Opinion: Lessons from Bradford

In the aftermath of the Bradford West by-elction result, it is increasingly clear that Labour didn’t have the slightest grip on what was actually happening. Comments and discussions on Labour blogs show us that Labour assumed that simply because certain areas (for example, areas with a dense Muslim population) were voting; they had to be voting Labour. This kind of complacent assumption really is an insult to voters.

The reason I joined the Liberal Democrats and became an active campaigner was because I saw that whole swathes of my area were taken for granted by the Conservatives. We need to be clear on one thing – not delivering leaflets, not canvassing and not working for our voters, whilst happily accepting their vote come election night, is a disgrace. Whilst safe LibDem seats are hard to come by, we need to take the Bradford West defeat as a warning against the complacency that corrodes our political system.

George Galloway’s assault on the Labour majority last week should also tell us something about how Labour approaches seats of a religiously and culturally diverse nature. After the result, rather than a frank discussion about where their narrative is going wrong, Labour activists were questioning how they could have lost the ‘Asian vote’, or how well they did with the ‘white, hard Labour’ supporters. This offensive stereotyping of the general public may not tell us why they lost – but it certainly tells us why they deserved to. As soon as we hive off parts of society and weigh them up on their electoral worth we forfeit any real moral weight to our campaigns. Rather than discussing issues with people one at a time, Labour’s commodification of voters at all levels of their campaign is shameful. When we lose sight of individual voters and their hopes and dreams, we also lose sight of any real reason to run for election in the first place.

The final lesson to be learnt is from the mutterings online last week. Labour MP for Bassetlaw, John Mann wrote on Labour List that part of their problem was that on the doorstep they had ‘no Muslim doorknockers, no Urdu speaker, no Hijab wearing woman talking to Muslim women voters’. Similarly, commentators online have blamed everything from Galloway’s letters to mosques, to how much he drinks – one even questioned whether Ed Miliband being Jewish could have been to blame. What this proves, is that rather than looking for problems in their own organisation, Labour would prefer to blame this on literally anything else. As long as this kind of self delusion continues, the government can sit comfortably with little effective opposition.

Some days ago, when it was reported that Ken Livingstone had remarked that Jewish people wouldn’t vote for him due to their wealth, it would have been easy to brush Ken’s comments aside as the mutterings of a political fossil lusting after power, but against the backdrop of Bradford West, Labour’s misguided love of statistics and demographics and it’s distance from real people is becoming more and more damning.

Whether the choice of Bradford’s citizens is one they’ll live to regret or not is yet to be seen, but what is unquestionable is the fact that this latest display should be a rallying call to all flagging LibDems. If we don’t work every day for our wards, divisions and constituencies – Labour and the Tories will be the only winners and the whole sorry cycle will start again.

* Sam Phripp is a LibDem County and District Councillor from Frome in Somerset. He blogs at www.sosamsaid.blogspot.com

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15 Comments

  • paul barker 2nd Apr '12 - 11:32am

    A good piece. One point I havent seen anyone explain is why the national leadership didnt realise something was wrong till well after the polls closed. Looking on labour blogs there seem to have been at least some activists who realised what was happening – what stopped that knowledge percolating up the chain ?

  • Richard Dean 2nd Apr '12 - 11:50am

    And what of the LibDems? Why did the LibDems not see what was happening as it was happening, not now in retrospect? If Labour were performing so badly, it should have been audible on the ground, if ears were open. If the LibDems had seen voters as individuals, they could have taken the votes that Georgeous took. So let’s not be so smug.

  • While it is certainly true, that labour in particular, but all three major parties need to do some soul searching regarding taking the voters in Bradford West for granted. However why do you think Galloway the ex-mp for Glasgow choose Bethnal Green and then Bradford West to stand? Do you not think it had everything to do with demographics?

    Different demographics can have different priorities. If we do relatively badly amoung students should we put it down having lost sight of their hopes and dreams or might it more down to the student fees saga. I don’t see any particular problem when any party does particularly badly with a certain demographic if they look into if there was specific issues that they need to address.

