Why Galloway won (or Labour lost)

Ross McKibbin · Why Galloway won

A first reaction to the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-promoting blowhard like George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term, should be so acceptable to the electors of Bradford West; and anger at a political system that allowed this to happen. Whether anger at the system, however, is wholly justified is another matter. Bradford West is not a typical northern working-class constituency. That it is nearly 40 per cent Muslim matters. Galloway’s last victory, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, which also has a large Muslim electorate, occurred when Labour still won a comparatively easy victory nationwide. Furthermore, Labour has done well in all previous by-elections in this parliament, which suggests that Bradford is to some extent exceptional. Labour would, therefore, probably be right not to take it too tragically.

On the other hand, it cannot treat it too lightly. Hostility to the war in Afghanistan and to the general anti-terror atmosphere worked up by successive governments has obviously alienated much of the younger Muslim electorate. This is another of Blair’s terrible legacies. The proposition that British foreign policy has nothing to do with such alienation is simply fraudulent, while the argument that we are in Afghanistan to make Britain’s streets secure is recognised as absurd by the great majority of the British electorate. The Labour Party has to do something about this – but it will require some honest thinking and a new rhetoric to do so. Particularly as it involves the Special Relationship. Presumably the result has as well something to do with the present government’s ‘austerity’ and Labour’s very ambivalent relationship to it. Galloway campaigned on an anti-austerity ticket. Labour’s policy of attacking the government’s cuts while saying nonetheless that it will adhere to them is as likely to be as unpopular in Bradford as any other predominantly working-class town – which is why Galloway appears to have had significant support from white voters.

More worrying for Labour, and indeed for the country, has been the apparent breakdown of the tammany system – the ‘mosque vote’ – which underpins Labour in most seats with large Muslim electorates. ‘Tammany’ now has a bad name but in fact it is an effective way of both stabilising a political system and integrating minorities within it. The difficulty is that tammany depends for its success on the universally accepted authority of hierarchies within the community – in this case the authority of Muslim ‘elders’ who usually have close links with the Labour Party. Labour seems to have assumed that the old links and the old deference would work yet again. Plainly they did not. One reason is that Labour has not kept its side of the bargain. The fragmenting of the mosque vote began in 2005, a reaction to the Iraq war, and has never been put together again largely because Labour has taken the Muslim vote for granted, that it was Labour’s whatever a Labour government did.

The by-election has one other significance. The principal beneficiaries of the mosque vote’s fragmentation in 2005 – apart from Galloway – were the Lib Dems. Even a few years ago this is exactly the kind of by-election they would have won. Last Thursday they lost their deposit.


  • 2 April 2012 at 10:00am
    Phil Edwards says:
    I think what needs to be borne in mind is that Galloway ran from the Left. He was certainly careful to send the appropriate signals to the sections of his electorate who would have been alienated by a hard-drinking atheist leftist, but his platform contained very little about (say) closing pubs or imposing the hijab, and rather a lot about jobs, investment in the local economy, tuition fees and the war in Afghanistan. These are policies that would have been entirely acceptable to Labour under Harold Wilson or even John Smith; the fact that they're now unthinkably radical demonstrates just how large a gap Labour have left open on their left flank.

    I'm interested, not to say amused, to read an argument in favour of maintaining political stability by getting out the 'mosque vote'. I'm sure this used to be an underhand and dangerously undemocratic device, which was used to particularly baleful effect by a gang of self-styled leftists in Bethnal Green and Bow.

  • 2 April 2012 at 1:35pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Will Galloway fill "the hole" is what the West Riding is wondering. This a big hole in the ground in the middle of Bradford left by Westfield when they pulled out. If the new Member is successful in this, the more nicer politicians we have will rue the day. Hockney, Priestley, Delius - Galloway may yet stand in statuary, straddling the hole as Bradford's most lionised citizen. Perhaps they may use his very limbs to model the gigantic monument.

    It is dangerously plain that not just Bradford people are tired of post-Blair, oily marketing-speak and boring meeting-wonk politicians, going forward. Still, however much Galloway may feel he has crossed the Jordan River, it is more probably more like Jordan herself has become PM.

    One is also reminding of Hogarth's picture, "Chairing the Member."

