Friday, 30 March 2012

7 lessons from Bradford West

An unpopular and polarising budget, swiftly followed by a cash-for-access scandal, has led to the Tories scoring its lowest poll ratings since the formation of the coalition government. This follows swiftly on from the unpopular Health and Social Care Bill being forced through parliament. Whether it's so-called pastygate or the threat of fuel shortages, this week's developments have added to a sense of crisis for the government.

It is in this context that the hugely significant result of the Bradford West by-election was announced. George Galloway returns to the House of Commons with a thumping mandate - over twice as many votes as his Labour rival, with the Tories collapsing and the Lib Dems losing their deposit. Unlike other major stories of the last 10 days, it is a humiliation for Labour as well as the coalition parties.

What can we take from it? Here's my initial assessment.

1. Anti-war politics remains both important and popular. This isn't the only factor driving Galloway's popularity in Bradford, but it's clearly a huge part of it - among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. His anti-war stance is what Galloway is most famous for.

A number of reports have suggested that demanding withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was his biggest campaigning focus. In the aftermath of the recent atrocity in which 16 Afghan civilians were massacred - which swiftly followed the tragic passing of the 400 tally for British soldiers killed in Afghanistan - popular anti-war feeling has strengthened.

Opposing the threat of war on Iran has also been an appealing part of Galloway's platform; and his record of support for Palestine is renowned.

2. The Left needs to have anti-imperialism at its core. For at least a couple of years, large chunks of the left have ignored or downplayed this vital aspect of radical politics. Galloway is politically and personally flawed, but his eloquent expression of clear, principled opposition to the 'war on terror' remains his greatest asset.

James Meadway has today written:

'Opposition to Britain’s wars runs deep across the whole population, with opinion polls consistently reporting over 70 per cent wanting the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. The Pyrrhic victory in Libya has not shifted that opinion, and Galloway’s campaign shows the strength of opposition to war in Iran. The organised left has, to its discredit, underplayed in recent years the significance of Britain’s ongoing – if increasingly feeble – imperialist role. Galloway was absolutely correct to place opposition to war centre-stage in his campaign, and we should all take note.'

Much of the Left needs to learn, or re-learn, that countering imperialism abroad has to accompany combating austerity at home: not just at the level of propaganda, but in the building of an anti-war movement - one that is likely to become a genuine mass movement again if Iran is subjected to military assault.

3. A political not just industrial challenge to austerity is indispensable and urgently needed. Richard Seymour makes this point here. It should be obvious, but there's been a tendency on the left to lose sight of this elementary point.

Political doesn't necessarily mean electoral. Galloway's triumph demonstrates the potential for a left-of-Labour alternative, but I suspect our forces may be too weak and fragmented for a new electoral alliance - in the near future - to be feasible (though I'll be delighted to be proven wrong). For now, the centrality of political opposition primarily means building mass anti-cuts and anti-war movements.

Three things are essential for the anti-cuts movement: pulling disparate local and single-issue campaigns into a coherent and unified movement; national mobilisations on the streets which take the fight direct to central government; and the capacity to articulate clear alternative demands (tax the rich, invest in jobs, drop the debt) offering political solutions to a systemic crisis.

4. Across Europe, social democracy's historic compromise is opening up political space. There is an international dimension entirely missed by mainstream commentators today. I'm thinking epsecially of France, where Jean Luc Melenchon poses a threat to the old orthodoxies by rallying high levels of enthusiastic support in the presidential elections.

The current austerity offensive combined with the historic capitulation of social democracy - to the twin gods of neoliberalism and 'liberal intervention ' - opens up a space to the left. It's a space that, for a variety of reasons, the established radical left has largely failed to fill. But the space is there - and Galloway in a modest way and Melenchon on a larger canvas are showing it can be filled.

5. An electoral campaign can stimulate a new movement. The manner of Galloway's campaign and victory are fascinating. Galloway's own article for the Guardian provides insight into this, as does John Wight's article.

It's worth cross-referencing Wight's insight into the Bradford campaign with John Mullen's article on the Melenchon campaign. The similarities are glaring: the galvanising of a new generation of supporters-turned-activists, the role of mass rallies and meetings, the sense of a new movement being born out of an election build-up.

The pace of this growth is especially striking. Just four weeks ago I was at the Stop the War conference where Galloway announced he would be standing. I think most of us assumed he wouldn't get anywhere near winning - Respect had an extremely modest base in Bradford, after all. But the explosive quality of the campaign has astonished everyone.

What's especially hopeful - for those of us seeking to build a new radical left - is the large-scale participation of young people in the campaign. It is this aspect, as much as anything, that underpins Galloway's coining of the phrase 'Bradford Spring'.

6. Labour is still deeply compromised by its embrace of war and neoliberalism. I've seen some good comments - sensible, well-informed and reflective - from socialists in the Labour Party, but also a fair amount of disarray and bafflement.

I think this is mainly because of two connected mistakes: overestimating the extent to which Labour has now recovered from Blairism, and underestimating the scope for a left-of-Labour alternative to resonate and notch up the votes. Some people really haven't learnt from the experience in Scotland, where the SNP positioning itself as - on a range of issues - more social-democratic than Labour has stalled any Labour recovery.

On the first problem here, much of the Labour left struggles to grasp that many people still essentially perceive Labour through the prism of 13 years of disillusioning right-wing policies. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain the biggest obstacle to Labour recovering credibilty, but the record of privatisation and the current lukewarm response to cuts are also chronic problems. In a constituency like Bradford West, with a large Muslim community, the legacy of official Islamophobia is also an issue.

On the second problem, there's a strong tendency for some Labour lefts to assume anyone outside Labour will be perennially marginal. I've long maintained that a huge part of the marginalisation of left-of-Labour alternatives in the electoral sphere is that they simply aren't big or credible enough to garner widespread support.

It's not that there aren't lots of people supportive of left-wing policies. The difficulty is that most of those who are sympathetic won't vote for someone who stands no hope of winning. The first past the post system is a major part of the problem. The Galloway campaign swiftly reached the point where voters felt that he could actually win - and it thus developed a tremendous momentum and galvanised thousands of people to get out and vote.

7. Tories and Lib Dems could be wiped out in northern England. The mainstream commentators really don't get this. They haven't grasped how unpopular both the coalition parties are across most of northern England. I predict that both parties will be almost totally obliterated across the north - just as they already are in Scotland.

The focus today has generally been on the upset to Labour's expectations of victory (and losing a safe seat), but the collapse of the Tory and Lib Dem votes in Bradford is equally significant. I can't see either party winning any more than a few northern seats in 2015. Polls here in the north east have indicated a slump for the Lib Dems from 24% in the 2010 general election to just 4%. The Tories are nowhere to be seen anyway - except in the rural Hexham constituency.

Other parts of northern England may not have quite such a deep attachment to voting Labour as us, but they aren't radically different. It's a grim future for both the governing parties in northern England.


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