    That said, in this case, Galloway appears to have done well nearly across the board. Probably partially down to, like you say, him connecting more with the voters, partially down to his anti-politician/anti-war positions but also down to the other 3 parties not realising (and responding) that he was the main threat until it was too late.

  • Martin Pierce 2nd Apr '12 - 12:39pm

    Well yes, and maybe it makes us feel better to analyse Labour’s failings in Bradford W but maybe we should be considering the mote in our own eye first. In a city where we have a sitting MP we were lucky to come 4th, and once again the LDs lost their deposit (less than 5% of the vote). To be honest I’d be more interested to hear from those who were there (I confess I wasn’t) why they think the Lib Dems were able to make no impact on a by-election (again). We can talk about whether it’s better to try to attract voters as individuals or groups (or both) but clearly we failed to do either. Suspect we might be better off considering why that is?

  • Geoffrey Payne 2nd Apr '12 - 12:57pm

    Well this is all very well in theory, but in practice different communities do look for different things in the political parties, whether you like it or not.
    As far as complacency is concerned you might as well blame all the political parties for that. More accurately the problems that political parties have at a time of a long term downward trend in membership is a lack of activists to contest every ward and every vote. Some of the attitudes the author identifies are unacceptable, but the Bassetlaw MP is absolutely right; it would make a huge difference for Labour or anyone else if they had people knocking on the doors who could speak Urdu and came from the community. I have seen it myself in a local election where the Turkish candidate went to see Turkish people he got their vote instantly. No point in me trying to do that, they would either not be interested or vote Labour.
    I think the problem with this article is that it is making the case for being colour blind. In an idealised liberal world we would all behave as individuals and only be influenced in our opinions by rational thinking. In practice there are some people like that, but there are a significant number who are not, and political parties do need specific strategies to win the votes from specific communities. Indeed that is the lesson from George Galloway’s victory, he understands that as much as anyone.

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 2nd Apr '12 - 1:46pm

    “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”, and we did in Bradford.

    In both my role as the English Party Diversity Champion, and as an Executive member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, I am very keen to understand what George Galloway and Respect did to secure such a victory, for I feel that as a Party, that is in many ways forward thinking, we are when choosing our candidates and canvassing wedded to the saying “we’ve always done it this way”. Respect did not do this.

    As a Party, which is genuinely committed to increasing its own overall diversity, we are still somewhat unrepresented of wider society in areas such as policy development, selection of candidates and other vitally important areas that influences its future path.

    Currently little research has been undertaken as to why there was such a swing towards Respect and George Galloway, this reproach needs to be done swiftly, if we are to benefit from the results before the May Elections, but as a former advisor on such community enegagement issues within the police service nationally, I have a few initial thoughts which will I am sure, as I find out more information possibly change.

    I would firstly deter people from believing that BME communities are easily won over by people within the community. Yes, such people will have a few advantages in possibly knowing the culture and language, but George went way beyond such simplicity. George is not Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or for that matter BME at all, so these factors were not a bonus. George appears not to have made assumptions based on his own belief as to what the local issues were/are, but he listened to the differing communities that he spoke to. He did not have one message for each and every ward, but spoke about the concerns that impacted on people locally, plus he brought everyone together on common themes as well, such as the current austerity measures, that impact on the most marginalised first and hardest, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. George and Respect basically marketed themselves very well. Yes, it would be true to say that the Muslim vote secured his victory, but I suspect that George managed to inspire and secure votes from specifically the young, who would not have otherwise voted.

    Lets learn from George and Respect, rather than dwell on the negatives, for ‘George and the Respect Show’ could be coming to a cinema near you soon, and how will we as a Party cope then?

