3 lessons from Bradford West

2nd April, 2012 9:23 am

A lot will be written about Bradford West over the coming weeks as Labour tries to work out what happened and why we didn’t see it coming. I lived in the constituency for a year, worked there for four years, and served as a brief time as a local party branch secretary. Whilst I didn’t make it up to campaign as often as I might have liked this time, I have tried to follow it closely. There have been and will continue to be attempts to pin the defeat on one cause –  the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair, the internal politics of the local Asian community, Ed Miliband – but the actual reasons will be multiple and local.

Bradford West is a seat which has its own micro climate, having been the only seat in the region to increase the Labour vote at the last General Election, with the whole of Bradford following a similar trend the year before at the European Elections (in which I was a candidate). I might point out that these votes took place after the Iraq war too. However, with a number of potential by-elections on the horizon, I think there are some lessons that may be applicable elsewhere.

Our offer to the voters of Bradford West

Imran Hussain, who was our candidate, is a good guy and well-respected councillor who won the selection by a clear margin on the first round. Yet the enthusiasm of the people in the room that night didn’t translate into enthusiasm in the wider community.

Labour’s literature attacked the Tories (but, leadership please note, our own offer needs to be clearer, stronger and better articulated). This was the right strategy at the start of the campaign. When I was door knocking two weeks before polling day people were supporting Labour and were unhappy with the coalition government. Virtually everyone I have spoken to also found levels of Labour support that would be the envy of many other seats. The campaign stuck to the national message in a really disciplined way. Meanwhile, the mood outside the campaign moved.

Once George Galloway’s campaign started to cut through it offered something for everyone. He wasn’t frightened to touch on issues that were emotive for people in Bradford – bringing our troops home, morals and standing of politicians, the terrible poverty and joblessness, the hole in the middle of Bradford (where the Westfield shopping development should be which has been delayed for years) which is symbolic of the feeling that Bradford has been left behind and not looked after.  Galloway managed to tap into the feelings of the electorate, organised, and gave them a strong reason to vote for him.

Labour locally has a great story to tell about the difference we have made over the last year since the Tories lost control of the local authority. But even at the hustings (covered by the BBC), we were absent. Indeed, a casual observer might believe that the Labour establishment have been running Bradford council forever.

We didn’t see it coming

We shouldn’t criticise the voters of Bradford for their choice. Because we didn’t see the shift to voting Galloway there was no opportunity to tell the voters about his record in Bethnal Green & Bow and his failure to deliver.  We didn’t confront his powerful – but often highly misleading – foreign policy narrative. We were absent in the moral debate that must have been presented to young Muslim voters, or the social conservatism that I suspect helped to persuade lots of general election Tory voters to turn to Galloway. It would have been a huge decision to turn our fire from the Tories to him.

I spent some time on the doorstep on polling day with John Mann MP, who has written his own account. There was noisy Galloway support, but it was impossible to tell whether that would translate into votes. When I tweeted a picture of a stretched limo covered with a picture of Galloway, a number of Respect supporters responded negatively to me. The difference between the vibrancy of their response and our corporate-style twitter might have been a sign.

But posters and cars don’t necessary transfer into votes. George Galloway did. It was him that they were voting for – “He’s the man!” I was told on more than once on the doorstep.

Labour locally

So where do we go from here?  As with every defeat we look at what happened, we dust ourselves off and get back to winning back the support of the electorate. The Labour Party I was a member of in Bradford West did not function well. There are some really good local party members, and some of those who were involved when I lived there have since moved on. But at the time, I was shocked by some of the things I was told. It was an unhealthy environment and whilst I think it is probably healthier now, it is also without the natural leadership of a local MP.

What to make of it all? I take three lessons from this unique election that would be applicable elsewhere:

  1. Message matters. We must have a future offer, which can be made local, relevant and emotionally engaging.
  2. It isn’t just about corporate party politics. The story of the candidate is important, and increasingly the electorate want to have a sense of personal connection.
  3. Strong local parties make a difference. A local party that is well rooted in the community, active and engaged over the long term is invaluable.

This by-election was called quickly, before the local elections. Local activists in Bradford now face local elections in a key local authority in just four weeks. It will be a real test.

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  • ‘Personal connection’…..

    If its about that – then no-one could have beaten Galloway. He was the celebrity candidate, and when politics is reduced purely to the following of messianic figures who will individually ‘lead’ us to the promised land, party politics has nothing to offer.

    We know that all messianic figures disappoint. The presidential approach to the prime ministership gave us Thatcher and Blair, both who had very clear flaws. It now appears to have left us seeking a template which doesn’t move too far from something PR-orientated rather than starting with the content and substance.

    The mayoral elections has also continued to encourage this sort of approach, where the cult of personality replaces ideas, and where ideas appear to converge, the personalities become all the more in focus

    • madasafish

      Based on your logic – that ideas matter more than people – Michael Foot would have been PM.

      It is of course a ridiculous one: personality DOES matter.

      (Ed Miliband anyone?)

      • And so we get the sort of shallow, personality driven politics we deserve

        • madasafish

          Policies matter as well..

          But choose a leader who does not connect with voters and cannot sell those policies, then you will get nowhere.
          See also Neil Kinnock, And William Hague.

          • The problem is the messianic expectations of a ‘leader’. I’m sceptical about all ‘leadership’, perhaps because I’m not particularly amenable to being ‘led’. Its as if somehow the presence of an individual is going to make a difference. 

            The lesson of history is that in almost every case, that impact is negative. Those who had genuinely positive impact actually did not want permanent power – Gandhi and Mandela come to mind.

            I think both Thatcher and Blair caused a lot of harm, notably because of the leadership style they encouraged, which I think is bad for politics. And if the voters really can’t see any further than this need to be ‘sold’ to and ‘connected’ with – I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for political progress 

          • treborc

             Then by all means tell me the difference between Thatcher Blair Brown and Miliband both talk to the same people, Labour believes it needs the middle class, and the middle class swing voters, if it can get enough of them obviously the working class can fly a kite.

            So labou

  • treborc

    I was just listening to ED Miliband talking, the motto with you in tough times and then he spoke to the middle class not to me.

    Galloway would have spoken to me, not to the middle class, that your problem your talking to the middle class not the people, labour is still new labour and it cannot even see it.

    • ” talking to the middle class not the people”

      So middle class people aren’t ‘people’?

    • Also, since when has anti-social behaviour been an issue primarily affecting the middle classes??

      • treborc

        You better ask labour that question not me, today we had the same bull about hard working people, Middle Britain, the middle class, I  did not hear a single word about the poor, or the working class.

        This is all New labour, New labour is dead, well not really.

        The moron even spoke about people  who are seventy five getting lower prices from power companies by law, should that not be everyone getting lower prices, young people on the lowest of the lowest min wages, young people with children who are struggling on labour lowest min wages, people who are struggling not those who are seventy five.

        Three Tory parties fighting to get middle Class voters.

        •  Why do you differentiate between ‘hard working people’ and ‘working class’?  Surely working class people are hard working people too?

          • treborc

            I’m working class and proud of it, Labour uses the word middle class but never working class.

            Labour will tell you it’s the party of the middle not to the left or the right.

            But it is scared of using working class in case those swing voters believe it’s a left leaning party.

            Labour is in the middle as he said to day we are the party of Middle Britain, hence the silly use of the Union jack in the back ground.

            Middle class middle of the road labour party.

          • that didn’t really answer my question. Why do you not associate the term ‘hard working people’ with the working class? Do you note believe working class people work hard?!

            And I don’t see why the Union flag is a symbol of middle Britain.  It is a flag for all of Britain regardless of class.

          • treborc

            It may be your flag mate it’s not mine.

            And I’m not ashamed of being working class pity Miliband cannot say the same.

          • I don’t understand why you keep avoiding the question – why do you not associate the term ‘hard working people’ with the working classes?  Do you not think they work hard?

          • I don’t understand why you keep avoiding the question – why do you not associate the term ‘hard working people’ with the working classes?  Do you not think they work hard?

      • treborc

        You better ask labour that question not me, today we had the same bull about hard working people, Middle Britain, the middle class, I  did not hear a single word about the poor, or the working class.

        This is all New labour, New labour is dead, well not really.

        The moron even spoke about people  who are seventy five getting lower prices from power companies by law, should that not be everyone getting lower prices, young people on the lowest of the lowest min wages, young people with children who are struggling on labour lowest min wages, people who are struggling not those who are seventy five.

        Three Tory parties fighting to get middle Class voters.

  • Joe

    This is a hugely superficial analysis. The fact is Galloway campaigned on a platform most voters want Labour to offer – ‘Real Labour’ – i.e. a message of solidarity, a message of opposition to cuts (both Labour and Conservative), opposition to war and calling for equality – messages Labour didn’t offer during government and that Labour isn’t offering now. He mobilised working-class people who formerly didn’t vote because he could inspire them. A centrist/soft-left lawyer candidate could not do that because just like everyone in the political establishment I expect voters perceived him as out of touch (though Galloway is of course probably out of touch too). People are sick of New Labour, weak Miliband-Labour  and a lack of serious opposition on the economic front to this government.

    Labour must learn some serious lessons nationally as well as locally. Galloway’s 10k majority didn’t come about because of the ‘local party…didn’t function well’. It’s far far deeper than that. You simply can’t put it all down to charisma and higher turnout (which many are blaming). Bradford elections in May will be interesting – if Bradford elects Respect councillors, the cop-out that it’s just Galloway’s charisma will go out of the window.

