Labour's insurgency bubble bursts

While George Galloway was storming Bradford, the Westminster circus was chasing ministers with pasti

Bradford West is George Galloway's triumph and the Labour party's problem. There are many reasons why the Respect leader might have upset the odds to pull off a stunning by-election victory and, as is always the case in these episodes, there are particular factors that the defeated parties can cling to for comfort.

Galloway is a maverick and a seasoned campaigner, capable of deploying some remarkable charisma (I can't see it personally but I'm reliably told it's there). He knows how to stoke anti-Labour feeling in a by-election and he knows how to mobilise the Asian community with anti-war rhetoric. These are the rhetorical crutches that stunned commentary will lean on first. Didn't Galloway pull off the same trick in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005? Didn't the seat then swing safely back to Labour in 2010, after Galloway's lustre had faded as a result of parliamentary absenteeism and ill-advised media posturing?

Clearly the Respect brand is decontaminated where it counts and Labour - who where easy favourites to hold the seat - can take no comfort from the fact that their candidate was out-manoeuvred by a slick operator. It is very unusual for a main opposition party to lose a mid-term by-election, let alone be thrashed. The last one was the Tories surrender of Romsey to the Lib Dems in 2000. The other main parties can't take much gratification from the result. Bradford West was considered a winnable seat by the Conservatives at the last election. Last night they polled just 8% on a 50% turnout. There was a massive swing of around 20 points away from mainstream politics in general.

The post-mortem will be gruesome. It's not as if Labour didn't try to win the seat. There was a campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues, emphasising the party's concern about poverty and joblessness. There must have been a catastrophic failure of activism on the ground and a failure of intelligence to feed information up to the leader's office. Miliband was taken by surprise.

So, it must be said, were the media. On the day before this by-election most political correspondents and political editors were chasing senior government figures around London to find out when they had last eaten a pasty. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were quite literally munching on sausage rolls to make a point about the Budget. There was a rip tide of ridicule dragging the Tories down and Labour were gladly surfing it. Earlier in the week, politics and political journalism in Westminster were in games mode -that peculiarly ribald British idiom beloved of newspaper hacks consisting of puns, stunts, gags. The circus, in other words.. The government's disastrous week was the story. By-election? What by-election? Oh, that by-election. Labour hold.

Wrong. What lessons there are to be learned won't be fully clear until more is known about how Galloway's campaign worked and why Labour's crumbled. Certainly, there will be many voices around Labour and the left saying the result proves a public appetite for more robust, post-Blair populism. There will be calls for Miliband to be more blood-curdling in his severance of ties with the New Labour legacy.

I suspect the problem is more profound than that. It is not a left-right problem but an Establishment/anti-Establishment one. Galloway trashed Labour as a party of power. In Westminster we have become accustomed, reasonably enough, to seeing Miliband and crew as the opposition. The leader sees himself as something of an insurgent, smashing the consensus, taking on vested interests, ripping up the rules etc. And there has been considerable media emphasis on Labour's weakness and how hard it is for the party to present itself as a credible government-in-waiting. All of that has obscured the fact that, for many people, Labour, Tory, Lib Dem are all different brands of the same essential product.

This is what will come as so shocking to Labour - the party cannot, just a couple of years after losing power, so easily own disaffection and anger with government.

This in turn points to the wider problem of what I call hung politics. Opinion polls show headline voting intentions moving around a bit and there has been a bout of volatility since the Budget. Labour pushed ahead. But there was a similar patch of turbulence after David Cameron's European veto, only with the surge in the opposite direction. Things seem always to settle down around the same levels. The Tories can't quite sustain numbers beyond the mid-to-high 30s; Labour can't quite push properly into the 40s. The battle between the two main parties looks like the Western Front circa 1916. Forward a bit, back a bit, big push, no progress.

As my colleague Mehdi points out in this week's magazine, it is enormously difficult for the Conservatives to find more supporters than they managed at the last election, which makes it very hard for David Cameron to build a parliamentary majority. And as I write in the same edition, Ed Miliband finds it hard to articulate a clear sense of direction for his party even when things appear to be going his way. The coalition is losing but Labour aren't winning. Neither side knows how to make big, election-swinging incursions into each other's terrain and neither side knows how to excite voters who are not already enthusiastic about politics.That describes the vast majority of the British people. George Galloway might be a unique character but the circumstances that gifted him victory might be replicated in hundreds of constituencies around the country. The Big Cosy Westminster Party took a beating last night.

George Galloway of the Respect Party gestures as he speaks to the media after winning the Bradford West by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge