Many will try to draw their own conclusions from the Bradford by election defeat; more often than not it is a chance for some to reinforce what they previously thought and have already said. So here’s my quick take on a defeat where we had a really strong local candidate.
Our starting point should be the truth that a by-election in Bradford is not the same as a General Election across Britain. But we will have to learn deep organisational, political and communication lessons from a terrible and unpredicted reverse. This is a local defeat with enormous national interest. Our task has to be to prevent it from becoming a national phenomena where disenchanted voters who want change send for anyone other than the established parties.
George Galloway generates anger and attracts fury by the bucketload. His appears to be a victory for anti-politics politics. He won in Bradford partly off of a high octane campaign about Iraq and Afghanistan. The lesson for Labour isn’t that British Forces should get out of Afghan districts and provinces sooner than planned but that British Labour should keep working to get back into our own towns and cities even more urgently.
The view of politics from outside the Westminster Village is entirely different from that within it. Politics at its worst is seen as a spurious exercise in superficiality. That was clear earlier this week when David ‘call me Dave’ Cameron pretended he had eaten a pasty at a long ago closed shop. Politics is at its best as a clash of big ideas alongside instances of sensible national consensus.
Outside SW1 culture and regional identity influence attitudes, alliances and voting habits, as does something else that we don’t reflect upon enough – class. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. New Labour didn’t talk about class because we wanted to prove to voters we had changed. The Tories don’t want to talk about class now for fear of showing they haven’t changed. We are still, however, a country where self perceptions and political views are influenced by social class.
I represent one of the most prosperous constituencies in Scotland but this goes deeper than whether you have ever attended a ‘kitchen table supper’. And a pasty isn’t a proxy for class. Life expectancy is still highest in Kensington and Chelsea and lowest in Glasgow, while research shows least growth in expectation was experienced by those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Sutton Trust research shows children’s achievement in Britain is linked more closely to their parents’ status than in most developed countries – only 21% of children from the lowest fifth of incomes get five good GCSEs in England compared with 75% from the richest fifth. Although only 7% of the population attend independent schools, 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants attended independent schools. Why?
I have always believed in a politics which tries to make sure that working class parents have middle class kids. But we should all be worried that this may become a generation where the Government will helps make the opposite is true. That should concern us all not because there’s anything ignoble about being working class but there is a lot wrong with growing up poor. And on this there is a big difference between the parties. As Ed Miliband has made clear this may be the first generation to struggle to give their children opportunities to retain the living standards they have gained – progression seems a distant hope for far too many. That’s never been Labour’s way. We must unashamedly keep that sense of possibility and prosperity at the heart of what we do, whether that be in spreading educational excellence, maximising spending power, increasing home ownership, supporting high skill jobs or prioritising early years care.
Tony Blair was right when he said the ‘class war’ was over but David Cameron desperately wrong when he said Britain was a “classless society”. In future by-elections as in Bradford class will be part of a complex mix. We should all understand that better.
Jim Murphy is the Shadow Defence Secretary.