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 Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.