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30 March 2012

How Labour lost Bradford West

As in Scotland, the party focused on an anti-Tory message that ignored the real electoral threat.

By Mark Ferguson

When I suggested that Labour could lose Bradford West I said that “Regardless of the mitigating circumstances, Labour needs a win… Anything else would be disastrous for the party – and for Ed Miliband especially – heading into recess.”

I also said that such a result was “unlikely”.

How wrong I was.

Let us be clear. This result is pretty disastrous for both Ed Miliband and for the Labour Party. After a week of dreadful headlines for the government, the last thing that Labour needed was a story that threatens to turn the media narrative again. Media narratives do matter – especially with MPs away from Westminster for two weeks, which means bored hacks are looking for a story. Labour has now have provided one of those.

But to claim that Labour’s defeat in Bradford can be laid solely at the feet of Miliband is far too simple. If Miliband’s performances had been better, if his personal polling was better and if Labour had a genuine policy offer to the people of Bradford, then perhaps Labour might have performed less awfully. But we would still have lost. The same goes for any other Labour leader you might care to name. A different Labour of leader wouldn’t have won Bradford West.

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The change we need is bigger than that.

What we saw in Bradford was an extreme example of how Labour’s approach to politics is failing. We focused on an anti-Tory message that ignored the real electoral threat, it didn’t engage voters, and it failed. It was Scotland MkII. It was comfort zone politics from a comfort zone opposition. As I’ve said elsewhere today, the result in Bradford is also an example of what happens:

“when voters become considered as ‘voting blocks’, and when wards are talked of as ‘Muslim wards’ and ‘White wards’, rather than talked of – and to – as individuals, families, neighbourhoods. As fathers, mothers, young people and old. Students and workers. As people.”

Miliband has said that he will go to Bradford West and “learn lessons” from this defeat. That’s crucial and something he should be doing at the earliest available opportunity. But a lot of the lessons aren’t new, and he has already learnt them, which is why his community organising guru Arnie Graf and his reformist general secretary Iain McNicol need to go with him. We already know the rebuilding job in Bradford and in moribund constituencies across the country is going to take much more than a return to the old ways. The challenge now is delivery.

As for Miliband’s leadership in general. Is he in trouble? More so perhaps than he was 24 hours ago certainly. After such a disastrous result, how could he not be? But he’s arguably more secure than he was a few weeks ago, and certainly more secure than he was a few months ago. There are potential electoral speed bumps (to put it mildly) up ahead, which would certainly unleash at least a few of those who have never forgiven him for winning the leadership. But if he wants to cage them long term, he must make prove them wrong. He must grow and change the party, and the way we do politics. We, the Labour Party, must become inclusive, open and engaged.

He must acheive what his leadership always promised, but has not yet delivered. Change.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.