The Bradford Earthquake
Following the March 2012 by-election in Bradford West, which resulted in a dramatic gain for George Galloway of Respect, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust commissioned a report from me to analyse what happened.
The task was to explain the result and its implications for political parties and campaigners of all parties. The report is divided into four sections – the context of the election, the campaign, the local elections of May 2012 and the overall meaning of the political changes in Bradford.
The corrosion of the established political parties in Bradford West
The recent political history of Bradford West has been marred by patronage, neglect, bad organisation and even electoral fraud. Both Labour and the Conservatives are implicated in this state of affairs. Local politics in Bradford has been about mutual accommodation between elites of each community (‘Asians’, city whites and suburbanites) rather than real diversity, and voters have found this alienating.
‘Biraderi’ (clan-based loyalty) has in the past offered parties an apparently easy mechanism to amass block votes, but the price that parties (Labour and Conservative) have paid has been higher than they anticipated and ultimately led to disaster, particularly when combined with a lack of local political organisation and discussion.
Bradford Labour in particular needs to absorb the lessons of the election and change itself radically; the same may apply in other apparently ‘safe’ seats where local politics is weak. There is a danger of a political vacuum developing in the city and elsewhere which may be filled by fringe politics, despair or violence.
As with some other by-elections in which huge shifts of votes have taken place, voters in Bradford West do not feel they have deserted their usual party but that Labour has failed them and that there has been an option available that better reflects the real values of the party.
The local roots of Respect
Galloway could not have won without a locally-generated upsurge of political activity; the energy of the Respect campaign came largely from local soil and was not a product of a centrally driven party strategy.
That upsurge would probably not have happened had the local Labour Party succeeded over the years in first serving as a suitable channel for political activity in Bradford West, and second in running a selection process that commanded the confidence and support of party members and the broader community.
The Bradford Respect campaign itself compares with other protest movements such as Occupy in its self-conception and in its free-form organisational style.
In terms of campaigning methods there was no revolution, merely a positive rational ‘reboot’ conducted by Respect of traditional techniques in a modern setting. Bradford’s political parties have been held back in their development as campaigning entities by non-ideological clan politics, and Respect’s innovations came as more of a shock than they would have in more engaged polities. The standard set of by-election campaign techniques brought to Bradford by the main parties failed.
The interaction of social and traditional media can have a stronger effect than either alone; the effect of the television debate in the last weekend of the campaign in Bradford West is a fascinating example of how messages can be propagated.
National messages and campaigning language failed to connect with Bradford West electors’ bad experiences of mainstream politics.
Bradford itself suffers from a pervasive sense of neglect and decline, hence the power of the symbolic issues of the Westfield Hole and the Odeon during the by-election campaign.
International affairs, particularly as they affect Muslims, did play an unusually large part in the by-election. This raises further questions about identity politics and celebrity in an age of plural media, and the way in which feelings of victimhood and resentment are cultivated, not only among young people and Muslims but across the political spectrum.
While the circumstances were unique it would be inappropriate to dismiss Bradford West as an unimportant aberration. It indicates the vulnerability of apparent strongholds when a number of factors come together, and should give both major parties pause for thought about their relationship with the core voters they take for granted.
The result should not be dismissed as an emotional spasm or a mistake by the electors of Bradford, but as a very clear repudiation of the local power structure and the way that national politics is conducted.
Read the full report here.