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Bradford West: one off or turning point?

I am not a supporter of George Galloway. But it would be churlish for even an avowed political opponent not to congratulate him on his by-election success, the sheer scale of which massively exceeded anything that even his own fan base were expecting 24 hours beforehand.

What made the win even more astonishing is the way that it was secured from a standing start. Just three weeks ago the Respect Party existed on paper only, with no-one expecting ever to emerge again.

Already the supporters of the losing candidates are attempting to come up with reasons for the defeat. Some are saying that Bradford West’s Tories voted tactically for Galloway, for instance.

But it is already apparent that this time round, many of the excuses Labour put forward in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 do not apply. While Respect obviously played on Galloway’s elective affinity with Muslim struggles, this time it was Labour that attempted to mobilise bloc votes through the city’s mosques and Pakistani community networks.

What is more, the political message the victor put forward was broadly social democratic. As the size of his majority proves, this stance proved attractive to a considerable layer of the white working class, to use a term to which many on the left for some reason object.

The big question now is whether what happened was a one off, arising from an unrepeatable combination of the right candidate in the right constituency at the right time, or something that is generalisable.

It is too early to give a definitive answer. Sociologically speaking, there are numerous Bradford Wests that Labour has taken for granted far too long. But there are a limited supply of candidates with the charisma and profile evidently possessed by Galloway, and a limited supply of by-elections in which they can compete.

Last night’s outcome does not offer proof that a run of the mill leftwing activist, backed largely by Trotskyist groupings and a few trade unions, could repeat the performance. It does not disprove the contention, either.

The sight of those who fell out so badly during the Respect split of five years ago kissing and making up will be amusing for the rest of us to behold. But the prospect of two, three, many Bradford Wests emerging from the next general election still seems something of a long shot.

My differences with Galloway remain unchanged and undiminished. From his reactionary positions on abortion and gay rights to his apparent admiration for some of the world’s most objectionable regimes, he does not fit my definition of a democratic socialist.

But given a period in which the left has no obvious leader, he has assumed his current prominence by default. There are not even any real challengers for the role, which is entirely the fault of those who do stand for socialist politics untainted by his questionable alignments. He can hardly be blamed for extracting the maximum advantage.

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