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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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser