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Friday, 30 March 2012

What does the Bradford West by-election say about the UK’s political parties?

I fully expected that, when coming to write about yesterday’s by-election, it would be to defend the inevitable erosion of Lib Dem support, offer congratulations to the victorious Labour candidate, examine the reasons for Respect and UKIP polling moderately well and repeat a few oft-expressed truisms about parties of government and by-elections.

I, like so many others, not only expected a Labour victory – I imagined it to be an inevitability. What is even more surprising than George Galloway proving that his inimitable style and cynical tactics can still upset the Labour Party is the scale of his win. I cannot imagine that anyone saw this coming and the result is as much a statement on the state of the mainstream UK political parties as much as it is one of Galloway’s continuing appeal to specific elements of the electorate.

The shock result in full:

George Galloway (Respect) 18,341 (55.89%, +52.83%)
Imran Hussain (Lab) 8,201 (24.99%, -20.36%)
Jackie Whiteley (C) 2,746 (8.37%, -22.78%)
Jeanette Sunderland (LD) 1,505 (4.59%, -7.08%)
Sonja McNally (UKIP) 1,085 (3.31%, +1.31%)
Dawud Islam (Green) 481 (1.47%, -0.85%)
Neil Craig (Dem Nats) 344 (1.05%)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony) 111 (0.34%)

This is, of course, not the first time that Galloway has defeated his old party – but it’s certainly the most significant of his victories to date. To poll almost 56% of the vote in what was seen as a contest for second place is quite breathtaking and of such staggering proportions that questions must be asked about how and why it happened. There was so little interest in the outcome outside of Bradford that it would have been understandable if the vast majority of people had no idea that a by-election was taking place, and this lack of knowledge about how the campaign has been conducted on the ground is surely partly to blame for cultivating the belief that the election was simply a procession to the winning post for Labour’s candidate.

It’s too early to fully understand the many factors behind the decision of Bradford’s voters to return Galloway to the Commons. What can be categorically stated is that the result demonstrates significant difficulties for the mainstream parties that must now be addressed with some urgency. And so, while Galloway will understandably be celebrating his achievement and relishing the opportunity to bring his demagogic charms to the corridors of power, others will be asking serious questions about their own failures – in the case of Labour, very serious questions.

The Liberal Democrats

It was not a good by-election for us, losing our deposit as we did in Inverclyde and Barnsley Central last year. It was not, however, the disaster that Inverclyde or Barnsley were and we were starting from a particularly low support base. Expectations were understandably low and, as far as I have been able to discern, the Lib Dem campaign was low-key. The machinery was never seriously utilised; there were none of the appeals for activists (and subsequent arrivals of masses of Lib Dems to work the area) that characterised the party’s approach towards the Oldham & Saddleworth and Barnsley campaigns.

There was clearly an expectation and a resignation that we were not likely to fare well. In the context of current political events, a 7% drop in support is disappointing, but far from the humiliation experienced in by-elections last year and in real terms a better result than that “achieved” by the Conservatives and Labour. Interestingly, a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats admitted that “we were always expecting to fight for fourth in this election... If turnout had been as expected (i.e. lower), we believe we would have fared much better”. I’m not convinced that this is actually true, or that hoping to keep turnout low as an electoral strategy is particularly effective or indeed democratic.

Was it a disappointing result? Yes, of course. I take no pleasure from it. But what the outcome demonstrated is that other parties have equally serious, if not more severe, problems in appealing to electorates. It is also worth pointing out that I had actually expected a higher reduction in support from 2010 levels and that, given the embarrassment of Barnsley in particular (a not too dissimilar constituency) , there are grounds for being cautiously positive.

It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions from this single result about the party’s standing in the country but it is quite obvious that as a party of government we’re unable to capitalise when others haemorrhage support – even when Labour and the Conservatives are both on the receiving end of losses of support in excess of 20%.

When voters look for alternatives, they no longer look to the Liberal Democrats. That may be inevitable as a party of government, but so much of our identity has been built on the premise that we are an alternative to the main two parties, that we are different. While this result is far from spelling an imminent crisis, it does reinforce our need to redevelop a distinctive identity.