    • madasafish

      A policy based on working class support only is a proven failure:

      But please persuade Labour to adopt failure… 🙂

  • Daniel Speight

    Maybe Labour should think about why Galloway could enthuse a bunch of young working class people to give his campaign such momentum. When we look at Young Labour we see a more middle class grouping based around university students.

    We can look at the Labour’s youth movement as a microcosm of the party as a whole. We are in danger of losing our core vote, (in Bradford we have lost it right now). No matter what the Blairites say, without the core vote Labour will be become just another party fighting for the middle-class vote and the Tories and the Liberals are already there.

    • Definitely true, Daniel. Liverpool Young Labour is almost all young students and graduates – where are the apprentices or those who are not working at all?

      • Daniel Speight

         Afraid to say Mike but Labour probably  hasn’t had a working class based youth movement since Gerry Healy stole the Young Socialists away back when. (Just looked it up – 1965.) I think the party has paid for that ever since.

    • Winston_from_the_Ministry

      The only young people Labour attracts are the ones looking to make money out of politics.

      • Pat Nee

        I’m a young member and this is a ridiculous comment. I’m a member to stand up for my beliefs in the party I feel closest to. Perhaps you should welcome young members rather than make flippant comments like that. This by-election shows that we need to engage with young people. Comments like that aren’t exactly going to help on that front.

        • I think some of these comments are unfair to Young Labour (which is different to Labour Students). Certainly West Yorkshire Young Labour is a mixture of young people from different backgrounds. 

          Pat – we could do better at making local Labour Party organisations more welcoming for young people and that is a whole different blog post!

          • Daniel Speight

             Emma in Bradford how many young Asian working class members would you estimate Young Labour has? Then look at what Galloway achieved in a couple of weeks. Something’s missing isn’t it?

          • Pat Nee

            Very true Emma; although I also meant engaging with the young members of the electorate too

          • Pat – that point is true too – and the best way is for young people to enagage with other young people. Same discussion happening on my Facebook – this government is giving young people a hard time by taking away jobs and support, so there are real issues to organise around.

  • Dartford_Red

    I’m afraid this line stood out for me: ”
    Because we didn’t see the shift to voting Galloway there was no opportunity to tell the voters about his record in Bethnal Green & Bow and his failure to deliver”

    This is the wrong approach and sums up part of the problem. It suggests that had Labour had more time they would have gone ahead with a wholly negative campaign against Galloway.  This would not have worked.  Rightly or wrongly Galloway managed to offer something to the electorate in Bradford and the other parties offered nothing. Rubbishing him would not have helped, offering something positive of your own may well have done. 

    In the Crewe by-election disaster a few years back all the Labour Party seemed to offer was a negative campaign against the Tory candidate. It failed then and it will fail again. The public don’t like negative campaigning and the idea that, if you stop people voting for someone by making him look bad then they will therefore vote for you is a deeply flawed one. 

    The Labour Party will not rise again until they start being positive about what they have done, can do and will do. That is the lesson to learn. 

    • Thanks for this – I wasn’t suggesting a negative campaign, indeed as I say in the article, Labour needed to put forward stronger a positive vision for Bradford West. There is no harm in pointing out where you disagree with your opponent.

      • Winston_from_the_Ministry

        You clearly were.

      • Dartford_Red

        Hi there. Thanks for your reply, and yes in fairness you did say that, and that is part of the reason that I am saying what I am saying.

        Of course there is nothing wrong with saying where you disagree, but talking about Galloway’s personal record, putting out photos of him on a limo etc etc is not pointing out where you disagree, it is negative, and at worst it can alienate voters even more. Voters don’t like to be made to feel like idiots and won’t thank you for it either. 

        I’m not having a go, not by any means. I just don’t really want to see this kind of thing becoming a regular occurrence any more than you do, and in my experience the Labour Party in opposition tend to follow a worryingly frustrating trend in attacking the opponent over and over and over and hoping it sinks in. 

        • I certainly don’t like negative campaigning and you’re right it can alienate people. Unfortunately it is shown to work and it’s interesting reading the transcript of the University hustings, Galloway did resort to attacking Labour over and over again. 

          • Dartford_Red

            I have to admit I haven’t read that. Will be interesting to see what he was saying. 

            I do question as to how much negative campaigning really works though. I know that where I live we constantly get negative campaigns from the opposition parties, and it never seems to work. As I said, its terribly frustrating as I do think the Labour Party in particular has a great deal to offer, especially these days, but its just not put across well, and it sounds like a similar story in Bradford. 

  • What you seem to be saying is that you saw the shift to galloway happening right in front of you & you still didnt believe it. That goes beyond mere arrogance, labour seem detached from reality like somein in shock.

    • Paul – On the day I could see some support for Galloway, but not to the extent reflected in the final result. Having been involved in by-elections before, I know the number of posters and loudhailers don’t necessarily reflect the number of votes.

