Why Labour can’t afford to neglect the heartlands. And why there’s no such thing as a “safe” seat…

28th January, 2013 7:05 am

“We gave you a big kick in the backside and we’re waiting to see how you respond to it”

– Former Labour voter to a Labour Councillor, Bradford West

The Bradford West by-election was a shock to the system for the whole Labour Party, but perhaps especially for the leadership and the national party. It was a by-election called early (rather than waiting for local election day) in order to bag a comfortable win in a “safe” Labour seat.

How wrong that all was.

At the time we covered the Bradford West by-election (and the subsequent fallout) in painstaking detail, looking at some of the reasons that the campaign had failed. I also asked if there could be another Bradford West. Today that question deserves to be asked again, thanks to a thorough and vital report from Lewis Baston for Democratic Audit, called “The Bradford Earthquake”.

In it Baston covers many of the issues that we discussed at the time, but a few in particular are worthy of further discussion:

Does the central party know what is happening on the ground? That might seem like a cruel and unfair question to ask, but it’s a legitimate one considering the national party clearly had no idea what was going on in the local Labour Party in parts of Bradford (where Baston reports no GC seems to have taken place in the year before the by-election and clan-based rivalries predominated). Accusations have also been made by Bradford residents of corruption and neglect by the local Labour Party, both to Baston and others who have sought to learn the lessons of Bradford West. Either the national party knew and did nothing, or didn’t know. Either is unacceptable.

There’s no such thing as a block vote or a safe seat – Labour thought Bradford was a “safe” seat and would be an easy win – especially with the support of voting blocks in the constituency who were perceived to be loyal to Labour. Hardly anyone went into the Bradford West count expecting anything but a routine Labour win. How wrong the conventional wisdom was. Voters were taken for granted and they took their opportunity to hurt the major parties. Labour cannot rely on the idea that former Labour voters “have nowhere else to go” which often predominates in the party. Local people in Bradford told Baston of a feeling that they had not left Labour but Labour had left them – a sentiment that is echoed in many “safe” Labour seats. If such a sentiment takes hold, it leaves the seat wide open for a charismatic populist from either the hard left or the far right hoovering up Labour votes (if they are seen as a credible alternative).

We need to talk about selections – There was a clear feeling in the local area (and as far as many Bradford Labour members were concerned) that the Bradford West selection was a “stitch up”. Not in the sense that the party machine favoured a particular candidate as such, but certainly that most votes were already locked down for Imran Hussain (the winning candidate) before the selection meeting even started. Essentially the selection, Baston suggests, lacked the support or confidence of either the local party or the community. Labour Party selections aren’t transparent at the best of times (as I have documented on countless occasions) but by-election selections are far, far worse. They should look more like ordinary party selections (albeit with a shorter timetable) and be completely transparent to both members and the public to ensure confidence in the process. At present, no such confidence exists.

In fairness to the party, changes have been announced since the Bradford West debacle (which is now 10 long months ago) that will help mitigate against future Bradford West-esque results. Picking candidates early allows them to establish credibility in the community and hiring organisers means the party campaigns effectively and doesn’t take votes for granted. The community organising model being pushed by Arnie Graf promises to produce much broader party campaigns that exclude fewer and appeal to the less overtly party political.

Yet there is still much to learn from Bradford West. Arguing that this one particular seat was an anomaly is a cop out (for starters, Bethnal Green and Bow was meant to be an anomaly too. Two anomalies is the beginning of a pattern).

Allowing moribund local parties to fester (and worse, neglecting local communities) is playing with electoral dynamite. The Labour Party cannot merely assume that the electorate will stay with us through hell, high water and coalition governments. Moribund local parties feed into a sense that Labour doesn’t care, and in many (often Northern and urban) seats such a failure could lead to other significant swings away from Labour to credible, alternative populists.

Baston’s report should be essential reading for anyone in the party who wants to understand why a disengaged electorate can turn their backs on disengaged parties who they feel have overlooked their needs. It should be on the desks of General Secretary Iain McNicol, Campaign chief Tom Watson and Ed Miliband today. Whatever changes are being made internally, the party can’t afford any more shocks like Bradford West again – either politically, organisationally or morally. We can never again afford to neglect voters and communities in our heartlands like Labour did in Bradford.

Or we’ll have many more Bradford Wests on our hands.

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