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Labour's insurgency bubble bursts

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

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

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.