Yesterday’s Bradford West by-election, where Respect MP George Galloway won with a 10,100 majority was a shock for Labour and for the media. This is partly because there has been almost no coverage of the build up to the election in the national press, meaning journalists were not aware that there was a growing sense on the ground that an upset might be on the cards. Indeed, bookmakers stopping taking bets on a Galloway victory earlier this week.
A great deal of media commentary has argued that the vote is an indictment of Ed Miliband’s leadership, but it is important to view the result in a local context. It is clear that Labour’s strategy and tactics during the election have been disastrous, and the Party had clearly taken victory for granted in what had been a safe Labour seat since the 1970s. Galloway was able to energise a young electorate that are unlikely to be regular voters and do not have the same loyalty to the Labour party that many of their parent’s generation have. Galloway’s campaign focused entirely on deprived Muslim areas of the seat (over 40% of the electorate in the seat is of Asian ethnicity) targeting a disaffected section of society. Bradford suffered wide-scale rioting in 2001 and whilst there has not been a repeat of the same levels of violence, there remains a simmering dissatisfaction in what is one of the poorest cities in the UK and a sense that over 30 years of having a Labour MP has not resulted in significant improvements for the city.
There was also resentment amongst some of the younger electorate in the seat about how the local Labour party operates. The Party has been accused of foisting candidates upon the electorate in local elections and relying on the historical attachment to the Party amongst the Asian community in particular, rather than providing candidates of real quality.
The other unique factor in this election was George Galloway himself, who has again proven to be a highly effective political firebrand and will no doubt relish the opportunity to be a vocal critic of all the major parties when he returns to Parliament.
Nevertheless, despite the very local context of this by-election, commentators and politicians will inevitably look for national significance in the result. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering the terrible headlines that the Conservatives have suffered in the last week or so, the Tory vote collapsed from 31% at the 2010 General Election to just 8%. The Conservatives will try to deflect attention towards Labour’s embarrassment and will enjoy the respite from a damaging week of coverage, but analysts will be concerned that the Party continues to fail to connect with Northern urban audiences.