I felt sick to my stomach when I saw the news from Bradford. George Galloway was an appalling MP for Bethnal Green and Bow which is why the people of Tower Hamlets rejected Respect so decisively in May 2010. I hope you can stop the rot quickly and avoid losing council seats in May.
I don’t pretend we’ve got all the answers for you as you work out how to tackle Galloway, but we’ve had nearly ten years to learn some lessons. You’re the experts on your area, so make use of this as you will as you rebuild the Labour party in Bradford West.
Whilst Galloway’s core supporters are rallying and celebrating, many local people will be feeling uncomfortable with what’s been done, or nervous of the consequences. Oona was amazing in the period after her defeat, attending meetings and talking to people, acting as a focus for worries and uncertainty – still trying to do casework! The Labour Party was visibly still there for people even when we had lost. That was a basis for rebuilding. Jim Fitzpatrick MP was then stalwart in dividing his time attending campaign sessions in his own seat in Poplar and Bethnal Green and Bow until we selected our new candidate.
You’ve seen the politics of division at work. “Real” Muslims vs “thirsty” Muslims. Vicious lies have become key campaign tools for some in Tower Hamlets, from claims that Oona wanted to ban halal meat to lies about mayoral candidate Helal Abbas being a wife beater. In my council election in 2010 many people in the ward received a letter telling them not to vote for me because I was a Jew. (I’m a Christian, but facts are beside the point). By that evening our ward activists had written, stuffed and distributed a letter to those thousands of voters setting out our opposition to that politics of hatred. Our support from local Bangladeshi Muslims strengthened. The lies and hatred must be challenged.
It’s too easy sometimes for Labour Party officers or staff to enforce the use of an old campaign formula because it worked before, or it’s what they know. Our best election campaigns have been formed through having a strategic campaign lead and leaving space for people’s good ideas. Everyone has to be able to make a contribution and it has to be valued. Fighting these people is tough, and investing in relationships to build the Labour Party’s resilience is important.
Get your own house in order, but always have a hand out to those who truly want to come home and help Labour win again. Some of your members will have asked people to vote for Galloway. They can’t be Labour Party members any more – we have rules, and we can’t let the party rot from within. At the same time, Labour won’t win again without the support of some of the people who voted Respect. Tough judgement calls to be made.
Never retreat into campaigning comfort zones. If we believe in communities where people from different backgrounds live alongside one another, we have to model that and learn from one another. Mono ethnic canvassing teams send the wrong message. If there’s a big Iftar party take someone who’s never been inside a mosque to share the food. It’s not only bright young graduates or long term campaign experts who enjoy voter ID number crunching – every activist should be briefed and engaged.
There’s no such thing as a “community leader” who can single handedly deliver huge blocks of votes. In my ward there are a number of women’s circles who come together for Islamic prayer and to talk about their children, family budgets…exactly like the mother’s coffee mornings in the church hall in the village in Wiltshire where I grew up. We win when we are where people are.
In any election, we have to appeal to people’s heads and people’s hearts. Respect feeds on anger and alienation. Labour can remind people of our achievements and set out a strong policy programme for the future. We only win when we also have a strong message of hope that people can believe in. Working out clever policies and presenting ourselves as competent bureaucrats won’t be enough.
Good luck. Let us know if we can help.