Bradford West (UK) by-election 2012
A parliamentary by-election was held in the British constituency of Bradford West on March 29, 2012. The seat, which covers parts of downtown Bradford as well as the Yorkshire city’s northwestern outskirts, was vacant following the resignation of Labour MP Marsha Singh, who had represented the seat since 1997, earlier in March.
Thus far, the by-elections to this Parliament have been uneventful affairs, boring by-elections fought in safe Labour seats across Britain (and Belfast West, which was hardly exciting). On paper, Bradford West was shaping up to be like all other by-elections in this Parliament’s lifespan. Covering parts of the textile centre of Bradford, the constituency is a poor multicultural working-class population with a long list of social problems and neighborhoods which are similar to some American inner-cities. The constituency includes the bulk of Bradford’s large Pakistani population which accounts for 35% of the seat’s population, which is also 38% Muslim and only 50% white British. The seat’s three downtown core wards are heavily Asian Muslim, but the seat also has a sizable white working-class electorate and a middle-class suburban base (Thornton & Allerton). The seat’s political history is surprisingly colourful. In 1997, Marsha Singh’s first election after a fractious nominating process, the seat was one of two seats in the country to record a swing to the Conservatives. Singh won, but with an 8.5% majority much smaller than his predecessor’s 19% majority in 1992. In 2010, Singh was reelected – this time recording a counter-cyclical swing against the Tories to Labour, taking a 14% majority.
Labour politics in Bradford West are said to be dominated by biradari networks (an Urdu word meaning ‘family’) which denotes an hierarchical system of clan politics dominated by connections and family ties to Mirpur, a city in Pakistan where most of Bradford’s Pakistanis hail from. Labour’s candidate, Imran Hussain, a deputy council leader, fitted the profile of biradari clan politics quite well. Hussain was certainly, on paper, the favourite to win a fairly safe Labour seat where the Conservatives have never staged a real challenge and where the LibDems were weak even before their post-Coalition electoral implosion.
Enter George Galloway, one of the most controversial politics in the country. Galloway, a former Labour MP, gained notoriety in 2003 for his staunch opposition to the Iraq war and his support for Palestine. Standing for the Respect Party, the charismatic and assertive Galloway knocked off Labour MP Oona King in the east London seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, but he was defeated when seeking reelection in 2010 in the new seat of Poplar and Limehouse, winning only 17.5% of the vote and third place. In 2011, he failed to win election to the Scottish Parliament standing for Respect.
Galloway was always going to make a presence in an otherwise boring by-election, but casual observers never guessed the impact he would have. Those with their ear on the grounds knew that something, however, was up. Galloway, running largely on his opposition to British military involvement in Afghanistan and benefiting from his strong popularity with the Muslim population, was able to motivate first-time voters, previous non-voters, Muslim voters who had always voted Labour and so forth. Galloway is still very popular with Muslims in Britain, who fondly remember his charismatic opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his fabled fights with interviewers and US Senators. Galloway seized on tensions in the Asian community concerning the system of biradari politics, which he was strongly critical of. On the sidelines, Galloway may have tried to exploit racial tensions and play a communitarian card by sending out a letter to voters “of the Muslim faith” which insinuated that Galloway – who is not Muslim – was somehow a better Muslim than Hussain.
Turnout was strong at 50%, still down 15% on 2010. The results were:
George Galloway (Respect) 55.89% (+52.83%)
Imran Hussain (Labour) 24.99% (-20.36%)
Jackie Whiteley (Conservative) 8.37% (-22.78%)
Jeanette Sunderland (LibDem) 4.59% (-7.08%)
Sonja McNally (UKIP) 3.31% (+1.31%)
Dawud Islam (Green) 1.47% (-0.85%)
Neil Craig (Democratic Nationalists) 1.05%
Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.34%
Galloway won a shocking victory, which was more than a narrow upset but rather a political earthquake. He scored a 36.6% swing from Labour to Respect, making this by-election one of the most historic by-elections in British political history since, perhaps, Simon Hughes’ landslide victory in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Labour. Galloway didn’t win just because of a turnout fluke, because turnout was very strong for a by-election. Reporters on the ground have indicated that he was able to mobilize first-time young Muslim voters, apathetic voters who had usually not bothered to vote in the past but also traditionally Labour Asian Muslim voters who were mobilized by Galloway. Galloway motivated voters by appearing as a radical anti-establishment candidate, opposed to the war in Afghanistan (obviously very unpopular in this type of constituency) and standing against politics as usual symbolized by Labour’s system of biradari clan politics. Labour has often tended to take Asian Muslim voters for granted and much has been written about this complacency in the context of Bradford. On March 29, that complacency and friends-and-neighbors system of clan politics in Bradford likely blew up in Labour’s face.
It certainly makes for a very bad result for Labour leader Ed Miliband, but it must not be forgotten that a lot of this huge upset is due to George Galloway’s personality. This won’t be a game-changing political event, because Respect simply isn’t a strong enough political force with any other well-known leaders besides Galloway (and maybe Salma Yaqoob) who could capitalize on an event like this. Galloway has an appeal to Muslim voters which his party doesn’t really have, because he is a superstar and political hero for a lot of younger Muslim voters in Britain. In Bradford West, Muslim turnout was likely very heavy and probably huge for Galloway. It would not surprise me if Hussain, ironically, was only able to hold Labour’s old white working-class voters.
Galloway’s win can be attributed to motivating a wide base on the issue of Afghanistan and anti-system opposition to politics-as-usual and by seizing on racial issues in the community including the issue of clan politics and Labour’s attitude towards Muslim voters. A good piece by Labour MP John Mann on LabourList says that Labour’s response in Asian areas were negative, and decries that the party had “no game plan” and fielded no Muslim, Urdu-speaking or hijab-wearing doorknockers.
Labour finds itself with a pie in its face, but the Tories are hardly coming out any better. The Tories did terribly, winning only 8.4% of the vote – losing nearly 23% since 2010. Some Conservatives might have voted strategically for Galloway to stick one to Labour, but in large part it seems like a repeat of a mayoral election in Tower Hamlets in 2010 when Tories simply did not seem to show up. The Tories aren’t strong in Bradford West, but they certainly have a floor (perhaps something like 25-30%) which is still much higher than high single-digits! Their turnout was probably particularly awful, because I doubt a whole load of Conservative voters in Bradford could have stomached voting for Galloway.
The LibDems did awfully as well, but such is to be expected at this point. The party’s performance in by-elections thus far is only marginally more impressive than the FDP’s polling numbers in Germany.