Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.