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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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage