George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West for the Respect party is enormously significant. It is important for Labour not to fall for idea of George as a manipulative maverick, because that betrays a patronising contempt for the electorate who chose to vote for George Galloway. So Ed Miliband and Iain McNichol are absolutely right when they say:
Clearly there were local factors, our polling and work on the ground did not show the late surge of votes, and there are important lessons to be learned from this. But let no one claim this as a combination of extraordinary factors that means we can dismiss the result as exceptional.
Sadly, the Bradford West result demonstates that the electors of that constituency feels that Labour has neglected them, despite it also being one of the most deprived boroughs. It would be easy for the party to seek to minimise this defeat by making excuses about the local and exceptional factors; but Ed Miliband demonstrates again why he is the right person to lead the party by taking a braver and more positive stance:
We will go back to the constituency in the coming weeks to talk to people there about why this happened. And we will act fast to make any changes that are needed. Above all last night reinforces something we have been saying since we came into our roles; we need to be engaged and rooted in every community of this country.
We need to show to people that our politics, that Labour politics, can make a difference to people’s lives. That means changing. We must change to win.
We are changing the party to win the next election. Last night showed that this change must be faster and more profound. This is why we are going through this vital process of renewal. If the Labour Party is to be the most effective community organisation in the country you are the people to make that happen. This work must now continue with even greater commitment and enthusiasm.
One of the important issues where George connected with the voters was his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deep political alienation felt by many Muslims due to the immoral and shameless British invasion of Iraq is real, not a creation of Galloway’s. George Galloway’s opposition to imperialism and war is fundamental to his political principles, not a manipulative trick. Indeed, why would someone of George’s talents turn away from what could have been a glittering career of high political office in favour of a precarious existence at the edge of the political mainstream, unless it were from true conviction.
Anti-imperialism is central to underrstanding George, and also central to understanding Respect. I have long argued that Respect is essentialy a labourist party, but one that is differentiated from Labour by its fundamental opposition to the imperial legacy and pretensions of the British state. The labourist tradition, informed by the pragmatic aspirations of the trade unions, has oriented around the project of securing reform through holding power in the existing British state, and that has always involved compromise with the imperial past and its legacy of alliance with the USA in the present.
Of course the Labour Party has always included those like Ken Livingstone who also oppose imperialism and war, but the Iraq war created a vacuum for Labour voters who wished to stay true to their social democratic beliefs, but who wanted to express their opposition to the war at the ballot box. The creation of Respect filled that gap, and where the demographic accident of concentrations of working class Muslim voters in some constituences provided a critical mass this allowed Resect to be a localised viable electoral party. This process was of course helped by the depth of talent and imagination in Respect, from, for example, George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob, but also to give credit where it is due, from John Rees and Lindsay German.
Many years ago when Eric Hobsbawm wrote about the increasing diversity of social and cultural expereince in British working class life, he acknowledged the threat that this posed to monolithic labourism; and as the SNP, Plaid, the Greens and Respect now all hold former Labour constituencies, it is necessary for the Labour Party to recognise that the political context has changed, as Caroline Lucas once put it, from one big tent, to a campsite, where Labour have the biggest tent.
All of these parties share some of the social democratic values of the Labour Party, explicitly so in the case of Respect and Plaid, but also have differentiating features that are hard to contain within the envelope of labourism. The Labour Party needs to have the maturity to realise that in this changed context it is not enough to create a coalition of interests and views within the Labour Party, it is also necessary to reach out to those with shared values in other parties. This will be hard for some with an attachment to some of the more tribal habits of labourism, but it is essential if – for example – we are to get the necessary second preferences for the London mayoral election.
Galloway’s victory in Bradford West suggests the possibility of Respect being a permanent part of the political landscape, revitalising the possibility of Respect challenges in East London and Birmingham. Respect gives expression to a political opposition to imperialist war at the ballot box, in a way that is entirey healthy and progressive. But we must recognise that only the Labour Party poses a credible alternative for forming a government that can enact legislation in the interests of working people, and therefore Labour remains indispensible at the heart of progressive politics.
There are several lessons for Labour from this result, but one must be that there is a significant appetite among parts of the electorate for what George Galloway describes as “real Labour” values. Of course, Labour cannot win a general election by only appealing to that constituency, but nor can it ignore it. Ed Miliband is completely right that the message from Bradford West has to be a determination for Labour to reconnect with communities, and to advocate Labour’s values of compassion, equality and social justice.
I am sure that there will be some Blairites who take malicious comfort in the Bradford West by-election, thinking that it could be used to destabilise Ed Miliband. We need to ensure that doesn’t happen. The message from Bradford West is that Ed Miliband’s mission to move the party on from the mistakes and hubris of New Labour is necessary and right. Bradford West shows that Labour needs to hold its nerve, stand behind Ed Miliband, and dare to be Labour.
A longer version of this article previously appeared at Socialist Unity.