Friday, March 30, 2012

Bradford West is Bradford West

One maxim to which I try to adhere is that an unusual result in a single poll is an outlier until something else reinforces it. For all the focus that the media - and politicians - put on by-elections, they need to be seen in the same context - they are singular beasts that often deviate from national trends. Peculiar results do not necessarily indicate a sea change.

The Tories failed to defend a by election on 15 occasions between 1989 and 1997 and didn't make a gain between then and 2008. You will notice, of course, that between 1989 and 1997, they still managed to win a general election. The Liberal Democrats have an enviable record as by-election winners, thanks to a dedicated campaign team that is spread too thinly nationally, but has historically come together to challenge even the safest seats, but have yet to form a government. Notably, the Lib Dems failed in Bradford - losing their deposit, although they didn't do too well in 2010, despite winning Bradford East in 2010. The Tories also suffered - losing 22 percentage points on their 2010 performance.

Then there is the Galloway factor. He is one of the few politicians who qualify as special cases in the UK - people who transcend traditional political rules - Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are similar, in that respect. I struggle to think of anyone else who could descend upon a constituency and repeat the Galloway effect - this vote isn't a general endorsement of Respect's carefully targetted populism, but a recognition of the star power of Galloway, fuelled by an ego capable of powering Wales. He also has the ability to energise traditional non-voters - the Guardian reports a number of visits to a local college to fire up the student vote. Whatever your views on his politics, he is a very powerful candidate when in the right seat - although it remains to be seen if he can improve on his appalling attendance record when MP for Tower Hamlets. By that nature, i don't think that a putative Hodge Hill by-election this autumn would yield the same result - there's only one George Galloway and the evidence in Birmingham is that once their star player leaves, Respect falls to bits. Since May 2011, they have contrived to lose all three councillors in Sparkbrook - one in the normal electoral cycle in May, one as a result of Cllr Yacoub's resignation and a Labour gain in the November 2011 by-election and finally, one who crossed the floor earlier this year.

So, this is a special case - a by election with an exceptional candidate challenging the status quo, with apparent local discontent at the domination of village politics. Those claiming that this indicates a national failure on the part of the Labour Party are wrong - these are not circumstances replicated across the country - but it does demonstrate that we cannot afford complacency about our traditional vote nor believe that all those who oppose the coalition will come to Labour naturally. We need to offer a real alternative and not just rely on the natural turn of the political wheel or the happenstance of government incompetence.

This was a singular event, but we ignore the complexity and the lessons within at our peril.

Don't panic, but don't relax either.

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