You do not need to be an admirer of George Galloway, or to get mired in the politics of ethnicity, to realise that the Bradford West by-election result sent out important messages about the state of democracy in Britain.
Galloway was a high-profile candidate whose anti-war, pro-Palestine policies would inevitably strike chords in a constituency of Bradford West’s demographic. But Respect only scored a modest vote there in 2010 – even allowing for the allure of a celebrity by-election candidate something deeper must have been going on here.
I see the Bradford vote as something much deeper – a profound vote of no-confidence in the Westminster political system. The striking thing about the constituency’s demographic is perhaps not the ethnic mix but its economic and social deprivation – its high unemployment, its poor housing.
These are the people that the British political system has left behind – the people who are invisible in the Westminster village, and who are at the sharp end of austerity economics. Faced with three main political parties offering no more than variations on the neoliberal narrative, and media that at worst demonise them and at best ignore them, people voted in their thousands for a candidate who, regardless of any alleged personal failings, at least offered an alternative. Respect? Whether Galloway offers the reality of that misused and maligned word remains to be seen, but at least, unlike the three neoliberal parties, he’s offering the appearance of respect to people who have long been denied it by the political mainstream.
In many ways the Bradford result epitomises the crisis of democratic legitimacy that seems to characterise the politics of Westminster, which pursues austerity and privatisation that nobody voted for, on economic grounds that are largely bogus – and which in recent days has been preoccupied with a fuel crisis that doesn’t exist and game-playing about tax on pasties. Already, a huge process of explaining-away, determined to avoid these issues and to reinforce the denial of political process implicit in the neoliberal agenda, is under way.
Will Galloway’s victory change much? Probably not – Galloway’s track record suggests little inclination to move beyond the politics of narcissistic gesture (and to that extent he’s part of the problem rather than the solution). But it remains a powerful rejection of mainstream politics by people who have long been denied respect.