In Labour circles George Galloway’s byelection victory was greeted with complete and utter incredulity. I lost count of the number of tweets I read from people saying they simply couldn’t believe he’d won. Activists were shocked, stunned, gobsmacked. But they shouldn’t have been.
Byelections are furious, competitive affairs packed with high drama. It’s always a bumpy ride and the golden rule is that playing safe is probably the most dangerous thing in the world. This was Labour’s cardinal error.
Buoyed by Cameron’s calamitous week of petrol and pasty mishaps, and the backlash from Osborne’s disastrous Budget, we thought we could take our feet off the pedals and freewheel to victory. As soon as it emerged that Galloway was standing we should have known it was never going to be plain sailing.
When I got off the train in Bradford to join the campaign it resembled something like a training session with activists going through the motions. Rather than fighting for every vote we were simply focusing on holding on to our majority. This just invited a very dangerous opponent in Galloway to not only pitch his tanks up on Labour’s lawn but fire his cannons at us too.
We should never have let Galloway build up such a head of steam without him being challenged at every step. Avoiding debating with him at hustings was a mistake. So too was adopting a machine-like approach of pushing out a message of Coalition failings.
Despite the Coalition’s unpopularity we should not lose sight of the fact we were voted out of office at the General Election. There’s still a lot of work to be done to win over hearts and minds. Making politics exciting and relevant is the challenge facing us all.
And of course theatricality is Galloway’s stock in trade. We all know he puts on a good show. And he likes an audience. But he also carries a fair amount of baggage and has more than a few weaknesses. Hardly anything was done to remind voters of this, allowing Galloway to settle into a comfortable mythmaking groove and quickly build up an unstoppable momentum.
I’ve never subscribed to the maxim that opposition parties don’t win elections, Government’s just lose them. This thinking breeds dangerously unhealthy complacency. And as the Coalition lurch from one fiasco to the next there’s always the temptation to sit back and enjoy their misfortune. We shouldn’t and we can’t. Otherwise there’s no guarantee we’ll return to Government.
This byelection is a reminder of that. We need to capture the imagination of voters, not merely remind them of how poor the other parties are.
Voters want to see a real appetite for office, a hunger for change. Galloway showed that. Labour is nearly two years into a policy review now and while we’re making steady and encouraging progress we’d do well to remember the words of the former Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru:
“The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all.”
Simon Danczuk is the Labour MP for Rochdale