The Conservatives

Life isn’t becoming any easier for the Conservative Party. In fairness, Bradford has not been remotely friendly to David Cameron’s party for decades – but there is no doubt that this result will give the Prime Minister some further headaches. The “cash for access” controversy will in all probability have had its effect on the outcome, as will perceptions of the Budget and the spectre of people panic buying petrol, Cornish pasties and stamps. Fears of strikes, Royal Mail privatisation and accusations of corruption can only have served to strengthen the kind of arguments usually employed by George Galloway.

Baroness Warsi told the Guardian that “this is certainly not a seat we would expect to swing towards us. We kept our deposit, we felt we fought a good, clean campaign on the issues that mattered and of course parties in government don't win byelections.” I don’t really buy that, true as it is that parties in government generally suffer in mid-term by-elections. Would any self-respecting Tory be happy at simply having fought a “clean” campaign, or having kept their deposit? I don’t think so. Warsi did, however, add that “ the Conservative party has to get out there and do more … and one of the things I have campaigned for is for us to get out there and connect in more diverse communities. I think this result says to all parties to get out there and campaign." That is very true, and the evidence in Bradford suggests that the Tories’ brand of community politics is not proving particularly effective.

How can the 23% drop in Conservative support be accounted for? Why would such a large proportion of Conservative voters simply turn away from the party or lend their support to a left-winger of Galloway’s reputation? Unlike in Barnsley, disaffected Tories generally did not opt instead to support UKIP, which saw a meagre increase in its vote and lost its deposit this time around.

With the exception of the Democratic Nationalists, there were no far right parties standing either, with those normal depositories for protest votes from disgruntled Tories - the BNP – thankfully but surprisingly not turning up. The Greens and the Loonies failed to make much in the way of an impact and therefore it isn’t altogether unreasonable to suppose that many people previously voting Conservative voted for George Galloway because they either like him or because they felt he was the candidate most likely to take the seat from Labour.

The latter hypothesis is the more convincing and, while this doesn’t explain a similar proportion of Labour supporters making the same move, it does suggest that tactical voting was taking place not against the parties of government but against Labour.

The Conservatives will be concerned at the outcome and have every reason to be. However, they will also realise that losing support in unwinnable seats in a mid-term by-election is no cause for inward-looking introspection or cries of “crisis”.

Labour

I have said for some time that Labour don’t look like mastering the art of opposition any time soon. Not in Westminster, nor at Holyrood.

That said, I felt confident that a by-election in the safe seat of Bradford West at a time when they’re 11 points ahead in the opinion polls wouldn’t prove a banana skin for Ed Miliband’s party. How wrong I was.

While the result was disappointing from the perspective of the coalition parties, there can be no escaping that it is a disaster for Labour and potentially catastrophic for Miliband’s leadership. Quite how Labour contrived to snatch dramatic defeat from the jaws of presumed victory is at present uncertain. What I would imagine is that a combination of arrogance, a sense of entitlement, local issues, a lack of clear vision and a poor campaign proved to be Labour’s undoing. On the other hand, Galloway’s energy, highly visible campaign, ability to touch on issues that concerned local people and high-profile personality were strengths that he used fully to his advantage.

Harriet Harman was on hand to tell the media that this was a “very bad” result for Labour, clearly looking to understate the damage done. It wasn’t simply bad – it was abysmal and symptomatic of a party that lacks identity, purpose or any sense of direction. And while Labour were able to limp unspectacularly to by-election successes last year, even in spite of tactical voting against them, it seems that the cynical style of opposition Miliband is currently providing is unable even to secure results in safe Labour seats. Even when the government is on the back foot amid the donor scandal and the pasty controversy , Labour simply don’t know how to persuade voters to back them.

Harman seems determined to learn from the mistakes of Bradford West. She has stated that “We have to really understand why people who as recently as a week ago were saying they were going to support us, when it came to the vote, they voted for Respect. It was a real bandwagon.” I’m sure. Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath Labour have turned to internal squabblings over the selection process used to adopt Imran Hussain as their candidate and making promises of sending Ed Miliband personally to the constituency to help regain the seat.

I can think of nothing more likely to turn voters off Labour and to suggest a leadership in desperation than Ed Miliband personally visiting Bradford West. It’s not a move that inspires belief that Labour are actively trying to learn from this defeat, or to determine what motivates many Labour supporters to support the candidate best placed to defeat their own man.

For all his grandstanding and goading of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Miliband must realise that his own party has serious problems. Labour is terminally ill. It is the sick man of British politics, itself a ward full of others whose prognosis is less than positive. Perhaps Miliband should accept the lessons he should have learned from the Holyrood elections last year: opposition for opposition’s sake doesn’t win elections and focusing your energies on the Liberal Democrats doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Labour. Just as Miliband and Gray contrived to ensure their negative tactics rewarded Alex Salmond, so in Bradford West Labour’s tactics contributed in no small way to George Galloway’s victory.

Galloway has hailed the result as the “Bradford spring”. He’s misguided on that count. Galloway has name recognition, a high profile, reputation, charisma and a certain amount of respect. The result in Bradford was the result of many individual factors but it should be noted that it was the product of a particular time and place. It is unlikely that respect could replicate this in many other UK constituencies, or be so fortunate in the quality of campaigns from the main parties (or the absence of the BNP) . Nonetheless, it seems that none of the major three parties are immune from the threat of protest parties – be it UKIP in Barnsley Central or Respect in Bradford West.

There is obviously a fair amount of public dissatisfaction in politics generally and, while by-elections often are used by voters to express anger or protest, it seems that not since the early days of the SDP have the main parties been so electorally vulnerable. At the heart of the matter is not simply disillusionment with the parliamentary system or concern of government policy, but the stark truth that the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and particularly Labour are undergoing something of an identity crisis. They seem not to understand their purpose, their core principles or their strategy and – when they do – are completely unable to articulate this to voters.

Labour’s plight is particularly sad, especially at a time when strong opposition is urgently required. But this wider malaise affects not only Labour and it must be a priority for our party to reinvigorate itself, forging a new and positive identity while talking about the issues that the public are interested in. The strategy of playing up achievement in government is not entirely without merit, but there is little more certain to damage the party than for the public to see Liberal Democrats talking about nothing other than the Liberal Democrats.

Time for sober reflection is needed after this remarkable result. I suspect that won’t be George Galloway’s approach. Having him back in parliament will not necessarily be a bad thing, and will allow reason to show him for what he is. The rest of us should be thinking how we can rekindle public confidence and faith in our own parties. There is a lot we still have to learn about the Bradford West by-election, but what we as Liberal Democrats can ill afford to do is ignore it.

5 comments:

T. C. R. MacDonnell said...

In a paralell universe, it might well be that this bi-election threatened the stability of a Rainbow coalition.

Munguin said...

While I tend to agree with your analysis, I do not think that this should be seen as any sort of rehabilitation for the Lib Dems. A protest vote at a by-election used to be the Lib Dems for the taking but now you are losing deposits because the protest is against you as well. I’m assuming that if the by-election were in Scotland, say in Glenrothes the Lib Dems would think they had a chance but would most likely still lose their deposit. I doubt the vote would go to Respect as there is only one George Galloway and he is now taken. So the SNP?

Just how long is Nick Clegg’s “long game”? Is it till 20 minutes before the General Election before he wakes up and smells the coffee? By then you will have no MSPs, no councillors, no supporters and soon to be no MPs as well. Who would have thought that Nick Clegg could achieve what the Tories and Labour together couldn’t over the last eighty years, the total annihilation of the Liberal party! It’s very nice of you to admit that it was a disaster for you even with the various riders. So why not also admit that the Lib Dems are now a spent force in Scotland and its beginning to look like they are in England too!

Andrew said...

Munguin -

I hope I'm not suggesting this is rehabilitation for the Lib Dems. Clearly it isn't. We lost our deposit and failed to take advantage of the huge losses of support suffered by other parties. That is far from good.

What has actually been shown is that the other parties have similar problems in reaching out to the electorate. I would expect that in the case of the Conservatives. But Labour have a real indentity crisis at the moment and even in apparently solid Labour territory they can't win. So while this might not be too great for the Lib Dems, the truth is that this election is about far more than our party's standing. It's about the threat to the mainstream parties from the politics of protest and disenchantment.