  • I thought George Galloway’s acceptance speech was very instructive. His lament for the state of the Labour party he served for many years was perhaps indicative of his appeal in a strongly Labour area. Respect can present themselves as ‘old Labour’ asking for votes until New Labour (and George uses that term in his ‘notorious’ letter) returns to its senses. . This form of appeal requires less of a political mnd shift for many that might see themselves as long term Labour supporters.
    Galloway’s victory is also indicative of the weight Afghanistan holds for many Muslim voters. The three main parties seem to have a grim acceptance of Afghanistan as an engagement that will end in a year or two anyway, so lets not rock the boat. For many Muslim voters this must seem terribly complacent, especially given recent atrocities.

  • Two simplistic points strike me. One is that “Respect” has an apparently catchy and positive name – it’s meaningless, but it sounds positive. The other is that it was not one of the political parties who are being blamed by the media for getting us into this mess. Generally, the past profile of Respect in the media has been so low that the public probably had little understanding of how that party works in practice – perhaps leaving the public to believe that “silence is golden”. If only we had an objective and independent media……!

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Apr '12 - 9:49am

    To see Muslim anger whipped up by opportunists such as Galloway is as sickening as to see white working class anger whipped up by the BNP. It is clear he was playing very much on a bogus one-sided view of the situation in places like Iraq, very similar to the way the BNP and UKIP play on ignorance to get people worked up by a very one-sided view of the EU. Yes, it is legitimate to say that Labour has taken the votes of people at the bottom end of the social and economic scale for granted, enabling others to pick up their votes – but precisely the same can be said for the BNP, and we do not excuse BNP voting in the way some have excused voting for Galloway.

    The hypocrisy of many in UK Muslims on these issues is also sickening, and only partly excused by ignorance. I fully accept that the intervention in Iraq by Britain was extremely foolish, but it is simply wrong to have it written up as if it were an attack on Islam itself, and done with a wish to harm Muslim people. Was Islam personified in the person of Saddam Hussein? It seems to me the intervention was intended to unseat him one of the world’s cruelest dictators. It went wrong in part because it served to unleash a civil war and pure gangsterism, which anyone who had knowledge of the scene could see would happen – I remember thinking at the time this was so mad that it couldn’t possibly be as it seemed and the UK and USA must have some secret intelligence knowledge of a government in waiting that would quickly be put into place, but no – they really did think it would somehow all come together and work out . However, to suppose Blair and Bush were the only people who must bear the guilt for the resulting carnage is, well to write off all the gangsters in Iraq who used it as an excuse to engage in violence as if they are mere children who cannot be expected to have any moral sense of their own. Thinking more deeply about it, that way of thinking is actually an insult to true Muslims, however much opportunists Muslims and others like Galloway use it.

    We now have the situation in Syria. I think it needs to be made quite clear – since we were told it was evil to intervene to bring down a brutal dictator in Iraq, there will be no such intervention in Syria. And if the result is millions of deaths and much misery, well, the blood is on the hands of those who by how they reacted on Iraq made any such intervention impossible.

    Now look also – Galloway is happy to whip up Muslim anger about Palestinians, to make the people of Bradford weep at their expulsion from their homeland. So, where are the tears at the expulsion from their homeland of much of Iraq’s Christian population – ancient communities who kept alive the eastern Christianity that was once as strong a part of worldwide Christianity as Roman Catholicism? A huge proportion of the refugees fleeing Iraq have been Iraqi Christians. And now we are seeing similar in Syria – like Iraq until recently an Arab country with a high proportion of Christians. Who is causing these people to flee? They are now as many in number than the Palestinians so why no tears about them? Why is their case hardly heard? What does it say about Muslims here if they acknowledge the misery only of their co-religionists and have nothing to say about those who suffer at the hands of their co-religionists?

    As a Catholic I myself was vocal in my attacks on the IRA during the time of their Northern Irish troubles, as I felt to remain silent about people who were my supposed co-religionists who were so dirtying the name of my religion by their action so much against its true values would itself be morally wrong – and at least the IRA, though based in the Catholic community of Northern Ireland, never made any claim that they were fighting for Catholicism.

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