    " He is about to tumble down because one of his carriers has just been accidentally hit on the head by a flail carried by a Tory-supporting rural labourer who is attempting to fight off a Whig supporter (an old sailor with a bear). A group of frightened pigs run across the scene in a reference to the story of the gadarene swine. The Whig leaders watch from a nearby house. At the right two young chimney sweeps urinate on the bear."

    Depend on it, though, the hole will decide.

  • 2 April 2012 at 2:25pm
    henry holland says:
    A first reaction to Ross McKibbin's post on the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-assured think-quite-hard like McKibben - who was presumably never ever "ejected" from anywhere - (why this pejorative for losing honestly in a democratic process?) - and who - despite the acres of intelligent impartiality impermeating his work, so clearly has left-wing leanings - see his article on the ConDem's ideology-driven cuts, LRB, 18.11.2010: - that this walking model of reasonableness, McKibbin, should be so unable to accept a rare real victory of the left in the UK; and anger at a system of political discourse between LRB writers & readers that allows well-expressed personal antipathy (McKibben's antipathy against Galloway) to dress itself up as a real argument.

    However, whether anger at the system - (through which McKibben can propogate such personal dislike-campaigns)- is wholly justified is another matter. McKibben - as someone who's earned his place in the establishment which Galloway has spent a lot of effort in attacking - must surely be allowed to attack Galloway on the level of personality - shouldn't he? - while allowing Galloway to initiate a post on the failings of left-leaning members of the intelligentsia would be embarassingly inappropriate, wouldn't it?

    George Galloway is nothing like the typical "we do want a fairer, more caring society & nevertheless feel that the 10,000 pounds a year school-fees for Annabel are justified" meek, career mumptie currently filling the parliamentary benches for the "Labour" party. He focuses on individuals and groups of people who constantly get "ejected" from positions where their needs are allowed to be seen as reasonable: Baber Ahmed; Muslims in the UK in general; Palestinians; and the poor in the UK - to name just some examples. That is what mattered to the electorate of Bradford West.

    • 2 April 2012 at 8:09pm
      faiz says: @ henry holland
      i would much rather have had henry holland had discussed galloway's win than ross mckibbin, the former makes sense and is fair to galloway and mckibbin, the latter is fair only to mckibbin (and not even to the concerns of the left in Britain)

  • 2 April 2012 at 7:34pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The controversy gallops away, as Annabel might say. But nothing will be decided until the Bradford hole is filled. Humpty or numpty, Jaydon or Henry, think hard or blow hard... the hole wants filled.

  • 2 April 2012 at 9:08pm
    Bill C says:
    I dislike Galloway so much that I can find little to cheer in this result. Except for one thing. That the dominant reaction is "who knew" really does make the argument for the secret ballot, and against all these kind of "participation" processes where members of the "community" are given "voice". When really it is the patriarchs silencing other community members. But in the voting booth, no one knows what you are thinking.

    While I'm here. "Tammany". How about an editorial policy that there are other political systems than that of the USA, and allusions to it in the British context are lazy, and half arsed. Hence the oxymoronic logic that "Tammany’ now has a bad name but in fact it is an effective way of both stabilising a political system and integrating minorities within it"... but that there is also the need to explain Galloway's victory which showed that there was a Not-Tammany that clearly wasn't effective. If you get my gist. This is, after all, the London, and not the New York, Review of Books.

  • 2 April 2012 at 9:39pm
    Simon Wood says:
    A Bradford Review of Books is surely not far behind.

  • 3 April 2012 at 7:24am
    Bill C says:
    Let's face it, the whole of the North of England, with unelected council "leaders" handed out knighthoods in return for keeping the natives quiet, is under the colonial adminstration of London.

    Here, in Manchester, when leader "Sir" Richard Leese eventually hands in his resignation to council CEO "Sir" Howard Bernstein (and funny, one can never conceive of it being the other way round), one almost expects him to be succeeded by Sir Guy of Guisborne.

  • 4 April 2012 at 8:08am
    gerschenkron says:
    Interesting, though I think Larry Elliott (in the Guardian) has written the most insightful article on this topic - by linking this result to the growing North-South divide:

  • 4 April 2012 at 11:17am
    ejh says:
    George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term

    He wasn't. He stood in Poplar and Limehouse instead.

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