victor would be a canny, charismatic populist; in none of the three could Cameron or Osborne take credit for defeating Labour and Miliband. I stand by the conclusion of my column in yesterday's magazine: I don't see where Cameron's Conservatives are going to get the extra votes from, between now and May 2015, to secure a parliamentary majority. However, as Bradford West shows, that doesn't mean Miliband's Labour Party is going to get a majority either. Politics, as Raf says, is "hung".

On a side note, the hysteria surrounding Galloway's victory has far outweighed, for once, the hysteria surrounding Ed Miliband's leadership "crisis". I am no fan of Galloway or his sectarian, far-left, self-serving politics but I was amazed at how unified, vitriolic and, I'm sorry to say, lazy the Twitterati's response has been to the Bradford West result.

Indeed little has changed since the last Galloway upset victory. Media commentator Roy Greenslade - no friend of Galloway's and the subject of a lawsuit from the latter! - wrote a powerful piece in the Guardian back in May 2005:

There will be many who snort contemptuously when I say that Galloway is now more sinned against than sinning because he has become so unpopular with both the media and political elites that they regard him as outside the normal rules of the game.

Indeed, to defend him places the defender beyond the pale too. But the victim of what has all the hallmarks of a media feeding frenzy deserves a fair hearing, not only for his personal benefit, but for those he now represents - and in order to confront journalists with their own misguided agendas.

Let me be clear again for the sake of the illiterates and Islamophobes who will no doubt congregate "below the line": I don't have any personal affection or admiration for Galloway, nor am I a supporter of the Respect Party. Galloway was, by all accounts, a poor constituency MP in Bethnal Green and Bow; he made a tit of himself on Celebrity Big Brother; and I haven't yet forgiven him for trying to to sue the television company I worked for in 2002 based on a (mis)quote from me. His fawning email to "His Excellency" President Assad and his now-notorious speech to the "indefatigable" Saddam are both stomach-churning - but to pretend that he is the only politician to have been chummy with Mid East dictators is beyond absurd.

Tony Blair, idol of the British press corps, embraced Colonel Gaddafi in the desert and referred to Egypt's torturer-in-chief Hosni Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good". When asked by Jeremy Paxman whether he'd be willing to condemn Saudi Arabia's barbaric and medieval criminal-justice system, Blair replied:

They have their culture, their way of life.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg's government, meanwhile, sold weapons to Gaddafi right up until the NATO attacks on Libya began and continued to sell arms to the Bahraini king even after he'd started teargassing and torturing his opponents last year.

Now, as far as I'm aware, Galloway, despite his multitude of sins, hasn't ever armed or funded any foreign dictators. Labour and Tory frontbenchers, on the other hand, have - and the latter continue to do so. But you wouldn't have guessed from the one-sided reaction on Twitter this morning. Few of our brave, fearless and liberal journalists are willing to call out Cameron, friend of the Bahrainis, or Blair, friend and holiday guest of Mubarak. It's much easier to go after the rabble-rousing demagogue who appeared on a reality show and attack those who highlight the brazen double standards as "apologists" for Galloway and/or Saddam.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the sanctimony and shameless hypocrisy of some of our leading reporters, commentators and bloggers is a sight to behold.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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