  • KS

    How did Labour lose Bradford West? They lost it just like they lost Bethnal Green & Bow?

    I know they’re not listening (they don’t know how) but I will waste some time telling you lot how things have changed in Bethnal Green thanks to Labour since the early 1990s.

    1) In about 1990, Labour stopped caring about their traditional voters and poured all its efforts and resources into courting the Muslim voters in these two seats.

    2) Using positive discrimination (like it does with women) it only selects Muslim men and women for council vacancies, party positions, plum local council-designated jobs… and most “white” people then stop taking part in local party affairs. The remaining white people in the local party are then either the ones put their by central office or are local gay men and women who use it for networking. 

    3) The former-traditional voters (now non-voters) have to watch time and again as their sons get their heads kicked in and their daughters get molested on the streets by Muslim street-gangs that “their” Labour politicians now refuse to acknowledge even exist let alone condemn. Indeed, anyone who can even conceive of the notion that any of these lovely, misunderstood, cuddly little Kashmiris could do anything nasty must be a neo-nazi themselves and should be shunned. 

    4) The betrayed former-traditional voters (now non-voters) leave and never vote for anyone again but that’s ok because we don’t need these poor, white, British “chav” voters any more and they aren’t nearly as fashionable compared to these new brown voters who know all about Palestine and stuff.

    5) Radical, deeply intolerant, deeply conservative, homophobic-misogynistic Islamic groups like IFE and MAC then enter the constituency under the disguise of being “youth projects” and “charities” that begin evangelising amongst the young Muslim drug dealer-voters in these ghettos telling them that it’s not just ok but necessary to hate democracy, women’s liberation, social freedom, modern fashion, English Law etc but Local-Labour ever the peace-maker says this is great and anyone who says it isn’t is definitely secretly a BNP member and should have all their windows broken and their head jumped on.

    6) George Galloway then turns up and tells the young radicalised Muslims that they can stop doing what their dad had been doing (voting Labour) and instead do what their Youth Worker suggests which apart from going on Jihad or teaching those dangerously westernised sisters to cover themselves up properly and learn some respect is do the right thing by voting against the war-against-Muslims-supporting queers, infidels, licentious women and apostates of the Labour Party and instead vote for a new national-socialist party namely “Respect” that will look after them and together they can overthrow infidel democracy here in England and have everything their way for ever.
    7) Finally, they get the local authority to fund the creation of religiously motivated paramilitary gangs to police “their” neighbourhoods. New laws “against anti-social behaviour” such as drinking, smoking, not wearing appropriate clothing (women only) and gays staffed by the new extremely religious and extremely conservative yet somehow also extremely left-wing Nazi youth organisations affiliated with Respect, like the Osmani Trust, for example..

    And there you have it. Thanks George!!!

  • Very interesting piece.

  • Ayub Khan

    Here is my reflection on what happened #bradfordwest.

    Firstly, it seems to me that we had a poor candidate who did
    not focus enough on local issues.  From
    what I saw of him on TV he did not really inspire confidence.  This is surprising given that he is as I
    understand Deputy Leader of the Council?

    Secondly, it was in my view a fatal mistake for us (Labour)
    to think that a local Asian and Muslim candidate would be the best person for
    the job.  The local CLP needs to reflect
    on this.  The best candidate should be
    the best candidate regardless of race, gender, disability etc.  You get my point.  If they are local then that is great, if they
    are not this should be no problem. 
    Sometimes a fresh look at these things is much better.

    Thirdly, lots of comment on the so called Asian vote.  In the end it doesn’t matter if the
    electorate is black, white, yellow or green, male or female, straight or gay,
    young or old.  It’s about our policies and
    what side of the argument people stand on. 
    Yes there are those in the community that are disproportionately hit i.e.,
    GCSE attainment for certain ethnic groups, but if the policy direction is clear
    and people can see how it will benefit them, they will vote.

    Fourthly, I suspect that organisation and preparation were
    not what they could have been given that the CLP and some in Labour thought
    this was a walk in the park.  Any
    campaign needs serious organisation.  What’s
    the saying, “fail to plan – prepare to fail” The mutterings from the Party
    indicate that Tom Watson went AWOL.  The
    National Secretary needs to hold a firm line and even if it means upsetting
    people help get the organisation right.

    In the end, it’s important that lessons are learned.  Some are already saying that this will never
    happen again, if we are complacent it will.

  • Yvonne Ridley

    Kick Tony Blair out of the Labour Party – a man who saluted Hosni Mubarak in the middle of the Arab Spring calling him a “force for good”.
     This would show that you really do want to be rid of his image and links with the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
     He represents everything vile about New Labour – and it simply doesn’t cut it with the working classes.
     Time to ditch the posh brigade and go back to your roots


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