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2 April 2012

Lessons for Labour from Bradford West

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

By Rowenna Davis

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.

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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.