Mercy me! That by-election slipped under the radar, didn’t it? Until last night, at least. In the cold light of this Friday morning, who should feel most unsettled by last night’s rather weird happenings in West Yorkshire and George Galloway‘s momentous win?
Well, for Ed Milliband, the writing’s on the wall. Bradford West was a safe Labour seat, in West Yorkshire, supposedly one of the safest Labour heartlands in the whole country. And with a local, decent quality Muslim candidate standing, one would have thought that the odds on a Labour hold were pretty good. You can blame local factors and the extraordinary circumstances of a Galloway campaign that pushed many good buttons, but that simply cannot conceal the fact that Labour were utterly unable to energise the electorate in any way. This is a very bad sign. After the week the government has had, if Milliband can’t use that then he is doomed. To illustrate how bad things are, think back to the little PR stunt pulled in Greggs in Redditch with Ed Balls. In an attempt to score points on Cameron, they allowed themselves to take part in one of the most comedically uncomfortable photo ops ever. It was as staged ansd insincere as it looked and everyone could see it, just as clearly as they could see through David Cameron‘s distaste for even saying the word “pasty” at his arse-clenchingly awful news conference attempt to dig himself out of a deepening hole. For Labour, May’s local elections, and the London Mayoral election, are vitally important. Anything other than massive Labour gains is likely to seal the Millibot’s death warrant.
On Radio Four’s Today programme this morning, Baroness Warsi was rolled out to deliver the usual, “this is a disastrous night for Labour” drone. Well, perhaps so. But there’s should be absolutely no smugness on the government’s behalf. Looking at the polling, the combined vote for both the Conservative and LibDem candidates (that’s the incumbent government, just to remind ourselves) was a pitiful 13% – around 1 in 8 of those who voted. That’s both of them. Put together. That can be seen as nothing except a disaster for them either.
The Conservative polling is perhaps not a shock: they will blissfully ignore this, but do so at their peril. Bradford has been a write off that last night has only managed to confirm. If things go well for Alex Salmond in 2014 in Scotland, the Conservatives will face a Northern England forever hardened against them, and likely to be be very, very fractious indeed. Meanwhile, they may even start to struggle in their own southern heartlands. Economic policy is affecting their core vote too, and May might be a significant sign of just how unpopular the party may be becoming, even there.
For the LibDems, however, things are bleaker still. Only managing to scrap 4.6% of the vote is pitiful. Their national stance is hardly cause for celebration either. The traditional left-leaning constituency they have had has been utterly alienated by their Faustian pact. The other key thing about Pastygate is how much it has angered the LibDems’ key power base in the South West, at a time when they need friends more than ever. They have been skewered by Cameron: they can’t distance themselves from the current mess that the government is, and can’t veer too far from their new script without looking even more untrustworthy than they are already, if that were possible. The next election is likely to be a bloodbath for them, but their most immediate problem will be the oncoming storm of May’s local elections.
Mainstream Politics generally:
For me, the big message last night is that all of the mainstream parties generally are the ones who should be very worried. The public loss of confidence in them is seismic. Putting aside the whole Galloway circus for a moment, there seems to be little confidence that the major political parties are able to navigate us through the current situation. There’s little trust in politics and politicians in general because the issue of funding (very current) and even access, patronage and expense are all still there in public minds, even if the media have moved away. There seems to be a growing, and hardening, antipathy to the current political system. There are many reasons for this, but part of it is the extreme disconnection that is felt between the leaders of the political parties and the people they represent. This has been felt pretty keenly over the last week since the budget, and the whole issue of Pastygate seems to be just a tiny thread to stitch together a much wider patchwork of interconnected issues relating to it.
It would be easy to write this off as a one-off, and to say that come General Election time things will fall back into a normal pattern. But it might be wrong. Labour’s power base in Scotland is fading, and with changes to the Scottish settlement a distinct possibility, the political map of the UK is undergoing change, but it’s almost as if too many people don’t want to admit either that the problem exists at all, or its scale. The political mainstream is now difficult to differentiate, seeming like a self-selecting and self-serving caste. Economic policy seems intent on punishing the poorest people and regions for the mistakes of others. Even more cuts are coming, as well as NHS reform that is likely to fundamentally change the way it works. This by-election result might just be another sign of the turbulence in Britain that is to come.