By John C. Dyer, UK Correspondent
30 March 2012. Bradford. Respect Party candidate, “Gorgeous George” George Galloway takes a predicted “safe” Labour MP seat away from Labour, beating his nearest opponent by over 10,000 votes.
The victory that "shouldn't" have been
Galloway’s victory shocked the political elite (professional “pol,” pundit, and press). The seat had been Labour’s for some time. Only the week prior Labour predicted victory, allegedly basing its predictions on assurances from local pols.
It is not yet clear how the pols got it so very wrong. It just may be Labour counted the chickens of a fortnight of bad press for the Tory/Liberal Democrat government before they hatched for Galloway instead of Labour.
But why Labour lost, despite Labour’s own agonized paroxysm of navel gazing and Tory’s glib spinning, is not the important question posed by Galloway’s victory.
The focus on Labour hid a bigger and wider victory. Galloway trounced the Tory candidate by an even greater margin than he trounced his Labour rival. The Liberal Democrat lost so badly his campaign forfeited its filing deposit.
The Tory Party leader, Baroness Warsi, spun the Tory loss, pointing out her party never had an expectation of victory. True, but it doesn’t explain the margin of victory, does it. It also begs the question what, if any, role can be ascribed to a reaction to Local Government Minister Eric Pickles' former role as the leader of the Bradford Council. Bradford is among the most segregated and deprived communities in Britain.
The Liberal Democrats simply slunk off to lick their wounds and worry about the future.
The pundits were (as ever) quick to explain the victory in line with their published pre-election views. The Guardian concluded that overly cautious “politics as usual,” with its fear of upsetting Middle England, had “turned poison” for Tory, Labour, and Liberal Democrats alike, thus spreading the embarrassment among the parties. In a separate article the Guardian attributed the victory to Muslim women.
The Mail picked up on the Muslim bit. The Mail submerged the victory in a diatribe on a Moslem immigration that had not been properly assimilated.
The Sun and Telegraph picked up on the theme of the woman’s vote, but both used it to highlight Galloway’s subsequent announcement of a fourth marriage. The Telegraph injected a lament into its “examination” of the question, “why women can’t resist political philanderers.” Hence, the story wasn’t an “outsider” scoring a dramatic victory over established parties. The story was a smooth-talking philanderer deceiving vulnerable women. The Sun revealed and reveled in claims by Galloway’s third wife that Galloway had never properly divorced her. By the 5th of April this had become the story in the Guardian, also. (While not excusing the allegation if proven), perish the thought that Galloway’s victory could have any lessons beyond the puerile.
It seems to me that the pundits never really so much neutrally analyzed what happened as set its implications for the established parties at “de minimus.” It was the victory that shouldn’t have happened. It was a “one off.” It was a victory that wouldn’t have happened if Bradford had been in its right mind. Gawd, did they every blow it.
I understand why Gorgeous George, as he is called, might make one’s skin crawl. The silver tongue, the impassioned anti-establishment rhetoric, the volatile personal style, the shades on a cloudy day, these remind me of Jim Jones (not a positive memory). They evidence the unpredictable, and maybe the out on the edge.
But the problem is, he did win. He won by 10,000 votes. The pundits did not expect it. This victory cannot simply be tarnished with mud, hoping it was all a bad dream. It means something, holds lessons, intuition suggests, for those in power.
Galloway’s own view is that the victory represented an “uprising among thousands of people ... demonstrated ... total rejection (of all three major parties).” Labour specifically, according to Galloway, had been rejected for “taking supporters for granted.”
Does Galloway have a point?
Galloway may have been a bit carried away with a victor’s exultation during the speech in which he offered this appraisal. That was certainly the assessment of Channel 4’s respected if irreverent Fact Check. Galloway described his victory as “the most sensational result in British by-election history bar none ... the Bradford Spring.” Maybe not, George, but close enough for government work.
Galloway’s underlying assessment (that he owed victory to disaffection with the major parties) does accord with BBC interviews with “the man (or woman) on the street,” the Twitter chatter, and the assessment of some pundits, including me.
It is apparent that the numbers show that Galloway’s strong anti-Iraq war stand had an impact in an electoral district that has a large Muslim population, especially if not entirely among Muslim women. But it is also apparent those factors do not explain why this same district was Labour’s up until last week, or the total amount of support Galloway secured across the demographics.
What does explain it is a rebellion among voters who view themselves effectively disenfranchised by politics as usual among the three major parties. Tone down Galloway’s rhetorical extremes, this is precisely what Galloway himself concluded. He based his campaign on it. His party described it as such.
I think Galloway’s explanation is at least entitled to the respect accorded the victor in a fairly contested democratic election, however inconvenient that explanation may be to personal preferences and perspectives. It also seems consistent with the surprising tensions found in the detail of the recent 3 Apr YouGov poll. In that poll, although Labour continued to maintain its now 8-10 point lead over the Tories, detailed questions reveal that public trust in Milliband went down at the same time, along with Cameron and Clegg. The editor speculates that the fortnight of Coalition missteps had tarnished all with the same mud.
The disaffected, for whom the establishment provides "no choice"
Such voter disaffection should be familiar to US readers.
The Tea Party is considered to be on the Right of the political spectrum while Respect is on the Left. However, there is little question the Tea Party also owes its existence and successes to a constituency fed up with all the usual suspects, including the “mainstream” GOP.
In an earlier era, the SDS, on the left of the political spectrum a generation ago, owed its moment in the sun to dissatisfaction with a political class that its members viewed as not listening to the outcry against the War in Vietnam. That moment in the sun was a very painful time in US history. It also brought Chicago 7, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the SLA, and a new benchmark for dubious integrity, Watergate, into daily political discussion.
The important point of making such analogies is not to take sides between Respect and the established parties. It is to illustrate what the election of George Galloway says about the state of democracy in Britain (as indeed the Tea Party has to say about democracy in the US). That is the important lesson to be learned.
It is the considered view of a great many across the British electorate that the “political classes” do not listen. It is not that they don’t make a great show of coming to hear what the little people have to say. It is that they promptly forget it as soon as they return to London. While they talk to the little people they listen only to each other.
The political classes have become boxed into a frame, educated, trained, and conditioned by a mutually reinforcing elite. They like to act as if they see little choice. Indeed, the ruling Coalition articulates it as “no choice.”
I am sure this, too, could be said by an analyst of the US scene.
Those without choice will find or make one
The “no choice” rhetoric has worn thin. The British voter increasingly sees “no choice” as the cry of Lemmings plunging over the edge into the abyss.
A wise political mentor used to tell me, "John, never leave them without hope." He often told me this because of my tendency to do the opposite. He understood well the downsides of a constituency that viewed itself without options. A disenchanted and disenfranchised voter will not go away. He or she will find or make a choice.
Some in Scotland found a choice with the SNP and Alex Salmond, the significance of whom are often also set at “de minimus” by the British establishment. Scotland’s SNP are now busily trying to make the choice of independence.
Others found a choice 30 March in Bradford with Gorgeous George Galloway.
The thing about disenfranchised voters is, they don’t give up. They make their own, sometimes unpredictable alternatives. And that, rather than "one off" Gorgeous George Galloway’s sex life, should be the lesson and worry that occupies the focus of the political class in Britain. Whether or not Galloway the man is a “one off,” the conditions that brought him this searing victory were not.