Bradford West by-election: 5 initial thoughts on an astonishing result

by Stephen Tall on March 30, 2012

Here are some inital reflections on George Galloway’s stunning by-election win in Bradford West…

Devastating for Labour…

It is not simply the fact that Labour lost a seat they’ve held at every election since 1974. It is not simply the fact that they’ve become the first opposition party since William Hague’s Tories at Romsey 12 years ago to lose a by-election. It is not simply the fact that Labour must have thought they’d enjoyed a good fortnight in which the Tories have been given a good pasting. It is not simply the fact that this by-election suggests Labour’s current national lead in the polls is very, very soft. It is not simply the fact that Labour and Ed Miliband have shown they cannot connect in a northern, urban heartland seat. It is not simply the fact that Labour’s until-2003 tencacious grip on the BME vote has been shown to be vulnerable even as the Blair/Iraq memory fades. No, it is that all these facts combined reveal quite how far Labour is from winning in 2015 that will devastate the Labour party.

… And bad for the Coalition

The Coalition parties combined won just 4,251 votes in Bradford West — less than 13% of the vote — meaning 87% of votes cast in this seat were for a non-governing party. At the general election in 2010, the Conservatives and Lib Dems polled 43% of the vote. It is easier for the Coalition to portray this result as a mid-term protest than for Labour, but the plain fact is that none of the three major parties can take any pleasure in this result. In fact the Tories’ reversal was even more stark than Labour’s, their vote collapsing from 31% to just 8% in a seat where the Tories haven’t polled less than 30% in recent history. (Interestingly, Iain Duncan Smith polled 37% there in 1987.) Labour’s concern this week had been that the Tories might be able to slip through the middle as a result of Mr Galloway splitting the left’s vote, a fear which seems a tad hollow now!

Disappointing for the Lib Dems

Eight or nine yearsw ago this would have been the kind of seat the Lib Dems might have hoped to snatch to add to the party’s litany of by-election shocks — after all, the Lib Dems’ David Ward holds neighbouring Bradford East. Instead Bradford West joins a rather more inglorious roll-call of lost by-election deposits, following on from Barnsley Cental and Inverclyde. That said, the party doesn’t have a great track record here — our best performance was 18% of the vote in 2005 — and the party expected fourth place. What is evident is that the Lib Dem by-election vote is suffering not only from being implicated in the unpopular reality of governing the country in difficult economic conditions, but also from no longer being regarded as a ‘safe’ protest vote. For years we have noted that if everyone who said they wanted to vote Lib Dem (but who didn’t fearing a wasted vote) actually did so the party could win power; now we are seeing the (partial) unwind of people who voted Lib Dem thinking the party wouldn’t win power.

Time for a media post mortem too

As I tweeted early this morning:


This has been a week where political news appeared to eat itself. While the Westminster media led a patronising focus on so-called #pastygate, with Westminster politicians fighting for a photo-op in Greggs to show how of-the-people they are, the public in Bradford West were casting their votes based on issues that mattered much more to them, including continuing UK troop involvement in Afghanistan. No-one saw this shock result coming, least of all the London-based media. Westminster-obsessed journalists have spent the last few days berating the Tories for being too posh to understand the public, apparently without any self-knowing irony until David Rennie’s Bagehot blog called them out on it, noting that the Village’s media and poltiical classes are pretty much inter-changeably ‘well-fed and well-dressed’.

George Galloway’s sectarian appeal for votes worked

Below is a letter George Galloway distributed in Bradford West in which he states: ‘God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you.’ and ‘I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if you believe the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.’ Here it is in full:

(Image from Harry’s Place blog.)

Nasser Butt, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate who spent a week in Bradford West, was one of the few who predicted the scale of George Galloway’s insurgent victory:

I don’t like George Galloway and what he stands for but facts are facts and I have seen madness in Bradford West by election over the last seven days here. Open meetings at community centres every night with standing room only and overflows outside. People throwing buckets full money at Respect for their campaign against Labour. Businesses offering main premises for Respect Posters. Long-standing Tory and Labour activist parents bowing to their young ones to vote for George and openly admitting to this. The old Labour voters have the Labour board in their garden but telling everyone they are voting for George. The results will be out in a few ours and we are looking at something amazing in Bradford West? The only question is whether these youngsters are registered for vote and whether Respect has got the Muslim vote to vote today. A high turnout would give George the lead! [Editor’#s note: amended only for typos.]

It’s an extaordinary result, and one which will reverberate in the coming days.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.