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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder