So, Respect’s George Galloway has crushed all before him in the Bradford By-election, trouncing Labour who had held the seat since 1974. Overturning Labour’s majority of 5,763 to win by 10,100 votes, the result also saw big dents put in the Liberal Democrats and Tory votes. It is never sensible to read too much into by-election victories. Time and again we see the governing party lose mid-term by-elections only to comfortably recapture the seat at the following general election. But this result feels different. While we cannot neglect George Galloway’s ‘celebrity’ status in the analysis, Labour MP Toby Perkins’ view that Galloway won because electors ‘had seen him on Big Brother’ is ludicrously simplistic. His appearance on that show saw him dressed as a cat and ponce around on all fours; hardly a performance likely to endear him to any electorate.
His stunning victory, which no-one appears to have forecast, not Labour or the bookmakers, is more resonant with a rejection of all the main political parties. The Government is going through a period of deep public dissatisfaction with an unpopular budget compounded by their panic-inducing pronouncements on a possible fuel-strike. It is not therefore surprising that the Conservatives and their Coalition colleaguies, the Liberal Democrats saw big drops in their votes in what has never been fertile ground for either party. The big shock is that Labour have spectacularly failed to capitalise on the Governing parties’ unpopularity. All that anti-Government sentiment has translated directly into votes for Galloway and his Respect party.
While Galloway will inevitably have benefitted from his strong anti-war rhetoric in a community which includes 40% muslim electors, it does not seem likely that his majority can entirely be explained away by local concern about Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither leader Ed Miliband nor the Labour candidate Imran Hussain are closely associated with either foreign war. Much more likely, the result appears to be a case of ‘a curse on all your houses’ and what may be different this time is that come the next general election, many electors may find it difficult to bring themselves to vote for any party. The Conservatives seem determined to squander their hard-won ‘detoxification’ of the Tory brand with deeply unpopular changes to the NHS, a budget seen as easy on the rich and revelations about cash-for-access. Many LibDem voters will continue to feel betrayed by a Party now seen as ‘Tory-lite’, especially the many in Tory LD marginals who voted LD solely to keep out a Conservative rather than as a positive endorsement of the party’s manifesto. And yet, Labour must be utterly gutted to have been totally incapable of capitalising on this.
The Labour leadership must be deeply worried about how they recover from this. If the Government is able to pull-off any sort of economic recovery, Labour must be concerned that the next election will be well beyond their grasp. Thoughts in the party will inevitably turn once again to the viability of Ed Miliband as leader, ironically at a time when his Commons performances have improved significantly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that despite this, he simply doesn’t look, sound or feel like a Prime Minister, a trick David Cameron appears to have pulled-off, regardless of unpopularity with the policies of his Government.
How will this translate at the next general election? We could see spectacularly low turnout, perhaps well-under 50% as electors struggle to put their X next to the names of any of the big parties’ candidates. Equally it is entirely possible that we will see many candidates from outside the political orthodoxy doing well at the expense of the big parties. Perhaps we will see the ‘Dawn of the Independents’ in 2015 or before……