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Some by-elections really do change politics

SNP, Sinn Fein, Respect and question markIt is not every day that Westminster witnesses a sensational by-election victory, driven by an unshakeably anti-imperialist appeal to a minority religious community, but combined with an unfashionably leftwing socialist subtext.  No wonder most of the pundits were nonplussed.

But when Fermanagh and South Tyrone chose Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands as its MP back in 1981, and after then his tragic death returned another IRA-backed candidate, Irish politics began to change.

Up until that point, Sinn Fein had not contested elections. But sensing that it was now possible to do so with success, it adopted the so-called ‘armalite and the ballot box’ strategy that marked its first step on the road towards the political mainstream.

An organisation derided three decades ago as a ventriloquists dummy for a terrorist group is now the most popular party in Northern Ireland, at least in terms of its share of the vote at the last general election.

It has four ministerial posts to its name in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, and is increasingly influential in the south as well. While tiny minorities among both Irish republicans and British far leftists regard all this as a sustained narrative of betrayal, most of us recognise this outcome as progress.

Another by-election that stands out in retrospect is Glasgow East in 2008, which Labour lost after 80 years on the back of a 22.5% swing to the Scottish National Party. The SNP’s triumph that day proved to be a precursor to its landslide victory in the Scottish parliamentary contest three years later.

What, then, of Respect’s triumph at Bradford West, which George Galloway instantly hailed as unparalleled? It is simply too early to know what its consequences will be in the longer term.

Leading figures in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, for instance, are confident that this was no one-off and is a harbinger of their success in the London Assembly contest next month.

They might just be right. The 5% threshold they need to surmount is clearly not unachievable in principle. The British National Party succeeded last time round, after all.

It is also quite conceivable that Respect will establish itself in a number of other seats with substantial Muslim majorities populations, giving it some sort of presence in British political life, of a type similar to that once enjoyed by the Communist Party of Great Britain in a handful of mining areas. There are worse fates for small parties than that.

The real test will be a win in seat that does not conform to the demographic profile of Tower Hamlets or Bradford. Until it achieves that, however, its horizons will remain limited.


  1. Andrea says:

    “t is also quite conceivable that Respect will establish itself in a number of other seats with substantial Muslim majorities”

    If they bother to stand candidates…looking at local elections, just 12 candidates in Bradford (and they messed up nomination papers in Toller ward), 2 candidates in Oldham, 0 in Rochdale, 0 in Bolton, 0 in Birmingham (not even Sparkbrook), 0 in Wolverhampton

  2. Dave says:

    That should be ‘substantianal Muslim populations’ and not ‘substantial Muslim majorities’. My mistake, can you please amend, Jon?

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