If the by-election was in Scotland...well, we had one last year - here in Inverclyde. He were annihilated, in spite of having controlled the local council in recent years. Yes, the SNP did reasonably well on that occasion but not sufficiently well to dislodge Labour - although if a week in politics is a long time a year is an eternity and I'd imagine the outcome may have been very different a year later.

Nick Clegg's "long game" strategy is based on a fundamentally flawed logic. I have no problem with politicians thinking longer-term, but such plans must be based on sound principles, rather than the misguided hope that the public will eventually reward us when they understand how well we've performed in government. It will not work.

Whether we will be completely wiped out is another thing (I'll take a stab at Tim Farron not losing his seat) but the sad thing is that among the MPs most vulnerable to defeat are those who have been most vocally critical of the coalition. I'm not going to accept the total meltdown scenario you've described, but I appreciate that unless the rot is stopped soon it is going to become increasingly difficult to regenerate and revive the party.

I wouldn't read too much significance into the by-election result in regards the Lib Dems' current predicament. But I agree that there is no reason for believing that the next few years are going to be anything but tough and that Clegg's "strategy" is doing us few favours.

Are we finished in Scotland? No, not quite. And I suspect we won't be - even if it might take decades to return to former levels of support. If Rennie can provide stronger leadership that he's been able to supply to date and if the party can appreciate that our identity will be forged not through manifestos and commissions but how we conduct ourselves in the independence referendum then we have more than a chance of demonstrating our political relevance.

As for England - well, it lacks the SNP for a start. Neither Respect, nor UKIP, nor the BNP - and definitely not the Greens - are sufficiently organised or possessing the broad appeal necessary to become the established party of protest. When many contests are two-horse races at the next GE, I wouldn't count out the Lib Dems altogether, especially with Labour showing no sign of being capable of putting together anything like a quality campaigning strategy. I agree it doesn't look good for us, but a "spent force"? I'm not so sure, and I imagine we have an eventful three years ahead yet...

T. C. R. MacDonnell said...

I don't think protest votes have ever handed government to any party: protest voters are on the margins, anyway. I'd be ashamed to court the kind of protest votes held by the BNP or UKIP, and there's no pleasing Respect or Green voters. If the Lib Dems are getting rid of voters who protest all reasonable government, then it's a good sign: we're becoming a serious party to compete with Tories and Labour.

This landslide against Labour is a shot across Milliband's bows, not our own: Liberalism does not appeal to those voters, who have consistantly voted left. We can try to persuade them regressive socialism is not the way forward, but that would be a waste of resources which could be spent courting reasonable swing voters and undecideds.

The anti-politics malaise is down to the failures of politics to live up to promises of greater control since the dawn of universal sufferage. People feel disconnected from their own destinies, and believe themselves to be disenfranchised by an unfair system. Things will improve with the economy, as people begin to feel in control of their lives again.

Success for the Lib Dems comes in promoting Liberalism between the two mainstream parties, thereby promoting liberal policies across the empowered political spectrum. It does not rest in attempting to recapture votes from anti-liberal fringers.

Macart said...

Hello Andrew

Not a bad piece and a good few pertinent points made. I think what we're seeing from the electorate north and south of the border is a general disaffection with, not politics per se, but Westminster politics. Pick up any daily, visit any news site and generally you are faced with 'Cash for access/questions/honours or expenses scandals, cash for public contracts et al and regardless of how shameful the episode or illegal the actions of the perpetrator, the outcome tends to be a slap on the wrist or a 'resignation'. Look at any budget and see where the tax breaks fall and who eventually winds up footing the bill whilst being told 'we're all in this together'.

People have lost faith in their politicians and their ability to represent or serve the public good and they are kicking back in the only way they know how. Parties and representatives breaking pledges or indeed the law in their name, parties being seen to favour the wealthy over the needy will not be suffered anymore and recent results are just the tip of the iceberg. Politicians make light of the term 'protest vote' right up until the protest party becomes the new mainstream, ask Mr Salmond about that one. It wasn't so long ago that the SNP wouldn't have raised so much as a blip on the electoral radar and now....? Well now the SNP are carving a swathe through what used to be the political norm.

I believe May will deliver much more evidence of how the public are changing in attitude toward traditional politics whether at local or national level.