“I am determined to learn the lessons of why we lost here in Bradford” said Ed Miliband yesterday as he came to mop-up the fall-out from the party’s humungous by-election catastrophe.
One of the most obvious – but politically painful – lessons to absorb is the failure of the party’s clientelist politics. This is fundamental to the way in which Labour deals with many South Asian communities. We effectively sub-contract our relationship with individuals within those communities to intermediaries in order to deliver blocs of support.
That is certainly the opinion of Selina Ullah, chair of the Bradford Muslim Women’s Council. Yesterday she accused the main parties of “laziness”, telling the Bradford Telegraph and Argus that Muslim women and young people were ignored because of a “paternalist approach” to voter- harvesting and because they are “not deemed worthy of having opinions relevant to the issues in hand.”
She is right. Labour – along with the other main political parties – avoids dealing direct with Muslim voters, relying on gatekeepers: councillors, community leaders or Mosque elders – to ensure the message gets through.
But what message is it? When we indulge in this sort of Tammany Hall politics we can’t be sure. We tell ourselves the problem is linguistic, we need help accessing people for whom English is not their first language; but by so doing we sever our connection with them. We no longer look into the voter’s eye. It becomes a closed world where we cannot be sure of exactly what is said and what is promised in return for lending us political support.
And the shifting sands of municipal politics offer these self-appointed community interlocutors endless opportunities for communal hegemony. In tolerating – perhaps encouraging – this arrangement we often turn a blind eye to some questionable political practices. The bottom line is that when we look to learn lessons from Bradford West we need to begin by firstly accepting Galloway beat us at our own game of stacking up the Asian vote.
But he too infantilises Asian voters, although in a different way. He feeds them fantasist nonsense about the Middle East while professing fealty to their cultural conservatism; on this occasion extolling his personal disavowal of alcohol.
He was also right, of sorts, to call it a “Bradford spring”. This was a democratic uprising where young Muslim Bradfordians who came out to strongly to exercise their democratic right to vote for Respect.
What should worry us is that they clearly lapped-up the superficial, anti-Western conspiracy theories that Galloway peddled. I wonder how many times “Gorgeous George” mentioned cuts to the educational maintenance allowance or the future jobs fund amid his overblown rhetoric about how Labour politicians are war criminals?
The big lesson of the by-election is that the voters of Bradford West did not reject his divisive propaganda, they voted for it with their eyes wide open. It was, for them, an enthusiastic choice, not a “protest vote” as Ed called it yesterday. We can’t explain this result away as mid-term unpopularity when we’re sailing ahead in the polls nationally.
Neither is it about Ed Miliband’s performance or any of Labour’s policies. And endlessly critiquing the campaign completely misses the point. The answer is more obvious: Galloway won because he simply held up a mirror to what the voters of Bradford West actually seem to think.
If so, this is an altogether more terrifying prospect. To think that individual Muslims in their tens of thousands would accept this bilge exposes a chasm in social and political attitudes which urgently needs addressing.
Fathoming out why Labour lost this by-election pales into insignificance alongside dealing with that altogether larger problem.
What is clear is that British politics needs to clean up its act when it comes to dealing with Muslim voters. We need to challenge these festering resentments – but we need to do so directly – canvasser to voter.
If we can learn to shake off our political sherpas and deal with Muslim voters directly then Bradford West may still have taught us something useful.