Lessons for Labour from Bradford West

Respect won because its campaign was rooted in the heart and soul of Bradford.

There was a national lesson from Bradford West, but it wasn't what we thought. The usual suspects argued that Labour needed to shift Ed Miliband and/or the party's position on the deficit. But George Galloway barely mentioned those subjects. He didn't have to. His politics didn't win because it fit the Westminster paradigm; it won because it was rooted in the heart and soul of Bradford.

First, Galloway's priorities spoke to the constituency. He talked about the decline in manufacturing, the "hole in the ground" that was supposed to have become the town's shopping centre - and presented an alternative vision of his own. Labour's campaign in contrast was - as admitted by field worker Sean Dolat in this excellent post - negative and hollow. As in Scotland, Labour focused on smashing the Tories even though they weren't the main challenger.

Second, the Respect campaign had a following. It engaged with local leaders, faith communities, working class groups and young people. Meanwhile Labour's volunteers were only told to knock on doors where there was already strong support, and they chose a candidate who was a Muslim but not a leader. According to inside reports, Imran Hussein barely got any votes in the ward where he was already a councillor. Michael Douger's claim that Galloway won by using Twitter rather than meeting people on the doorstep was embarrassing.

As I started to explain on the Sunday Politics (57 mins in), this offers a serious lesson for Labour. If you can lose in a so-called safe seat, your core vote is no longer as loyal as you thought and your base is brittle. Sure, it takes a good, well-organised opposition to come along and hoover up the votes, but once that's in place everything is up for grabs. With the flurry of elections coming up for mayors, police commissioners and local councils, the potential for more emotional, anti-Westminster, independent candidates to sneak up and steal the crown is growing.

This of course is a message for all parties. But it's one that hits Miliband and Labour particularly hard, because we were the party that was supposed to get this. Ed was the change candidate who wanted to engage with Blue Labour and community organising. He supports London Citizens, invited Arnie Graf over from the States and presided over Refounding Labour. He championed organisers like Stella Creasy in Walthamstow and Caroline Badley in Edgbaston for doing things differently. Whoever wants to win the next election will have to do more than preach this politics; they'll have to live it.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

George Galloway (2nd R on bus) celebrates with an open bus tour after winning the Bradford West by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.